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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.