Cowboys, Aliens and Thuggees in the Alabama Hills … The Highway 395 Series

John Wayne’s breakout movie where he moved from a B Level to an A Level actor was in the 1939 film, “Stagecoach,” part of which was filmed in the Alabama Hills. He had made 6 movies in the area before and would go on to make more afterwards.

When I arrived in Lone Pine, California, the first thing I did was go for a drive in the Alabama Hills located beneath the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains west of the town. I included photos of this adventure in my last post and noted that over 400 movies and several TV series had been filmed there. I was eager to see what Hollywood found so fascinating about this semi-remote location in the Eastern Sierras. The second thing I did was make a beeline to the Lone Pine Film History Museum to learn more about the movies and TV programs filmed in the area. Most of the photos in this post, I took in the museum. My own fascination with the Alabama Hills started early in my life. I just didn’t know it.

Tonto, Silver and the Lone Ranger.

I was excited. Alan Green had invited my brother and me over to watch TV. It wasn’t just that we were going to watch TV at a friend’s house, it was to be first time we had ever watched TV. The year was 1950. Alan’s dad was manager of the Diamond Lime Company and the Greens had the only TV in town! What made the adventure even more special was that we were going the watch the Lone Ranger. Marsh and I had spent hours glued to the family radio listening to the masked man dispense justice to the remote corners of the West with his ever-faithful companion Tonto and his great white stallion, Silver. Not only did the white-hat hero use silver bullets, he always shot the guns out of the hands of the bad guys— never killing them. (Imagine that in this day and age!) Now we were going to see what the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Silver and Scout looked like in live action on a 12-inch screen. We were not disappointed. I still remember Silver rearing up on his hind legs in the final scene as the Lone Ranger called out “Hi-yo Silver away” before dashing off while the inevitable question was asked by someone he had rescued, “Who was that masked man?” 

The fact that the William Tell Overture by Rossini kicked off the episode or that the Alabama Hills provided the backdrop for the opening credits would have escaped me at the time. But they still made an impression. I would forever associate the William Tell Overture with the Lone Ranger. And the Alabama Hills? Well, they came to represent what cowboy country was supposed to look like in my mind. It didn’t hurt that several other popular Western TV series of the time had episodes filmed in the area. Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, Annie Oakley, Rawhide,and Gunsmoke are examples. The Bonanza spread, by the way, theoretical included some 600,000 acres that stretched from Lake Tahoe to Virginia City. The imaginary ranch would be worth gazillions today. I will be taking you on a side trip off of Highway 395 to Virginia City as a part of this series. 

Movies were even more important in establishing the Alabama Hills as a popular filming location for Westerns. Of the over 400 made in the area, the vast majority involved cowboys— and cowgirls— and horses. (I was amused that the horses often got top billing right under the star. Trigger, for example, was listed above and in bigger letters than Roy Roger’s wife Dale on the movie posters at the Lone Pine Film Museum.) 

Note where Trigger is in relation to Dale Evans and Gabby Hayes in this movie poster. He’s “the smartest horse in the movies,” the poster declares. It seems he proved it by signing the poster. Must have held the pen in hid mouth.
This cut out at museum may suggest why Dale was able to smile while Trigger was stealing the show. It appears that Roy is holding a gun on her!

We have to travel back in time to the silent movie era and 1920 for the first Alabama Hills movie, Fatty Arbuckle starring in The Round Up. Will Rogers, the renown humorist, also made a 1920 movie that took advantage of the area, Cupid the Cowpuncher. Tom Mix, the best known of the early movie cowboys, arrived on the scene a couple of years later. Mix was a true cowboy who rode in rodeos as well as starred in movies. He was still making movies in the Alabama Hills when the ‘talkies’ took over from the silent era. 

“Nobody loves a fat man” this poster about “Round Up” starring Fatty Arbuckle declares. I suspect that quote wouldn’t make it by the censors today. And, as it turns out, lots of people loved Fatty.
Here’s a poster from “Cupid Ties the Knot” starring Will Rogers. Note the gun toting Cupid in the background using a lasso instead of arrows.
Tom Mix was recognized for his extensive role in the development of movie Westerns with the Golden Boot award. The bucking bronco in the background reflects his rodeo connection.

