Actors Joel McCrea and Frances Dee were that rare exception in Hollywood: a marriage that lasted. One of the secrets to their success may have been their decision to live outside the glare of Hollywood stardom.
Frances Dee and Joel McCrea on their Thousand Oaks ranch
McCrea was a cowboy and a rancher at heart, and never quite warmed up to being a movie star. In 1933 the couple bought a ranch in Thousand Oaks, Calif. — just 40 minutes west of Hollywood, but a world apart.
The McCrea Ranch in modern times
They lived on the Ventura County ranch throughout their 57-year marriage, and Dee continued to live there after McCrea's death in 1990. Today their former ranch remains a Thousand Oaks landmark.
Frances Dee in 1933 with "another man" — Buster Crabbe, aka "The Lion Man"
The couple's history with the Iverson Movie Ranch goes back at least as far as 1933, when Frances Dee starred alongside Buster Crabbe in Paramount's "King of the Jungle," filmed in part on the Iverson Ranch.
Buster Crabbe and Frances Dee — promo still for "King of the Jungle"
More likely, what brought a lot of them in was the beautiful Frances Dee, who couldn't help being glamorous even in a faux-tattered jungle dress.
Buster Crabbe stands on the Gorge Arch on the Lower Iverson
Also receiving plenty of exposure in the movie's marketing was the athletic Buster Crabbe. Here he monitors the action from a perch on the late, lamented Lower Iverson rock feature known as the Gorge Arch.
Buster Crabbe and a young cast member — promo still for "King of the Jungle"
Crabbe's "Lion Man" character was briefly a rival for MGM's megahit "Tarzan" series, which had just introduced Johnny Weissmuller in 1932's "Tarzan the Ape Man" — also filmed on the Iverson Ranch.
A large group of lions was brought to the Iverson Ranch for the "King of the Jungle" shoot. In this behind-the-scenes photo, I count at least 15 lions gathered just outside Zorro's Cave on the Lower Iverson.
Frances Dee and Joel McCrea
The year "King of the Jungle" was released, 1933, was a big year for Joel McCrea and Frances Dee. It was the same year they met, had a whirlwind romance, got married and bought their ranch in Thousand Oaks.
Promotional photo for "One Man's Journey" (1933): Dee and McCrea
They were co-starring in movies from the beginning — in fact, they met on the set of a movie, "The Silver Cord," released in May 1933. That same year they worked together again in "One Man's Journey."
In 1937 Dee and McCrea co-starred in the Paramount Western "Wells Fargo," a movie that once again connected them with the Iverson Movie Ranch.
"Wells Fargo's" unusual opening credits
"Wells Fargo" deserves a place of honor among Iverson Ranch aficionados for its unique title sequence, in which the opening credits are made to appear as though they're painted on the rocks of the Lower Iverson.
The above clip shows "Wells Fargo's" title sequence, filmed entirely on the Iverson Ranch. I discussed this sequence in detail in a blog post a few years ago, which you can read by clicking here.
Lobby card for "The Virginian" (1946): Brian Donlevy, Barbara Britton and Joel McCrea
Joel McCrea was back on the Iverson Ranch in 1946 to film Paramount's Technicolor Western "The Virginian" — one of many film and TV adaptations of the 1902 Owen Wister novel "The Virginian — A Horseman of the Plains."
"The Virginian": Joel McCrea and Barbara Britton ride off into the sunset on the Iverson Ranch
The closing sequence from "The Virginian" features a classic "riding off into the sunset" shot in which Joel and his leading lady set out to begin their new life together. The scene takes place on the Iverson Ranch.
The same sunset location in 2016
The same location continues to yield spectacular sunsets today. This is a photo I took on the ranch in 2016.
Sunset sequence in "The Virginian"
The same hill can be seen in the closing shot from "The Virginian" — with the sun setting right behind it.
"Three Ages" (Buster Keaton/Metro Pictures, 1923)
Like almost everything on and around the Iverson Ranch, that hill to the west has a long history in the movies. Here it sneaks into the background in the silent Buster Keaton comedy "Three Ages" in 1923.
"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)
The same hill appears next to Jane Darwell's head in 1940 in "The Grapes of Wrath," just as she's about to tell the family some bad news about Grandma. Darwell won an Oscar for her performance as Ma Joad in the film.
"Ghost Valley Raiders" (Republic, 1940)
Not all of the hill's appearances are in Oscar winners — it turns up in its share of B-Westerns too. The same year the hill appeared in "The Grapes of Wrath" it was also seen in the Iverson showpiece "Ghost Valley Raiders."
"Wanted: Dead or Alive" (1958)
The flat-top hill's work as a background feature continued into the TV era. Here it turns up in an episode of the Steve McQueen series "Wanted: Dead or Alive" called "Die by the Gun," which premiered on Dec. 6, 1958.
"The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story" (Disney, 1998)
As recently as the late 1990s, the hill continued to do background work in Hollywood productions. Here it can be seen in a sequence featuring wolves howling in Disney's "Jungle Book" sequel "Mowgli's Story."
"Mowgli's Story": The same shot as it appeared in the movie
The sequence was shot "day for night," appearing much darker in the actual movie. The wolf is seen in silhouette and the background is obscured, making the point that the wolf is howling as night falls.
Modern audiences know the story of the Virginian mainly through the TV series, which ran for nine seasons on NBC, from 1962-1971. In its early seasons the TV series also filmed regularly on the Iverson Ranch.
Joel McCrea rides past Wrench Rock on the Upper Iverson in "Saddle Tramp"
The movie features a lavish six-minute opening segment filmed on the Upper Iverson, loaded with nice Technicolor shots of the ranch in spring. "Saddle Tramp's" opening shot is this striking portrait of Wrench Rock.
Wrench Rock in recent times — toward the right of the frame
An attempt to match the shot in modern times runs into a common obstacle: Today a tree has attached itself to the eastern profile of Wrench Rock, effectively blotting out this view of the the rock.
"Saddle Tramp" opening sequence
McCrea whistles as he rides the ranch in the "Saddle Tramp" sequence, and appears to be taking in the scenery.
"Gold Raiders" (Three Stooges, 1951)
When the same rock appears the following year in the Three Stooges movie "Gold Raiders," it has a smaller rock cemented on top of it. "Stacked rocks" like this one can be found in several places on the former movie ranch, and are among the more intriguing artifacts of the site's filming legacy.
Gold Raiders Rock in modern times
The rock remains intact today — including the smaller rock on top, still cemented in place.
Frances Dee and Joel McCrea
For readers who are intrigued by the exploits of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, or the history of the Iverson Ranch — or if you just want to say howdy — I hope you can make it to the presentation March 3 at the McCrea Ranch.
Wyatt McCrea — Joel McCrea and Frances Dee's grandson
I understand the McCreas' grandson Wyatt McCrea, who still lives on the McCrea Ranch, will also be on hand to answer questions about his famous grandparents.