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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• I've also begun a YouTube channel for Iverson Movie Ranch clips and other movie location videos, which you can get to by clicking here.
• 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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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Hidden for more than 80 years, a secret set location
where Shirley Temple starred in John Ford's "Wee Willie Winkie"
has been discovered on the Iverson Movie Ranch

"Wee Willie Winkie" (1937): The Iverson Movie Ranch comes of age

Set in colonial India, John Ford's 1937 movie "Wee Willie Winkie" probably did more than any other production to raise the profile of the Iverson Movie Ranch and help push it toward "mega-location" status.

Shirley Temple and Victor McLaglen on the Iverson Ranch for "Wee Willie Winkie"

The diminutive Shirley Temple, a mere 8 years old during the film's production, was at the height of her popularity, riding out a four-year reign (1935-1938) as the No. 1 box-office draw in the world.

Director John Ford

Ford was no slouch either. Most of his signature films were still to come — "Stagecoach" and "The Grapes of Wrath" among them, both to be filmed on the Iverson Ranch. But 20 years into his directorial career, his ascent into the pantheon of great American film directors was already being charted.

Ford poses with one of what would eventually be four Oscars for Best Director

Ford had just won his first of four Best Director Oscars the previous year for "The Informer," giving him added leverage as he was being courted to direct "Wee Willie Winkie." 

John Ford tolerates Shirley Temple on the "Wee Willie Winkie" set

In an effort to entice Ford — who was known to be less than enthusiastic about child actors — to agree to take on the high-stakes project, 20th Century-Fox loosened its purse strings for the movie.

Cesar Romero as Khoda Khan, in his mountain headquarters with Shirley Temple

Among the enticements were a big-name cast — including Ford's pal McLaglen along with Cesar Romero, June Lang and C. Aubrey Smith — and at least equally important, a sizable budget for building sets.

Ford's sprawling India Fort (production still from "Wee Willie Winkie")

On the latter point, Ford didn't need much encouragement. He dove right into what would become a four-month construction project, building not one but two expansive sets on the Iverson Ranch — the India Fort at Sheep Flats and Khan's mountain stronghold about a quarter-mile to the southwest, in the Iverson Gorge.

Looking southwest through the gate from Khan's mountain stronghold (production still)

The big-budget project was tracked closely in trade magazines from pre-production through filming in early 1937, generating attention within the industry for the Iverson Movie Ranch.

Big turnout for the "Wee Willie Winkie" opening at the Carthay Circle theater in L.A.

When the movie went into wide release in July 1937, it was met with a reasonably warm reception by critics, but more to the point, throngs of ticket buyers showed up at the box office.

Filming the India Fort for "Wee Willie Winkie" (Jerry England collection)

One thing the critics especially liked was the location work done on the Iverson Movie Ranch. In a review by Variety, the publication cited the movie's "realistic and elaborate backgrounds." The film also received an Oscar nomination for art direction.

The India Fort in 1937 (Iverson family photo)

Both the India Fort and the mountain stronghold have been discussed previously on this blog. You can click here for an in-depth look at the mountain stronghold and surrounding Gorge rocks, published in 2019, and if you're truly hardcore, click here to read a post from 2014 that includes more photos of the India Fort.

Khoda Khan's mountain fortress in the Iverson Gorge

"Wee Willie Winkie's" high profile, along with the major role played by the Iverson Movie Ranch — and an upswing in the film industry as a whole in the 1930s — added up to a surge in business for the movie ranch.

The Iverson Movie Ranch doubles in size in May 1937

The increased attention helped convince the Iverson family that it was time to expand their operation. In May 1937, just a few weeks after production wrapped on "Winkie" and even before the movie opened, the Iversons purchased 160 acres of land immediately north of their existing property, doubling the size of the ranch.

The newly acquired land became what we think of today as the Upper Iverson, and the original 160-acre Iverson Ranch would come to be known as the Lower Iverson.

Locations of the two main sets for "Wee Willie Winkie" on the Lower Iverson

Zeroing in on the Lower Iverson in its present-day configuration, we can identify the two locations where the main sets for "Wee Willie Winkie" were built in late 1936 and early 1937.

And at last we can tell a part of the "Wee Willie Winkie" story that has never been told: A third set was also built, but its location remained undiscovered for more than 80 years.

