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.

The Alabama Hills: A 100-Year Love Affair with Hollywood… The Highway 395 Series

The Alabama Hills as seen from Lone Pine with Lone Pine Peak looming above.

I’m back! While the three months of hanging out at our home and taking care of my brother may not seem like long, it felt like an eternity.  I have one more post to write on the experience but it is going to have to wait. It’s play time. While Peggy decided that she needed a kid/grandkid fix and headed east, I decided I needed a road trip. I loaded up Quivera the Van and took off down Highway 395 along the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, one of America’s most scenic and interesting drives. 

My journey started in Reno visiting the National Automobile Museum. Even if you don’t care a rat’s behind about old cars, I can pretty much guarantee Bill Harrah’s collection will awe you. (Rat’s behind? I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” and have been inspired by his colorful choice of words.) From there, I headed south, enjoying the sheer grandeur of the mountains with side trips to Virginia City where Samuel Clemens assumed the name Mark Twain, the ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake with its strange, other worldly tuff towers, a mountain of obsidian, the World War II Japanese internment camp of Manzanar, and finally the Alabama Hills next to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney. 

I stayed in summer-touristy but interesting towns, visited local museums, learned about water wars, and ate some great food. I’ll take you inside the ‘world famous’ Schat’s Bakery in Bishop where simply stepping through the door guarantees that you gain five pounds, and we will stop at the Copper Top, a hole in the wall front yard family bar-b-que in Big Pine that was named America’s best restaurant in 2014 by Yelp. Yep, its ribs and tri-tip are to die for. When the restaurant is closed, you can get the tri-tip from a vending machine.

Originally, my goal was to head farther south to where Highway 395 intersects I-15 and ends. The road had originally gone all of the way to Mexico but had been done in by bulldozers and Southern California freeways. You can still follow the highway to Canada through remote country where there are fewer people and bulldozers. My primary objective had been to visit the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans museum in Victorville near the highway’s terminus. It wasn’t that I was so interested in Roy and Dale, I wanted to see Roy’s horse, Trigger. The singing cowboy had him stuffed. Visiting the horse had been on my agenda for a long, long time. Boy, was I out of date. Googling Trigger, I discovered that the museum had closed in 2003 and the horse had been moved to Branson, Missouri. (I’ve been to Branson; there are lots of strange things there.) Trigger never achieved the stardom in Missouri that he had out West, however. It could be that most of his fans from the 40s and 50s have ridden off into the sunset. Maybe if Dale had stuffed Roy…

Along the way, I was going to make a side trip to the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest with its focus on the petroglyphs of the Coso Range. That trip ended up on shaky ground, however. The 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes near the town at the beginning of the month persuaded me that the museum could wait. I just read that there have been thousands of aftershocks since. That’s a whole lot of shaking going on.

Today I will restart my blog— get back in the saddle, so to speak— with a drive through the Alabama Hills, which I think you will find unique and beautiful. I did. Having the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains as backdrops doesn’t hurt. The set locators, directors, actors, script writers and film crews of the over 400 Hollywood movies made in the area starting in the 1920s obviously found the hills attractive. But I will get into the details of the movies in my next post when I will take you into the Lone Pine Film History Museum where Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger rub elbows with the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Ann Francis and Spock, not to mention Trigger, Silver, Rin Tin Tin and Buttermilk. Buttermilk!? Hmmm. Okay, you trivia fans, who was Buttermilk?

I first thought that the Alabama Hills had been named by some homesick prospector from the East. That happened a lot in the 1850s, 60s and 70s. Heck, the lonely miners were even known to name mountain lakes after their favorite prostitutes. What I learned, however, was that Southern sympathizers named the hills after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate War ship that had caused the Union considerable strife by taking some 66 merchant ships valued at over six million dollars during its brief two-year career. Its success was finally ended when the Union sloop of war, the Kearsarge, caught up with the ship at Cherbourg, France and sank her. Other prospectors in the Lone Pine area who were sympathetic with the North, named their mine the Kearsarge. The name lives on in the Kearsarge Pass along the John Muir Trail.

A painting of the CSS Alabama.
My nephew Jay and I on Kearsarge Pass. Even at 16, he was towering over me. You may recall that Jay, now in his 30s, backpacked a hundred miles with me last year when I was hiking down the PCT.

But enough on background. Let’s rock!

Large, colorful rocks with a dramatic backdrop provided by mountains are what make the Alabama Hills special.
Another favorite of mine.
Quite the jumble here. Can you spot the crow resting on the far right rock?
I captured a fun shot of it taking off. I had our Canon EOS Rebel along this time as well as my Canon Power Shot. I was able to take decent telephotos!
Can’t you just see a stagecoach going full speed along this road chased by a group of desperadoes?
And then racing across this valley. Or maybe it was the Lone Ranger with his faithful companion Tonto chasing the band of desperadoes. Hi-yo Silver! Get-em-up Scout!
This sign is located at the beginning of Movie Flats.
The surrounding mountains add drama to the Alabama Hills. These are the Inyo Mountains to the east.
The Sierras are to the west. This photo features Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United State. The dark trees in the foreground are Whitney Portal, the starting point for climbing the mountain from the east. I’ve always started from the west side of the mountain. The trail to the top runs along the ridge line. There is one place only a few feet across with a thousand foot drop on each side. Some fun on a windy day!
A different perspective on the Sierras.
And another on the Inyo Mountains.
Getting back to individual rocks, this one was impressive.
So I rendered it in black and white, just like you would see in the dozens of cowboy movies dating all the way back to the silent film era.
Here are a few more interesting rocks.
The white containers protect plants.
I conclude as I started, with a photo of the Alabama Hills from Lone Pine. This time I took the photo in the evening and had Mt. Whitney as a backdrop.

NEXT POST: A visit to the Lone Pine Film History Museum.