VISITORS CAN FIND LOCATIONS OF MORE THAN TWENTY FILMS MADE IN THE BIG PINE AND BISHOP AREAS
By Christopher Langley, Eastern Sierra Film Historian
Exhibit on Display July 24 - Dec. 31, 2015
A lone horsemen, silhouetted against the looming purple Sierra Nevada Mountains, gallops through the Buttermilks to the rescue of a victimized female ranch owner, or a town of peace loving pioneers, to drive away or even kill the villain threatening them. Will he get there in time? Of course he will just towards the end of the last reel.
The landscapes of Inyo County frequently look familiar to visiting western film fans because so many of these films were made there since 1920. Of special interest to these visitors are the films of northern Inyo, including the towns of Big Pine and Bishop. Besides westerns, there are also films from horror, science fiction and mystery genres that shot scenes locally. It is fun to find where they actually placed the cameras and to stand where the heroes of yesterday’s silver screen stood. Some help can be found in this article as you set out top explore cinematic northern Inyo.
EXHIBIT OPEN July 24 - Dec 21, 2015 Full List Films (147)
When Clint Eastwood drove himself up to Bishop to start filming Joe Kidd (1972), he was not feeling well. The rumor in Hollywood became he was allergic to horses, which was preposterous. He felt it was a cat allergy, and once he changed living arrangements, he slowly began to feel better.
Kidd has grown in stature over time, and whatever ailed Eastwood, it didn’t show in the film. It was directed by John Sturges, written by accomplished “noir” writer Elmore Leonard. Kidd filmed significant scenes at the end of Buttermilk Road outside of Bishop and in Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills. A large set of a church and isolated Mexican village was constructed for the scenes in the Buttermilks, perhaps the largest set built for any Bishop film.
The plot tells the story of Mexican Luis Chama’s (John Saxon) attempts to recover Mexican lands he believes were stolen. He is opposed by land hungry Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall). It is a common story in the western genre where “land lust” foments violence, injustice and bone-grinding prejudice. These are heavy themes and the film struggles to carry the weight.
The director Sturges made many fine films in Inyo County but at this point was tired and his alcoholism was taking its toll. Eastwood stepped in, whether asked or not, and directed many parts of the film as documented in many of the candid photographs snapped at the time on location.
While the foundation of the church survived for a long time, it has been removed and the land returned to its original semi-primitive state. A fire swept through after the movie worked there, so both plant communities and pinyon pines that would have been handy as references are no longer available.
However, the set location is still remarkably easy to locate. First you travel out on Buttermilk Road beyond the boulder outcroppings. Just as the road begins to turn south, using the pictures in this publication you will see to the left a cylindrical rock, easily seen in a picture featuring Eastwood on horseback. A large flat area with fewer bushes than the land across the area is the area where the set was constructed. Hikers use a hiking path that parallels the road regularly. It is the trail that Harlan and his gang use to enter the village.
The cover of this publication features a marvelous landscape portrait of the area taken by Bishop photographer Bob Rice. He stood approximately where the set was built and the photograph will help you stand about where all the action took place.
The location is magnificent and it is easy to see that the art director, designers and producers chose it. So perfectly laid out is it that it works almost like a stage set for a play.
When you find it, stand there in the landscape grandeur and celebrate that one of the film icons of our time, sick as he was, worked his craft right there, under your feet.
Another film of interest is Will Penny (1968), starring Charlton Heston, Donald Pleasance and Joan Hackett. Heston does some of his best work and it is too bad the film did not get an effective release. It is worth a viewing if you have never seen it.
Where the direction fails is with the villains. Donald Pleasance as the Preacher Quint and his boys Rafe (Bruce Dern) and Romulus (Matt Clark) are either off the mark or over-the-top. Pleasance chews the scenery as only a great actor can do when let off the leash by the director. On the other hand Hackett as the young mother Catherine Allen delivers a poised and modulated performance and her son Horace played by the director’s son Jon Gries contributes an emotional and affecting portrayal.
