14 October, 2014
Quiet On The Set
Many times throughout this Blog, I've mentioned Lone Pine. (In my Top 5s I finally got to chat about her in Rawhide.) Some of you hear about Lone Pine and nod knowingly while some of you may very well say, “Where?” So I thought I’d chat about her a little bit. Because my wife Diana and I just got back from The 25th Anniversary of The Lone Pine Film Festival. “What?! Twenty-five years?!” And I digress …
It was Sunday evening, the end of the day, wrapping up the first Lone Pine Film Festival and Dad and I were driving back into town from The Alabama Hills, back to The Dow Hotel, and Dad said, “That was fun. I’m glad we got to do that.” (He and Kerry Powell had just put on that first Festival in 1990.) “Yep! Really glad we did that.” Because remember, at the time, we didn’t think it would be anything more than that: just that one year. Dad had released On Location In Lone Pine, his book on the movies shot in the area, and we’d had a wonderful weekend celebrating those movies. Even The King Of The Cowboys himself, Mr. Roy Rogers, joined us to unveil the Historical Marker at the corner of Whitney Portal and – I’m not making this up – Movie Road (Rogers’ first starring feature – Under Western Stars – was done there in 1938). But to think people getting together for a weekend to celebrate would be anything more than that; just that one time? No, to be honest, that wasn’t even a dream.
Well, that was twenty-five years ago.
Yes, Diana and I just came back from this year’s Lone Pine Film Festival, its 25th Anniversary. And what a great weekend it was. The movie screenings, location tours, concerts, celebrity guests, all commemorating the town’s movie heritage. Talk about tours? Twenty-five years ago it was one. This year it was fifteen. Talk about celebrity guests? Over the years the Festival’s hosted the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Virginia Mayo, Gregory Peck and Claire Trevor. And talk about … But first, some of you may still be asking, “Where is Lone Pine?” And then, “What is The Lone Pine Film Festival?” And, “There’s a Lone Pine Film History Museum?” Okay, fair enough. Let’s go back to the beginning.
The town of Lone Pine, California is located about three hours north of Los Angeles at the base of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Its Alabama Hills just west of town have been a Hollywood favorite for going “on location” since 1920 (the first film we know to be shot there was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s The Roundup). Since then the town’s movie list has grown to approximately 450 titles; westerns, sure (with Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Mel Gibson’s Maverick and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), straight dramas (Humphrey Bogart and Russell Crowe were both there), comedies (Blake Edwards and Ricky & Lucy), Sci Fi (Tremors, even a few Star Treks) and the list goes on. Considered Lone Pine’s hallmark film is the George Stevens classic Gunga Din for which all of the exteriors were shot in those Alabama Hills, and a second Historical Marker commemorates that film.
What makes the area particularly special is it’s still there. Let me explain. How many times have you wished you could visit a classic location only to find you can’t? I don’t mean you can’t get on a Studio Lot, or -- worse -- the Stage where they built the Dracula castle has been torn down (sadly a true story). I mean a location is gone. Parts of The Iverson’s Movie Ranch and Corriganville certainly come to mind. Well, Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills are – while public land – owned by The Bureau Of Land Management and California’s Department of Water and Power. So not only are they still there at all, they haven’t been touched since the classic movie days. Which means you can still get out there and visit them. You can literally stand where Errol Flynn stood. And Cary Grant and Gary Cooper and Tyrone Power. And Robert Downey Jr.! All that Afghanistan at the beginning of Iron Man? They didn’t go to Afghanistan, they went to Lone Pine! And maybe getting excited about where they shot something sounds crazy but I can't help it.
So how did the celebrating begin? Mom and Dad had been visiting Lone Pine for years, for fun (and I can remember going-with as long as I can remember). Well, one day after spending glorious hours out in the rocks, they went back into town and asked for a book on the movies made there. “There isn’t one?” Dad was thrilled he’d be the one to write it; sharing those movies and stories about them and the friends who made them. And then Kerry Powell, a local artist and businesswoman, said she wanted to put on something to commemorate it all. And so they did. And now so many fans can enjoy getting out into those rocks and seeing where Hollywood made King Of The Khyber Rifles and How The West Was Won and The Shadow. Yes, it’s been over ninety years that Hollywood’s been going on location in Lone Pine.
After all, more often, movie fans are as interested in Where It Was Done as How It Was Done. So as The Festival commemorates the movies made there, the fact that it’s continued as long as – and as well as – it has is up to the fans. For attending each year, sure, but also for going up on their own throughout the year to enjoy the area. Not to mention the tireless efforts of the Festival and Museum Volunteers who share the movie-making history. And the Festival and Museum Boards – led tirelessly by the current director, Bob Sigman – for their throughout-the-year work in presenting – and protecting – that heritage. Indeed, with so many wonderful people involved, this year, twenty-five in, felt like a passing of the torch. What Mom & Dad, Ray & Kerry Powell, and so many people have made happen thus far is truly incredible. What a delight it is to still see so many fans – some of you! – continue to enjoy it. Taking that torch and carrying it on.
Because one of the great things when talking about the movies they make there is, simply, that they’re still making them. We’re not just commemorating what has happened but that it continues. And two great examples of that are 2008’s Iron Man and 2012’s Django Unchained.