The cowboys just kept riding into the area during the 30s: William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Cesar Romero as the Cisco Kid, and John Wayne, to name a few. Boyd would make some 30 movies in the area. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Tex Ritter were singing cowboys, ready to burst out in song at the least excuse. Their guitars were right up there with their horses in importance. The ‘Duke’ spent the 30s as a B level actor producing B level movies. Six of them had scenes filmed in the Alabama Hills. His big breakout movie, the one that would move him up to an A-level actor performing in A-level movies was Stage Coach, directed by John Ford and costarring Claire Trevor. Wayne played the Ringo Kid. Another world-famous actor who had his breakout movie in the Alabama Hills was Humphrey Bogart in the1940 movie High Sierra. The car used in the chase scene from Lone Pine up through the Alabama Hills to Whitney Portal can be found at the museum, along with a cutout of Bogart. Visitors are invited to take their photo with ‘Bogie’ and tweet about it.

Good guy Hopalong Cassidy also rode a white horse but he wore a black hat.
Tex was one of the singing cowboys of the Old West. Here he sits on his horse, White Flash with his guitar in hand.
Gene Autry featured his horse Champion like Roy Rodgers featured Trigger. The Cass Country Boys was a country-western band that backed up Gene in some of his songs, including “I’m back in the saddle again.”
Champion jumped over a Buick in “Trail to San Antone.” Peggy Stewart was supposedly in the back seat. I think she ducked. I would have. The actual Buick is on display at the museum.
A cut out of Humphrey Bogart standing in front of the Plymouth Coupe he drove from Lone Pine to the Whitney Portal in his breakout movie, “High Sierra.”

Not surprisingly, as the fame of the Alabama Hills spread in Hollywood, other film genres began to consider producing movies there. The movie Gunga Din, based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, is a prime example. Why go to India when a day’s drive would get you to the Alabama Hills? Utilizing over 600 extras, the movie starred Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine and Sam Jaffe. It was a blockbuster of 1939, second only to Gone with the Wind in box office revenue. Similar in nature, The Charge of the Light Brigade starring Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland was another. As was Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Davila starring Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature and Angela Lansbury. Lamarr, known for her sultry look, was also brilliant and helped invent Wi-Fi during World War II. (The Navy suggested she would serve the war effort better as a pin-up but quietly made use of her work.) As for Lansbury, I keep getting this image of her as a singing tea kettle in Beauty and the Beast. Or here’s a fun one in 1943, Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. Guess they had to get the ape man out of the jungle. Jumping forward to 2000, we have Russel Crowe in The Gladiator.

Movie poster from Gunga Din.
The British Empire’s troops are about to be ambushed by the Thuggees in “Gunga Din.” Thuggees were a cult of assassins that strangled people and existed in India from the 13th to the 19th Century.
This elaborate Thuggee Temple was built in the Alabama Hills for “Gunga Din.”
“Charge of the Light Brigade” movie poster.
“Samson and Dalila” Movie poster.
Another noted muscle man, Tarzan, ventured into the Alabama Hills for this desert adventure. I did wonder how the vine on the left made it into the desert. Once a swinger, always a swinger I guess.
Movie poster for “Gladiator.”

While the use of the Alabama Hills for movies dropped in popularity in the 60s, it continued to be used for the occasional Western. James Coburn in Water Hole #3 in 1967, Clint Eastwood in Joe Kid in 1972, and John Wayne along with Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn in 1975 are three examples. More recently, Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino in 2012 and The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp as Tonto in 2013 used the Alabama Hills in their movies. The other-worldly look of the area also caught the eye of the Sci-Fi/fantasy crowd. It was a natural for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark in Iron Man also made an appearance in the Alabama Hills and scenes from Star Trek Generations and Star Trek the Final Generation were filmed there. And finally, the movie, Tremors, was filmed totally on location.

Quentin Tarantino donated the dentist’s wagon that was used in Django to the Lone Pine Museum of Film History.
The Lone Ranger looked like the Lone Ranger and Silver looked like Silver. But Tonto had a whole new look. Who would expect less from Johnny Depp?
Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark in “Iron Man” enjoys a photo op in the Alabama Hills with Mt. Whitney looming behind.
Star Trek also found the other-worldly nature of the Alabama Hills appropriate for outer space and boldly went there.
I’ll end my photos from the Lone Pine Museum of Film History with this prop from the movie “Tremors.” I think it looks appropriately alien, or is that nightmarish?

