Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
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• Here's a link to Garden of the Gods, the best-known section of the Iverson Movie Ranch (featured in the movie "Stagecoach," the "Lone Ranger" TV show and hundreds of other productions).
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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Where did John Ford film the sequence in "The Grapes of Wrath" where the Joads get their first look at California's rich farmland?

Promo still for "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940): Overlook Point

A famous promo shot for John Ford's Depression-era classic "The Grapes of Wrath," taken on the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif., shows the Joads, a migrant family swept out of Oklahoma by the Dust Bowl, getting their first look at the lush farmland of California.

Screen shot from "The Grapes of Wrath": same location, different angle

The promo shot is significantly different from the corresponding shots that appear in the movie. The most obvious difference is that the promo shot includes the Chatsworth landmark Stoney Point, while the shots from the movie avoid Stoney Point, focusing instead on the farmland to the south and west of it.

The movie shot is taken from a higher angle, allowing for a view of a broader swath of farmland. The high angle of the movie shot hints that the camera crew filming the scene would have used a camera tower or crane.

Promo shot: Much lower angle

On the other hand, the still photographer, who would have been on the set to shoot promotional photos and behind-the-scenes material, settled for a much lower angle for his famous shot. I picture him climbing on a rock to get the minor elevation he used for the photo, but that's just conjecture.

The shots are taken from a vista point in Garden of the Gods known as Overlook Point or the Camera Mount. While the still photographer clearly appreciated the aesthetics of Stoney Point, the rocky outcropping did not fit thematically with the movie scene, which focused on the farmland and its promise of desperately needed jobs.

The camera mount at Overlook Point — still in place today

The name "Camera Mount" comes from the presence of a metal mount and circular rail setup located at the site. The rig appears to have been used for pan shots of the Iverson Gorge, but its exact origin is unknown.

Whatever the backstory on the camera mount, remnants of a circular rail and center mount remain in place today, as seen in these recent photos. The condos in the background were built in what was once Iverson's Upper Gorge, and a number of widely filmed movie rocks are visible in the top right corner.

View of the western San Fernando Valley from Overlook Point

The view of the western San Fernando Valley in recent years contains few traces of the old farmland, as the Valley has since grown into a major population center.

"The Grapes of Wrath": The truck sequence

The Joads' arrival in California's farm country in "The Grapes of Wrath" is put together from two separate location shoots at Iverson, which took place a short distance apart. The above shot — I call it the "truck sequence" — appears just before the Overlook Point sequence and is filmed to the northeast of Overlook Point.

The truck sequence has the Joad family pushing their broken-down truck the last few yards on their westward migration. The shot contains a number of Iverson landmarks, including Bald Knob and Minisub. Some readers may recall that Minisub played a big role in pinpointing the Chinese Bridge in "Tell It to the Marines."

Other landmarks seen in the truck sequence are located adjacent to the Iverson Ranch, south of Santa Susana Pass Road. The railroad cut and Sundial Rock are in an area directly west of what is now Chatsworth Park.

A more subtle feature of the truck shot is the shadowy presence of "RI-3," one of the main boulders of the Rock Island formation. By lining up RI-3 and Minisub — both of which remain in place at the site today — we can get a good idea of where the shot was taken.

RI-3 as it appears today

Today RI-3 and the rest of what was once Rock Island are largely buried, with the tops of the once formidable boulders now serving as decorations in the swimming pool area of the Cal West Townhomes.

Another clue that appears in the truck shot is a section of buttressing alongside the road. It would be easy to miss this relatively small feature of the shot, but on close examination it matches appearances by the stone buttressing in other productions.

"Doomed at Sundown" (Republic, 1937)

The same buttressing is seen from the other side, from the south, in the old Bob Steele B-Western "Doomed at Sundown." Even though the buttressing is pretty distant here, you might be able to spot one angular rock rising above the others. This rock can also be seen in "The Grapes of Wrath," pointing in the opposite direction.

Putting the clues together, we can pinpoint where the "Grapes of Wrath" truck sequence was filmed — in the area marked in light blue on this aerial photo from 1952. The shot takes place along the main entrance road to the location ranch, which the Iverson family called Iverson Ranch Road.

This recent Google aerial photo depicts roughly the same area, noting where the two "Grapes of Wrath" locations would be found today. The Overlook Point location has been preserved as parkland and remains pretty much intact. However, the road as it appears in the truck sequence no longer exists, having been buried during grading for the condos and replaced by a modern private road that sits at a higher elevation.

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