The "third set" for "Wee Willie Winkie" (Iverson family photo)

An Iverson family photo from late 1936 or early 1937 features the third set, with an unknown woman standing in front of it. In the movie this set served as Khan's headquarters, but in the real world it was built some distance from the rest of his mountain fortress, near the edge of a cliff.
The Iverson Gorge, circa 1937 (Iverson family photo)

Other family photos from the 1930s provide additional context. This photo of the Iverson Gorge, again from the period when "Wee Willie Winkie" was filming, may have been taken to showcase the new road through the Gorge.
The new "Steep Canyon Road" through the Gorge

The deep gorge along today's Redmesa Road was called the "Steep Canyon" by the Iverson family, and they referred to the road through it as "Steep Canyon Road." 
Joe Iverson builds the Steep Canyon Road, ca. 1930s
Construction of the Steep Canyon Road was one of the many projects of Joe Iverson, the movie ranch's industrious and singularly hands-on head honcho, who ran the location ranch for the better part of six decades.
Stone buttressing on Joe Iverson's new road: Every rock in place

The road had recently been completed around the time "Wee Willie Winkie" was on site. You can tell it was still pretty new in 1937 because the stone buttressing is all perfectly lined up.
"Pack Train" (Gene Autry, 1953): One of the classic shots of the road and the buttressing

When Gene Autry drove his "Pack Train" down the same road about 16 years later, the road was still in decent shape. But already, a few of the stones had begun to migrate down the slope.

Notice in particular the section of stone buttressing outlined here in the 1953 photo.

This is the same section as it appeared in 1937, still nicely aligned. You should be able to click on any of the photos to see a larger version.
The surviving buttressing as it appears today
Much of the stone buttressing remains in place today, although it has been falling apart for 80-plus years, and like most of us, these days it's showing its age.

The section highlighted in "Pack Train" and in the 1937 photo is outlined again here.
Location of Khoda Khan's mountain stronghold
Looking again at the widest version of the 1937 photo, we can just make out the towers of Khoda Khan's mountain fortress toward the left.

A closer look at Khan's fortress

The clarity suffers as we zoom in on that part of the photo, but you may be able to spot the main tower just to the right of center. A second tower can be found some distance to its left, although it's harder to see.

Khan's stronghold in the Iverson Gorge (Iverson family photo)

Another family photo taken from a slightly different angle provides a better look at the two main towers, along with several of the rock features of the Upper Gorge.
Behind the scenes on "Wee Willie Winkie": Khan's mountain fortress

Promotional photos and production stills for "Wee Willie Winkie" offer a much more detailed look at the set. This one shows the main tower, just left of center, along with a "distressed" tower toward the right.

The Iverson Gorge in 1937: Two separate "Wee Willie Winkie" sets
In the wider photo, the top of the tower from the "third set" is visible — just barely — peeking out over some rocks near the top of a hill. The photo shows that the set was positioned well apart from the main fortress.

The third set, ca. 1937: Khan's headquarters, looking north (Iverson family photo)
This Iverson family photo provides a good look at the hilltop tower, along with a stairway next to it. An unknown woman dressed in dark clothes can be seen posing on the stairs, although she's easy to miss.

Several elements of the set are noted here, including a facade in the bottom right corner. The main building served as Khoda Khan's headquarters, which may help explain why the hidden location remained a secret for so long. Audiences were supposed to think the headquarters building was inside the mountain fortress.

Here are a few other details that can be seen in the photo, depending to some extent on your imagination. I don't think the monkey head is really there, but I figured I'd point it out anyway.

While we're at it, these are some of the rock features seen in the photo. Sticky Bun, Jaunty Sailor and the Triangle Brand have all been discussed on the blog, and can be found in the long index at the right.

A distinctive pointed rock helps mark the former location of the "Wee Willie Winkie" set

Which brings us to this beauty — one of the Iverson Movie Ranch's hidden gems. For all its star quality, the pointed rock was rarely filmed. I suppose it comes down to location, location and location, and ... it's not in the best location for a movie rock.
"Roarin' Lead": The pointed rock's career highlight? (Jerry England collection)

The pointed rock, which I usually refer to as "that pointed rock," or ... "the pointed rock up by Jaunty Sailor," has found its way into only a handful of productions. Before it turned up in the midst of the hidden "Wee Willie Winkie" set, the rock's appearance in this promo still for "Roarin' Lead" may have been its best moment.
"We Too Receive" (Cathedral Films, 1944): The pointed rock points the way

But I'll always be grateful to the pointed rock for helping to identify the Iverson Ranch as the filming location for the obscure Bible movie "We Too Receive." The rock is just about the only recognizable Iverson feature in the movie.
The pointed rock in the 21st century

The rock has survived, tempting me to make a lot of "point" puns — It's still on point, it remains sharp as a tack, etc. I'll let it go, but I do want to "point" out: Since I never got around to giving this underappreciated gem a "real" name, if you have any suggestions, please comment or email me and we'll try to tie up that loose end.
The pointed rock and the tower location in 2020 — retrofitted to black and white

I mentioned that the rock is in a bad location, and that's still true today. It's not simply that it's hard to get to and hard to find, but its location near the edge of a cliff makes expeditions to the site somewhat treacherous.
"Captain America" (1944): This could be you!
Of course, the word "treacherous" can have the opposite of the desired effect, and a certain faction out there will immediately try to go there. Suit yourself, but if you plummet to your death or worse, I did warn you. 
Approximating the tower location in 2020

The main reason I wanted to bring up the perilous nature of the location is because I found it somewhat shocking that John Ford's "Wee Willie Winkie" set builders opted to put up a tower in that particular spot, of all places.

