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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Twelve Apostles and two pioneers: D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille discover Chatsworth

Sandstone bluffs above Chatsworth Lake Manor, Calif. (2019)

A few weeks ago I was visiting the community of Chatsworth Lake Manor when I glanced up in the hills and saw something that gave me goosebumps. It was a location I'd been trying to find for the past 10 years.

"The Squaw Man" (Cecil B. DeMille, 1914)

It was a filming location for legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille's first movie, the silent Western "The Squaw Man," released in early 1914.

Moving Picture World, March 28, 1914: Cover feature on "The Squaw Man"

Filmed in 18 days from December 1913 to January 1914, DeMille's landmark production has been cited as Hollywood's first feature film and one of the most important productions in the history of American cinema.

"The Great Train Robbery" (1903): Running time just under 12 minutes

Before the release of "The Squaw Man" in February 1914, the output of the U.S. film industry consisted almost entirely of short subjects, usually running less than 12 minutes. When "The Squaw Man" hit theaters at more than 60 minutes, it triggered a revolution in Hollywood.

Cecil B. DeMille (ca. 1920)

The movie business was still in its infancy in the early 1910s. Even though a few visionaries like DeMille and D.W. Griffith recognized the medium's potential, Hollywood was run by businessmen, not visionaries.

D.W. Griffith (ca. 1907)

DeMille, Griffith and a few others wanted to use film to tell complex stories and elevate the medium to an art form. But in an era of skimpy budgets and penny-pinching movie moguls, they faced an uphill battle.

Theda Bara in "Cleopatra" (1917): One of thousands of lost silent films

It was a time when the images captured on film were considered disposable — far less valuable than the nitrate film itself, which would routinely be melted down following a film's distribution so the chemicals could be reused.

Early Hollywood power brokers (L-R): Laemmle, Fox, Goldwyn, Warner, Mayer, Zukor

For every DeMille or Griffith who wanted to make longer, better movies, there were studio bosses who were convinced the public would never sit in a darkened theater for an hour or more watching a flickering image.

"The Jazz Singer" (1927): Early "talkie"

It wasn't the first time, or the last, that the powers-that-be were wrong about the future of the motion picture business. A decade later the same movie moguls would be calling talking pictures a "passing fad."

"Judith of Bethulia" (Biograph, released March 8, 1914)

Both DeMille and Griffith had feature-length projects in the works in 1913. Griffith, who had arrived in Hollywood in 1910 — three years ahead of DeMille — was working in Chatsworth by mid-1912, and completed location shooting there on his biblical feature "Judith of Bethulia" in February 1913.

Jeremiah J. Kennedy: Biograph kingpin and Griffith nemesis

And "Judith of Bethulia" would have gone down in history as Hollywood's first feature film, except for one problem: D.W. Griffith's ongoing clashes with Biograph's notoriously hot-headed bean counter Jeremiah J. Kennedy.

"Judith of Bethulia": Blanche Sweet, as Judith, seduces Holofernes (Henry B. Walthall)

Kennedy, who has been called Hollywood's first movie czar, was reportedly furious at both the length and the $36,000 price tag of Griffith's four-reel "Judith" — at the time, the most expensive picture ever produced.

Lillian Gish, left, and Blanche Sweet in "Judith of Bethulia"

Bad blood between Griffith and Kennedy prompted Biograph to delay the release of "Judith of Bethulia" by a year — opening the door for DeMille's "The Squaw Man" to make history as the first feature film released by Hollywood.

"Judith of Bethulia": Shot on location in Chatsworth

While interiors for "Judith of Bethulia" were shot at Biograph's New York studios, the movie's extensive outdoor location footage was filmed in 1912 and 1913 in Chatsworth, Calif. — known at the time as "Chatsworth Park."

It's impossible today to visit the exact shooting location for "Judith of Bethulia," but it can be narrowed down by examining the background hills. Notice the distinctive gap in the skyline identified here.

"Man-Woman-Marriage" (1921): Filmed in the same area

The same gap can be identified a few years later in another important silent feature shot in Chatsworth, Allen Holubar's "Man-Woman-Marriage," filmed in 1920 and released in 1921.

This scene in "Man-Woman-Marriage" is filmed on land adjacent to the Chatsworth Reservoir, which today is the Chatsworth Nature Preserve. It's almost the same spot where "Judith of Bethulia" filmed.

Ad for "Man-Woman-Marriage": The Iverson Ranch's Garden of the Gods

Other scenes in "Man-Woman-Marriage" were filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch. We covered that shoot in detail in a blog post a few years ago, which you can see by clicking here.