This is one of those local movies where the setting assumes a role of its own. It looks cold, harsh with snow clouds hovering over the mountain ridges to the west much of the time. It is a Sierra winter; remember when it used to snow a lot? All the cast and crew had to get up from the warm motel beds, go out and face the cold, the wind and the storm clouds every day. The snowy weather is a perfect metaphor for the harshness of the life of the people in the 1880’s.
Again many of the scenes were shot out in the Buttermilks for those wanting to experience the great vistas of the movie.
Frontier Gal (1945); Brimstone (1949); and Frenchie (1950), all made around Bishop, contain three interesting to brilliant character portrayals in otherwise formulaic westerns. Gal stars Yvonne De Carlo and Frenchie Shelley Winters playing powerful, self-assured saloon owners with hidden soft sides earning a living in one of two jobs, available to women in the West as one character remarks: entertainment services or teaching.
De Carlo plays a feisty yet seductive woman at a disadvantage because it is a man’s world. While protesting her hatred for Rod Cameron, she is constantly flirting and wooing him, finally tricking him to marriage when he saw their relationship as a mere dalliance on the trail. Wrongfully accused, of murder he spends six years in prison only to come back to find out the couple have a child. That is what in the end brings them together. Winters, on the hand, is an equal to her costar Joel McCrea as the sheriff Tom Banning, and their courtship takes second place to the story of revenge.
In Brimstone, Walter Brennan plays a vicious, vindictive patriarch (Brimstone “Pop” Courteen) who destroys his sons, and damages his community and the new settlers. through his robbery and revenge for the perceived wrongs. Although a still suggests otherwise, there is no love story between star Rod Cameron and Adrian Booth.
As for visitors looking for locations, Gal cast and crew stayed both in Bishop and Tom’s Place before moving on to Mammoth. The first week they shot several scenes around Bishop and Tom’s place, and then on to Tipperary Ranch area by Mammoth. Brimstone shot many scenes in the winter-worn Buttermilks, using tricolor film that made the landscape appear even bluer and thus colder in the film. Again available stills are rather limited but the industrious fan can take “grabs” from the film and venture out. Frenchie worked in several areas near Bishop including The Kinmont Rocking K Ranch where Miss Winters took a swim nearly every day after work. The Rocking K is now privately owned and not available for fan visits. The crew also stayed at the Town House Motel, which you can still find on the west side of Bishop’s Main Street.
Other Side of the Mountain (1975) is the true-life story of skier Jill Kinmont who moved with her family to Bishop so that her father could run Rocking K Dude Ranch. The film tells the story of the young skier’s grievous injury that interrupted her rise to becoming an Olympic star. Other film locations include the Bishop Paiute-Shoshone Reservation and Mammoth where she learned to ski. Some local houses in and around Bishop and in Round Valley were also used.
When touring the Alabama Hills with Supervisor Beverly Brown, she alerted me to the fact that Cherokee Strip shot on Bishop Creek and on family property there. When I located a copy, I found the plot exciting and the locations well used. I have never seen Bishop Creek and surrounding areas look better in a film.
The plot is powered by a family feud, with Richard Dix heading up the Morrell family and Victor Jory representing the Barrett family. Of course, you can count on Jory being the bad guy with a proclivity for black clothes. He sets up a bank, after a truce is called, for laundering money. He has a gang rustling the Morrell ranch cattle. Senator Cross is championing opening up the Cherokee Strip for settlement (thus the film’s title). The Senator’s daughter played strongly by Florence Rice is charged with surveying the population for her father. Dix has assumed the role of Marshal for the area, and confrontation is inevitable with a spectacular gunfight deciding things.
Director Fritz Lang’s adversarial relationship with star Henry Fonda while filming outside of Bishop for The Return of Frank James (1940) stimulated a fine performance by Fonda, but insured he’d never work with the director again.
Bishop responded warmly to star Henry Fonda and ignored Lang’s presence while on location. Frank James was made an honorary citizen of Inyo-Mono according to The Inyo Independent. The paper stated, “The honor came to Frank James posthumously, as a reward for services rendered in boosting this vacationland, and not as a bribe for refraining from carrying his depredations to the Sierra Nevada.”