While this post has gone on long enough and you surely get the point of how important the Alabama Hills were to Hollywood, I just can’t help but mention a few more stars associated with movies that used scenes from the area: Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Tim Holt, David Niven, Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Hara, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, Jamie Fox, Demi Moore, Nicholas Cage, Jack Lemon, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, Brad Pitt, Robert Taylor, Jack Palance, Rita Hayworth, Vincent Price, Mel Gibson, Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, Henry Fonda, John Travolta, Mary Pickford, Richard Burton, Cuba Gooding, Bing Crosby, Alec Baldwin, Minnie Driver, Susan Hayward, Kevin Bacon, Rex Allen and Glen Ford. There are some I didn’t recognize but who made a ton of movies in the Alabama Hills in the 20s and 30s including Jack Hoxie, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones and Tom Tyler. There was also Rin Tin Tin, Ranger the Dog, and Johnathan Livingston Seagull! Enough you say? Google “List of movies made in the Alabama Hills” if you want to learn more. Finished. (Grin)

Two more photos. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had stiff competition in this post. I was working on their photo caption when this fellow popped up in the window in front of me and then laid down a few feet away. I had Peggy come in to take a photo over my shoulder of the latter.

NEXT POST: I’ll travel 10 miles up Highway 395 from Lone Pine and visit the World War II American-Japanese internment camp.

56 thoughts on “Cowboys, Aliens and Thuggees in the Alabama Hills … The Highway 395 Series

  1. An ancient joke: definition of an intellectual – one who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger. It probably doesn’t apply anymore unless you are as ancient as we are, Curt. 🙂

  2. WOW! I was already in the mood for westerns because of another writer- this sealed the deal. Really interesting history for a gorgeous area- thanks, Curt, for taking us along. (And to the fawn, all I can say is awwwwwww 🙂 )

    • Certainly a step back in time, Gerard, for me as well. I spent many a Saturday afternoon at the $.25 double feature matinee watching B level movies. Plus there were cartoons, space serials, and news reels. Quite the bargain. 🙂

  3. When i was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the Westerns. As I got older, I preferred sci-fi (probably because I became a science major early in school).

    • That was pretty much the path I followed as well, G, with movies, TV, and books. I read dozens of westerns including Zane Grey, Earnest Haybox and Luke Short. Books cost $.50 each. 🙂 –Curt

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Sylvia. It was fun putting together! Making WP behave was something else. And I never get tired of the fawns. There moms start bringing them around as soon as they stop hiding them down in our canyon, so It isn’t surprising they think of this as home. –Curt

    • Glad you enjoyed it Sylvia. It was fun to put together. As for the fawn, the moms start brining them around usually about two weeks after they are born and we never get tired of seeing them! –Curt

  4. “Who was that masked man?” Gave me chills remembering the excitement I felt as a kid, getting a rare glimpse of a TV screen and being lucky enough to see the Lone Ranger. I do actually think of Angela Lansbury in westerns because my grandfather acted in Hollywood for awhile, and was in a film with her. He didn’t go far. My grandfather was gorgeous. “But I was a terrible actor,” he explained to me. “I had leading man looks but they couldn’t cast me as lead because I didn’t know what I was doing. They couldn’t cast me in support roles because the leading men didn’t want me on the screen at the same time as them because I would get too much attention.” This was a fun post. Thanks for all the memories.

    • The most baffling thing about the Lone Ranger was that he wasn’t the sort of guy you would miss easily in a crowd. He wore a powder blue skintight costume and a broad brimmed white Stetson, wore a black mask to conceal his face, had a deep baritone voice and rode in a black buckled saddle on a magnificent white stallion called Silver. Tonto’s horse was called Scout by-the-way.

      It was surprising therefore that no one could ever recognise him! Interestingly the only thing that gave him away usually came at the end of the show and when asked who he was by a cerebrally challenged lawman he would pass the inquirer a silver bullet and then the penny would finally drop. “That was the Lone Ranger,” they would announce as the masked stranger and Tonto galloped off at an impossibly high-speed to the sound of Rossini’s William Tell overture.