These are two powerhouse A-listers, with the likes of Jon Favreau, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx playing there. (And, sure, some of 2013’s The Lone Ranger and Man Of Steel were done out on the nearby Owens dry lake.) Point is, Hollywood still loves to go on location in Lone Pine.
There’s some great Behind The Scenes footage on the Iron Man DVD of their shooting there; in The Alabama Hills and out on the Olancha sand dunes (about a half-hour south of town). Favreau says that getting to Lone Pine “was well worth it because it really gives you a look like we traveled halfway around the world.” And Downey Jr. says, “What a privilege it was to be able to be there playing this guy with the caliber of people I was working with. What a blast.”
And why did Tarantino – film buff that he is – want to shoot Django in Lone Pine? Because that’s where a favorite of his, William Witney, had worked. As Tarantino told The New York Times in 2000, “People think that the only good westerns made in the 40s and 50s were by John Ford or maybe Howard Hawks. Film guys might add Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Andre De Toth but William Witney is ahead of them all; the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away.” Tarantino even used one of Witney’s original Clappers – the slate you see at the beginning of each shot that lists the Scene & Take and shows Sync – on the film. And Dr. King Shultz and Django’s campsite? Yep, shot in what we call “Lone Ranger Canyon” because that’s where Witney shot that ’38 Serial (and that’s the pic at the top of this article).
Which brings us to The Lone Pine Film History Museum. Opened in 2006 with financial support from Beverly and Jim Rogers and – just as significantly – generous local community and business support, the museum is a beacon for visiting fans, housing truly great pieces of memorabilia. There’s the stagecoach from Rawhide and the car Gene Autry (actually stuntman Joe Yrigoyen) jumps in Trail To San Antone. Plus a bunch of – yes, original – costumes including Errol Flynn’s Kim and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and – yes, original – scads of one-sheets (and some glorious three-sheets) ... all from movies made, remember, a five-minute drive from that very museum. In fact, that’s why Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills are often called “a living museum” because you can still get out there, walk around and be where it happened.
And, remember, still happens! Ecstatic there was finally a showcase for Where It Was Done, Tarantino himself frequented The Museum, including screening movies in its Theatre for his Cast & Crew. And when shooting wrapped, he graciously donated (Christoph Waltz’ character) Schultz’ dentist’s wagon; yes, it's sitting right inside the front door as you walk in, tooth on top and all. What else? Tarantino et al even signed their autographs right on the wall. Can you say where else that was done in years past? Indeed, right in town at The Indian Trading Post, where so many classic film stars – Flynn, Cooper et al – did the same when they were there. (Luckily for us, all those years ago, The Indian Trading Post took a hot iron and trace-burned those signatures into the wood so you can still see them.)
And then – the pièce de résistance, Festival weekend or any other – there are the rocks themselves. The Alabama Hills. That living museum. (Which, PS, sit right in the middle of a land of twenty-mile shadows. Yes, there are shadows up there that are twenty miles long. But we’ll get to that …)
What makes Lone Pine – certainly her Festival – so significant … well, sure, that it’s retrospective, only celebrating movies made there … is that fifteen minutes after seeing Lives Of A Bengal Lancer in the Museum Theatre or (Festival Weekend) High School Auditorium you can stand right where (Director) Henry Hathaway shot it. And on Festival Weekend, there are approximately 120 photomarkers scattered out in the rocks for you to enjoy, showing stills at the locations from the Movies and TV Shows and Serials shot there (again, please see the pic at top). Even on a non-Festival weekend – the photomarkers are only placed Festival Weekend – you can visit The Museum, see Tony Stark’s bloodied suit, and fifteen minutes later stand right where he launched the Jericho missile.
At the end of the day, Lone Pine is no Cannes or Sundance or Toronto. It didn’t go to NYU or USC. And it still fights the often “Where?” and “What?” But some of its charm is just that; like Brigadoon, celebrated by those that know. That love her that much. That proudly champion her throughout the years. It's like Dad’s “sunset theory.” The most beautiful sunset in the world is breathtaking, sure, but it’s even more so when you can nudge the person next to you and share it with them. That’s why he wrote On Location In Lone Pine. Because he wanted to share with you those movies. Made in those Alabama Hills. Just west of that town.
Oh! I almost forgot. We have some unfinished business, don’t we? (And for those of you that know, yes, I’m stealing from Dad here.) I’m talking about those twenty-mile shadows. Well, in that part of The Owens Valley, where Lone Pine sits, it’s twenty miles from the Sierra Nevadas to The Inyo Mountains. So in the evening, as the sun falls behind The Sierras, Mt. Whitney and friends cast their shadows twenty miles across the valley.
In 1984, Bob Sherman wrote a wonderful pictorial history on Chatsworth, California’s Iverson Movie Ranch called “Quiet On The Set.” The phrase is two-fold. One, it’s what The A.D. – Assistant Director – calls out at the beginning of a take, to get everyone quiet so cameras can roll. And two, well … at so many great shooting locations over the years – Iverson’s, Corriganville, Melody Ranch; Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills really are the pinnacle – it’s often, now, wonderfully quiet. Where you can get out into that Living Museum and relive Where It Was Done.
I hope you will.