Since it might seem a little strange to make a bank robber an honorary citizen, the reporter explained the motivation of the city. “Inyo-Mono’s gratitude to the memory of Frank James was based on purely practical grounds. First, the motion picture company is spending $100,000 in this region. And, second, the two counties’ travel association is counting on the film to sell this region to America as California’s prize all-year vacation spot.”
Gavin Lambert writing several years after the release of “Return,” theorized, “The clear air and the sweeping landscapes of the West seemed to stimulate Lang only as a painter, for it is in his markedly tasteful and exploratory use of Technicolor that the main interest in the film lies. The landscapes were soft and luminous; they have a rich and idyllic glow.”
Henry Fonda and the crew of the film made the most of the opening of fishing season. The Inyo Independent of May 10, 1940 stated, “Publicity man Ray Dannenbaum and the cast entering into the spirit of opening of trout season took several pictures of the star of the picture Henry Fonda, acting as a judge of the fish display in Bishop.”
Other stories from the set involved the opening of fishing season as well. “Opening of fishing the company was shooting up Bishop Creek. Early in the day so many fishermen walked through the ‘shots’ that the director had to put up guard lines to keep visiting fishermen out.” The story continued “Rosie Rosenberg, famous football player for USC in the 1930’s now a technician with the company was put to work ‘blocking’ fishermen who wandered in and out of the shots.”
After the technicians saw the 12 pounder caught by local Slick Bryant at the fish display, they were as focused on fishing as filming, much to the director’s annoyance. “One ‘props’ man rigged up a hook and line and willow pole and caught fish in the stream while tending a reflector on the bank of the stream.”
Deer hunters had cause to thank the movie company as well. “To get into ‘Little Egypt’ famous for its deer hunting, the company built a road at its own expense. Hunters will now be able to drive there instead of hiking.”
Roy Rogers’s favorite film was My Pal Trigger (1946) which starred his wife Dale Evans, (Susan Kendrick) and his sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes in a serious role as horse breeder Gabby Kendrick, Susan’s father. The story revolves around Roy searching for a suitable horse to breed with his mare named Lady. Kendrick has a thoroughbred named Golden Sovereign who escapes with Lady who produces Trigger. Golden Sovereign is killed and now Triggers is carrying his genes. One of the great scenes takes place on Sherwin Grade with Swall Meadows and the Sierra in the background. Lady fights off a mountain lion to defend her colt and it is both dramatic, well choreographed and the setting sparkles in the clean air.
Errol Flynn was the quintessential drinking carousing Hollywood bad boy and was difficult, combative and irresponsible when he came to work in Bishop on Silver River (1948). The Inyo Independent reported on June 6, “The Buttermilk country became one vast motion picture set on Monday when Director Raoul Walsh began filming scenes for Silver River which will cover most of that area and take in the High Sierra within camera range. Other sections of the nearby foothills, still to be determined, will also serve as settings for action in the picture.” Many scenes throughout the film have this familiar territory as backdrop. Once when Flynn is thinking of his empire he gestures towards the Owens Valley promising someday it will be full of people.
Another film that used the Buttermilks is Night Passage (1957) starring James Stewart and Audie Murphy. It was meant to be another Stewart-Director Anthony Mann collaboration, but Mann dropped out because of schedule conflicts and his disagreement over the casting of Audie Murphy. The film also used a new process called Technirama developed by Technicolor. It “helped make the blue skies crisper and brighten the fall foliage photographed by cinematographer William H. Daniels.” The film is a railroad story and the Buttermilks serve as a beautiful “bridge” connecting great railroad shots in Colorado with the western landscapes in California. IMDB credits the main scenes as being Cerro Gordo. This is not correct although I cannot identify where they were shot.
The massive, commercial and Cinerama format film How the West Was Won (1962) also used locations in the Owens Valley, including Lone Pine and the lakes above Bishop. While the film does not really intend to explain the powerful historical forces about the settling of the West, it is a necessary film for any western film fan to see. The new restoration and extras including shots by stuntman Loren Janes who worked on the film help explain the filmmaking behind the epic, if not the historical perspective of the actual “conquering” of the West.