Construction remnants: A concrete guide that once held a support cable

But build it there they did, and based on evidence that can still be found at the location — such as hunks of concrete that apparently held support cables in place — it was a bit of an engineering marvel.
A groove in the rock, presumably used to secure a cable

Other rocks in the set area also retain scars from their tower trauma of 1937. I can't fully explain the engineering, but clearly the rocks were altered so they could be incorporated into the support system for the tower. 

Another rock, another groove

Artifacts from the tower — and especially from its supporting cables — can be found throughout the area. Here movie historian Cliff Roberts points out another of the apparent cable seats in the rocks.

In the area where the base of the tower once sat, we can still find traces of construction material.

Next to the former tower location, where the staircase stood, we can see the nails that were used to fasten the stair structure into position, still sticking out of the rocks.

Also remaining as artifacts from the tower construction are areas where the crew carved notches into the rocks to help fit the tower into place.
A rare appearance by the tower in "Wee Willie Winkie" — seen from Khan's headquarters

Considering all the effort that went into creating the tower set, I was surprised to find that the tower barely made it into the movie. My theory is that when all was said and done, nobody really wanted to be up there — and I'm sure the producers didn't want to have to deal with the liability if the thing collapsed and killed a bunch of extras.

Grandpa turns up at the headquarters of his bitter enemy to retrieve his granddaughter

This brief shot of the tower, seen through the netted ceiling of Khan's headquarters, is one of only about two shots of the tower in the movie. The shot comes near the end of the movie after Winkie has dealt a blow to the war effort.

The only shot of the tower with soldiers in it
They did manage to talk a few extras into posing at the top of the tower, weapons drawn, for a few seconds. It wouldn't surprise me if the soldiers needed a change of underwear following this shot.
Inside Khan's headquarters, the rebel leader, right, confers with his chieftains

The inside of the headquarters building is a different story. The bulk of the action shot at the hidden filming location takes place inside this room — and the backgrounds confirm that the interiors were filmed on location.
The room is the interior of the headquarters building, which we got a good look at in the old Iverson family photo.
The chieftains are easily amused
The room is essentially Khan's bedroom, but it also functions as a place where his chieftains can hang around and laugh at dumb stuff. I am pretty sure they were all smoking something.
Wee Willie Winkie greets Khoda Khan at his secret headquarters
Once Shirley Temple shows up, her Winkie character becomes the main focal point of the hilarity.

Shirley Temple tells off the chieftains
At one point Shirley gets so fed up with the chieftains over all the dumb stuff they're laughing at, she throws her banana on the floor. She also tells them they're all mean — which only makes them laugh that much harder.
Winkie and Khan have a heart-to-heart

The bedroom area is also where Shirley Temple tries to talk Khan out of waging war against her grandfather.
In the background is a familiar landmark in the Santa Susana Mountains, west of the Iverson Ranch. "Boat Hill," as I call it, is part of the Rocky Peak hiking area.
Khan's men escort Mohammet Dihn to the wall, to be thrown to his death

A mildly disturbing sequence takes place just outside the mountaintop headquarters, where some of Khan's men throw a guy over a wall, presumably to his death — much to the disapproval of Wee Willie Winkie.
Willie Fung, as Mohammet Dihn, announces he has brought the colonel's granddaughter to Khan
The guy who gets the heave-ho is Mohammet Dihn, played by Willie Fung. His "crime" was apparently bringing Wee Willie Winkie to Khan, which hardly seems fair since it all worked out really well — for everyone except Dihn.

Fung had also worked with Shirley Temple the previous year, in "Stowaway."

I'm not 100% sure, but I believe the wall over which Fung is flung — and yes, I purposely constructed the sentence so I could say it that way — is the facade that was mentioned previously in the old family photo.

Off you go!

On a recent visit to the site, I made an attempt to match up the background from the "Fung gets flung" sequence with features visible to the south of the Iverson Ranch.
The view from the Khan headquarters site in 2020, looking south

I didn't manage to get just the right angle, but I was in the ballpark.
These are probably the two best markers in the background. The Chatsworth Reservoir was decommissioned in 1972, and the site where it used to be is now the Chatsworth Nature Preserve.
In "Wee Willie Winkie" we catch a glimpse of the reservoir when it still had water in it, and we get a decent look at the rocky hillside above the railroad.

It's movie time! You can see the entire sequence at Khan's headquarters in the 8-minute clip below, which I've posted before. The clip includes BOTH of the major "flingings" — Willie Fung and the banana. Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

were the steps anywhere to be seen or were they removed after filming

Swami Nano said...

They were removed. The nails that were used to hold the steps in place can still be found where they were pounded into the rocks.

Anonymous said...

must have missed this picture where is the site located is it hard to reach

Phil. said...

A possible name for the rock, The Talon?

Swami Nano said...

Works for me. Let's go with it!

best said...