    • Good to know that the girls as well as the boys went for the masked man, Crystal. And interesting about your grandfather. He must have been one handsome fellow. I wondered when I wrote about Annie Oakley, if young women ever considered her a role model. Thanks. –Curt

      • I remember Annie Oakley and thinking she was cool, but I didn’t think of her as often or as passionately as the big stars. As a small child, I just agreed with the world about who I was told was most impressive. And no one was telling me Annie was the big star. I think girls who had the inner sense to admire a strong woman as a child must be exceptional inside. I began having woman heroes later in life, like Sally Ride and Nadia Comeneci, when I was 11 or 12.

  5. These pictures and stories really being out smiles. What a great museum
    Dad was a John Wayne fan – and those were about the only movies we saw – at the drive-ins where you could take your pillow and blanket.
    Poor Buttermilk – never got the billing as Dale’s horse like Trigger did. Of course, Trigger was a wonder horse. I actually leaned over the rail at a rodeo and patted Trigger’s mane right behind his ears – we had be strictly told not to attempt to pet the horse, but Roy smiled and the horse didn’t seem to mind at all. He knew a fan. A fond memory. (This old comfortable plots and that Lone Ranger Creed might be welcomed these days – classic and timeless for kids)
    Also had to laugh about the tv invitation. I remember 6-8 of us neighborhood kids all lined up in front of Tracy’s front room picture window looking in where her mom rolled the TV set so we could see it – the only one on the block. No child every went into Tracy’s house. Her mom was one who got her kids up and dressed and locked them out of the house until lunch. Then after nap/pool closed (12-2) out they went again. You can imagine all the other moms were a tad irritated with her kids hanging out in their houses making messes all the time.
    Despite all the good stuff now, back then was a pretty good time to grow up.
    Good to see you wandering around again.

    • Love the Trigger story. There was a lot of competition between the top horses and I truly believe that the cowboy stars really loved their horses. I read one article about Hopalong Cassidy always riding in the Rose Bowl Parade, until his horse Topper died. Then he never rode again.
      I can see all of the kids lined up. The Greens weren’t particularly encouraging of visits either. Our mother didn’t exactly kick us out. We went out on our own with her blessing. We preferred to hang out in the woods as opposed to other kid’s homes, however. And there were moms in town who didn’t want us corrupting their children. 🙂 Thanks. –Curt

  6. Lots of classics there Curt. I had no idea about the Alabama hills. I have to say for me the final photos with your computer in the foreground and your four legged visitor stole the show.

  7. I wonder how many people have heard the whole William Tell Overture? I remember the first time I listened to it and being startled when the Lone Ranger Overture section fired up. “Hey, I know that tune!”

    That’s quite the collection of movies and actors. It would have been a great place to collect autographs. Thanks for the collation.

    • It was a while before I heard the whole symphony, Dave. And then it was too late. 🙂 As for collecting signatures, great idea, but you would have had to hang around for close to a hundred years to get all of them!

  8. I’m a little surprised by how little I know of early westerns — or even more recent ones, for that matter. Of course I grew up knowing the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and I had a Roy Rogers lunch box with a Dale Evans thermos, but the actual films just don’t resonate. Now, tv westerns are a different matter. There were several that we watched, but most of the details have faded.

    I’ve never heard of the ‘thuggees.’ I wondered whether our word ‘thug’ was derived from their activities, and of course the answer is yes. The Online Etymology Dictionary has some additional historical details here.

    • Good guess on thugs, Linda. I followed the same path you did on checking out the out the derivation.
      Our Saturday afternoons were spent at the matinees where we would often watch Westerns and sometimes both features were cowboy movies. At $.25, I think it was a cheap way to get us out from underfoot! TV came late in our household but we were glued to the radio in the late 40s and early 50s.

      I bought one of those Roy Roger’s DVDs of several of his movies awhile back but have yet to watch it. For some reason, Peggy doesn’t seem to be overly wild about it. 🙂 I may have to watch it in her absence. I’m interested in seeing how much the Alabama Hills are included.

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