Two of the three films around Bishop in the 1930s were aviation films. They were Airmail (1932) directed by John Ford and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur and directed by auteur Howard Hawks.
Air Mail was primarily filmed at Universal Studios but many of the exciting action scenes happened around in the air over Bishop. In one spectacular shot, stunt pilot Paul Mantz outbid all the union pilots and after a contract dispute was settled, flew a Boeing Stearman through a hangar at the Bishop airport in a death-defying stunt, never before included in an action film. Critical reviews praised the atmospheric settings but questioned the plots involving the on the ground relationships of the characters. Mourdant Hall of The New York Times wrote, “’Air Mail’ is handicapped by sequences that are either too long or too melodramatic. But it atones partly for these shortcomings by interesting details in a flying station…known as Desert Airport.”
In the set-up for Howard Hawks’ 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings, Cary Grant runs a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” airline out of Barranca, Ecuador. He delivers the mail inland; along with just about anything else someone is willing to pay to have flown in. Flying in from the coast to the mountainous area requires the planes to navigate mountain passes at fourteen thousand feet. These passes are often lost in snowstorms and the planes must wait for a brief clearing to make it through.
Sounds perfect for coming on location to Bishop Airport. That’s exactly what representatives for Columbia Pictures did on January 20, 1939 to “complete arrangements for filming of local scenes on the picture ‘Plane Number Nine’,” according to the writer in The Inyo Independent. Plane Number Nine was the working title of the film eventually released as Only Angels Have Wings, which would kick off a run of classic films by director Howard Hawks over the next eight years.
The paper reported, “Bishop Flying Service’s hangar will be disguised to appear in some shots as an airport high in the Andes of South America.” Stunt pilot Paul Mantz again supplied much of the flying footage used in the film, some of which obviously was made over the Bishop area of the Owens Valley.
Bishop hosted two very different films in the following decade: a Will Rogers comic remake of a silent film he did with Clarence Badger and a World War 2 thriller starring Joan Crawford.
Will Rogers made fully 15 silent films with Lone Pine’s resident director Clarence Badger in the early 1920’s. Badger built what is now called the Cuffe Ranch as a fishing lodge and many of Hollywood’s greats including Rogers made the trip there. He remade the Badger-directed film Jubilo (1919), as Too Busy to Work (1932) with a few plot improvements and sound, in 1932 using the Abelour ranch outside of Bishop and director John Blystone. His character’s name remained Jubilo and he sang the Civil War song “Kingdom Coming (Year of Jubilo)” by Henry C. Work.
The film is underplayed by Rogers and the pace is slow by modern “hyper-drive” films standards. Scenes are developed with few cuts, a far cry from the thirty shot rate we see commonly in films today. It may have well matched the pace in the society around Bishop during the Depression however. There is a scene where one of the workers on Judge Hardy’s ranch is swimming in Bishop Creek, and not only is there lots of water but many scenes showing the gorgeous landscape setting of the area.
Pam Vaughn in her excellent Arcadia book Bishop tells us more about the ranch. She points out that the silo and foundations still stand out by Millpond. The ranch was founded by A.W. Longley from Chicago and managed by William Tinder. They raised sheep and purebred livestock such as Holstein cattle. The property was sold to the Southern Sierra Power Company in 1921, then to the DWP. The Inyo Lumber Company leased it for a sawmill, “and the business used the building for employee housing.” Pam states, “It was later destroyed by flames.” It was located on the land today we call Mill Pond.
In Above Suspicion (1942) Joan Crawford plays a bride on her honeymoon. She is drafted with her husband by the government to be a spy because she is seemingly “above suspicion” to the Nazis. That the couple has absolutely no experience in espionage and that they want her for the mission is equally improbable.
However, it was made in 1942, with some scenes shot around the hills and mountains above Bishop, in a time when everyone was supposed to do his and her part in the war effort. The movie is very complicated with the couple following mysterious clues but with a bit of “suspension of disbelief” it is entertaining and nearly works.