"Judith of Bethulia": Chatsworth's 12 Apostles

The gap in the backgrounds of "Man-Woman-Marriage" and "Judith of Bethulia" can't be duplicated today, but we can identify a familiar formation in the sandstone bluffs, known to locals as "The 12 Apostles."

The 12 Apostles in 2019

The 12 Apostles remain a prominent feature of the bluffs above Chatsworth. I took this photo the other day from the intersection of Valley Circle and Box Canyon, just west of Chatsworth Lake Manor.

If we count the individual rock outcroppings, technically there are more than 12. But we can't really call it the "About 12 Apostles," or the "More Than 12 Apostles," so "The 12 Apostles" it is.

"The Green Goddess" (1930): The 12 Apostles

Chatsworth's sandstone Apostles have had their share of movie appearances. Here they are in an aerial shot from the early talkie "The Green Goddess."

"The Green Goddess" also filmed on the Iverson Ranch, and was the subject of a previous blog post that you can see by clicking here.

Cecil B. DeMille, on running board, and the cast of "The Squaw Man," 1914

You may be noticing a trend: A lot of early Hollywood productions were filmed in Chatsworth. And we can now add DeMille's landmark movie "The Squaw Man" to the list.

"The Squaw Man" (1914): Title card for the "Alpine sequence"

The connection between "The Squaw Man" and Chatsworth comes down to one sequence about 50 minutes into the movie. Based on the title card for the scene, above, it's known as the "Alpine sequence."

"The Squaw Man": The "Alpine sequence," filmed in Chatsworth

Much has been written about shooting sites for the DeMille movie — including false reports that it was filmed on the Iverson Ranch. I eliminated Iverson as a possibility years ago, but the search went on for the actual location.

The Alpine sequence finds a group of five men and women, attached to each other by ropes, hiking in the "Alps" — actually the Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth Lake Manor.

It's an important sequence in the film, in which one of the hikers falls to his death, but before he dies (spoiler alert) he confesses to a crime that is central to the plot.

As I said at the top, I searched for this location for 10 years. In the process I did extensive research on "The Squaw Man," and learned that not one of the various authors who wrote about the movie knew this location either.

I always thought it was somewhere in the Santa Susana Mountains — if not in Chatsworth, then maybe Simi Valley. When you spend as much time looking at rocks as I do, you get to a point where you can just tell.

"Rin Tin Tin" episode "Rin Tin Tin and the Gold Bullion" (1954): Fort Apache Rock

I spent a fair amount of time a few years back exploring a theory that the Alpine sequence was shot below Corriganville's "Fort Apache Rock."

My examination of the theory was dogged by the fact that Fort Apache Rock was destroyed when the 118 Freeway came through Simi Valley starting in the late 1960s. That's right — I said "dogged."

But despite similarities between Fort Apache Rock and the rocky bluff in the background of the Alpine sequence, I was able to eventually rule out Fort Apache Rock as the location — not a match, the board goes back.

The bluffs above Chatsworth Lake Manor — wide view (2019)

I had pretty much given up on ever finding the location, and just when I wasn't looking for it anymore, of course that's when I found it. I was driving home from an appointment when I stopped briefly in Chatsworth Lake Manor.

The 12 Apostles command attention in the region, dominating the western half of the bluffs above Chatsworth Lake Manor. But my eyes were drawn to a formation toward the right — east of the 12 Apostles.

Main bluff and "bump" seen in "The Squaw Man"

In an instant, everything changed: I was looking at the elusive shooting location for the Alpine sequence, the "Holy Grail" of my personal mystery filming locations.

More than the main bluff, it was the distinctive "bump" in the profile of the hills that gave away the location.

The bump turns out to be a perfect match for "The Squaw Man."

The main bluff seen in the Alpine sequence is also a match for the hills above Chatsworth Lake Manor, although it's less obvious than the bump.

The section of the main bluff noted here can be matched up with "The Squaw Man."

Other rocks appearing during the Alpine sequence match the area as well. This shot of the group gathered around the fallen hiker includes rocks in the background that I was able to find in a nearby gorge.

The same rocks and gorge in 2019

The angles are slightly different between the movie shot and the 2019 photo, because the exact spot where "The Squaw Man" was filmed has been swallowed up by residential development. Even so, the features match.

"The Squaw Man" (1914): The movie that changed Hollywood

"The Squaw Man" was a success at the box office, proving audiences were ready to stare at a flickering image for hours at a time — and we've been under the spell of feature films ever since.

Poster for DeMille's 1931 remake of "The Squaw Man"

Acknowledged in his era as the most commercially successful producer-director in the history of Hollywood, DeMille went on to remake "The Squaw Man" twice — another silent version in 1918, and a sound version in 1931.

Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson behind the scenes on "Sunset Blvd." (1950)

DeMille played himself in "Sunset Blvd.," the movie in which Gloria Swanson delivered one of the most often quoted (and misquoted) lines in movie history: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

"The Ten Commandments" (1956): DeMille's final film as a director

His biblical epics, including "The King of Kings," "Samson and Delilah" and two versions of "The Ten Commandments," helped cement DeMille's legacy.

The DeMille Barn — his original studio at Selma and Vine in Hollywood

The barn where DeMille set up his first studio soon after he arrived in Hollywood in 1913 — where he shot much of "The Squaw Man" — was declared a California Historical Landmark in 1956.

The building, also known as the Lasky-DeMille Barn, was relocated in the 1980s to Highland Avenue, across the street from the Hollywood Bowl, where today it is the home of the Hollywood Heritage Museum.

New names for "The Squaw Man's" Chatsworth landmarks

In my research the two main features that pinpointed the Chatsworth filming location for "The Squaw Man" are now known as "Squaw Man Bluff" and the "Alpine Bump." Who knows, maybe the names will catch on.

D.W. Griffith directs "The Escape" for Majestic (1914)

D.W. Griffith continued to make a name for himself, too, in the years following "Judith of Bethulia." After his blowup with Jeremiah J. Kennedy, the director walked out on Biograph in October 1913.

D.W. Griffith, with his longtime camera guy G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, directs "The Birth of a Nation" (1915)

He soon put up his own shingle, and doing business as David W. Griffith Corp., he made his controversial three-hour opus "The Birth of a Nation." It was the world's first 12-reel film, and at the time, the longest movie ever made.

"The Birth of a Nation" (David W. Griffith Corp., released March 1915)

The film's somewhat sunny depiction of the Ku Klux Klan remains a bone of contention today, but the movie set box office records, and for all its flaws, the thing is still being talked about more than a century later.

"Intolerance" (1916): D.W. Griffith's costly masterpiece

Griffith followed up on the success of "The Birth of a Nation" with a financial disaster — the three-and-a-half-hour-long "Intolerance," a box office flop that's considered one of the great masterpieces of the silent era.

The massive Babylon set for Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916)

The most memorable image in "Intolerance" may be its enormous Babylon set, built near the 4500 block of Sunset Boulevard. After filming ended the set stood decaying for a few years because Griffith, who was bankrupted by the movie, couldn't afford to tear it down.

Griffith directs the action on the Babylon set

The scale of the set is a tribute to Griffith's habit of going well over budget on his movies. With an unprecedented $8.4 million price tag, "Intolerance" held the title of most expensive movie ever made for the next 38 years. 

Giant elephant statues adorning Griffith's Babylon set

The set and the rearing elephants that towered above Babylon continue to be imitated today.

Hollywood and Highland: A present-day tribute to Griffith's 1916 Babylon set

The elephants and the rest of Griffith's Babylon set provided the inspiration for the design of today's touristy Hollywood and Highland complex.

Disney's California Adventure: More Griffith-inspired elephants

Disney also took a cue from D.W. Griffith when it positioned its own elephants at the entrance to the "Hollywood Pictures Backlot" attraction at the California Adventure theme park.

"Her Condoned Sin" (1917): Expanded version of "Judith of Bethulia"

With the feature film firmly entrenched by 1917, Biograph released "Her Condoned Sin," an expanded six-reel version of Griffith's "Judith of Bethulia" — belatedly validating the vision of the company's estranged star director.

Below are links to DVDs and Blu-rays of some of the movies discussed in this blog post. The first link is for a reasonably priced double-feature DVD set containing both the 1914 and the 1931 version of DeMille's "The Squaw Man." I have this set and can recommend it.


Rp said...

Amazing photos back in the old days and photos of today. Awesome! Thankyou for the wonderful pictures and time and effort.

Tinsley Yarbrough said...

Always enjoy your posts but this latest one is stupendous!

Swami Nano said...

Thanks, Tinsley and Rp. I think DeMille and Griffith would both approve of the use of the word "stupendous" ...

Ron Crawley said...

Agree with Tinsley, this may be your best post ever! An amazing piece of research and a credit to your sharp eye! When I got to the images of the “Intolernace” set I was amazed! What a production. Thanks as always!!

Cliff said...

Thanks for taking me there to see it first hand, i’m always amazed by the time and effort you put in to make your posts so accurate.

The Big Valley said...

Fantastic research and incredible photographs! Your persistence and perseverance has been justly rewarded! Congratulations on your continued success!

MikeD said...

Really nice detective work as usual! Thanks for all the effort.

In your new Gorge picture, the two rocks just below and to the right of the word Gorge also match up with the old screengrab. But you probably know that.