Several of the men in the early part of the film, including her husband, dismiss Frances in that condescending way men then reserved for competent women. We see Bishop and one brief overview of the Valley when the couple is fleeing across the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy, although the country is called “southern Germany” instead.
Horror and science fiction genre films did occasionally come to Bishop. Man Beast (1956) is one of those films that is fun to watch simply because of continuity problems, movie naiveté and a very limited budget. However, once you are beyond these pronounced limitations, there is a certain underlying interest that comes out of the myth of the “hairy wild man” that is found in folklore since medieval times. Now scholars have traced it even further back in human history.
I want to add that the photography is really good, especially what is called second unit establishing and climbing scenes. The scenes of the climbing doubles are well integrated with the shots of the main actors. The cast must have been uncomfortable for the climate is quite harsh and rocky, challenging as anyone who has been in the Sierra or the White Mountains in the winter would immediately recognize.
Two other sci fi films shot scenes in and around the Bishop area. The Arrival (1996) has the Cal Tech “Big Ears” (Owens Valley Radio Observatory) rolling around like tops in a very effective special effect. The film also used houses in Bishop. G.I. Joe 2 Retaliation (2014) also shot in Bishop and they had the wrap party at Bishop Bowl.
Known locally as Stallion at the time, probably because of the name of the production company, Death Falls (1991) is a film that worked extensively in and around Bishop, using ranches, housing and even people from the area. Starring Rip Torn and Beverly Garland, the film tells the story of a friend who breaks his dying long time chum out of the hospital to give him a chance to die the way he wants, and the posse that chases them. The proverbial “death falls” however are the falls up at the Whitney Portal in Lone Pine, and many shots preceding these are in the Alabama Hills. The cast and crew also stayed in Bishop.
The modern thriller Disturbia (2007) begins with an establishing sequence where Shia LaBoeuf and his family are vacationing and fly fishing around Bishop Creek. On the way home there is a terrible automobile accident and he is left to fend for himself and thus become the target of the psycho next-door neighbor played by a villainous David Morse. It remains a kind of poor man’s Rear Window, but the Bishop Creek scenes are well done.
We finish this discussion of Bishop films with where it all began. These three films do not exist in any known format today, sadly, part of the 80% of lost films from before 1930. The Border Legion (1924) starring heartthrob Antonio Moreno filmed in and around the hills outside of Bishop. The production visit was recorded by the Inyo Progress Citizen with a production picture included at the time Paramount was back making Will Penny. In the picture can be seen some of the mountains in the Pine Creek area and director William Howard.
The Golden Princess (1925) was made by Clarence Badger in the Rock Creek area and starred Betty Bronson, fresh from her success in Peter Pan. Many other areas in the Bishop area were used and there are even some photographs that were found at Badger’s house in Lone Pine of crew members standing on West Line Street.
We close out this study of Bishop and Big Pine films with mention of The Wedding March (1927) directed by the famous German filmmaker Erich Von Stroheim. He was a stickler for realism, having made Greed, originally a 9.5-hour film, in Death Valley in 1923 during the summer. March was so long it was broken into two movies, the second being called The Honeymoon. Unfortunately while March survives, The Honeymoon was only released in Europe and no copy is known to exist. The foundation of the set remains above Glacier Lodge outside of Big Pine and much confusion remains about it. Frazer published a picture of it and identified it as a movie set, but it is only similar to, but not identical to, the studio version of it as seen in the book The Complete Wedding March, a compilation of all the stills known to exist of the film.
The set was altered some and was used by the Glacier Lodge as a site for their visitors to hike to and have cocktails in the afternoon provided by the lodge staff. For the hardy movie fan it is a worthwhile trek even today, although just a foundation remains. Sorry, you will have to bring your own cocktails as the Lodge burned some years ago.
In closing, Bishop has much to be proud of in its unique and varied film history. It is a long and distinguished history with many fine films represented. It is fun to use some of the illustrations in this article to actually go out and find exactly where the camera was placed when Hollywood came on location to Bishop, California.
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