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Revisiting Hollywood’s Back Yard

Revisiting Hollywood’s Back Yard

I fell in love with Lone Pine, California all over again this
weekend, having been away a number of years. The 24th Annual Lone
Pine Film Festival beckoned me back, and it didn’t take long to fall under the
spell of Mount Whitney and the majestic Sierra peaks that overlook the town. 

Once I got out into the Alabama Hills, where so many movies have been shot over the past century, I was a goner. You can visit settings for everything from Gunga Din and High Sierra to Lives of a Bengal Lancer. The icing on the cake is a dream-come-true that didn’t exist when my family and I were first introduced to Lone Pine by the late Dave Holland: the world-class Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History. Its exhibits include movie memorabilia, unique costumes and props right up to the dentist’s wagon used in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

The festival presents screenings of Westerns filmed in and
around Lone Pine, panel discussions, and best of all, guided tours out into the
rocks. I took the Westward Ho tour
conducted by Jan and Michael Houle, who diligently tracked down key locations
used by John Wayne and Republic Pictures’ hard-working team in 1935. There was
one spot where we saw with our own eyes how the enterprising director and
cameraman took advantage of five separate “locations” by simply turning their
lens about 45 degrees. No one could have guessed that the radically different
backdrops provided by the sagebrush and rock formations were steps away from
one another.

Podiums originally prepared by Dave Holland, who pioneered
these location “finds,” are still in use, so you can stand in a given spot,
examine a vintage movie still, then look up and see how the rocks stand,
unchanged by time since Hopalong Cassidy and other cowboy stars filmed there
decades ago. I doubt that any true movie buff could remain unmoved.

On opening night there was a reception at the Museum,
followed by a concert featuring two fine Western singers, Belinda Gail and R.W.
Hampton. Friday morning the festival was off and running. That evening at the
high school auditorium we watched Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, and I interviewed two of its cast members
onstage: Mariette Hartley and L.Q. Jones. Revisiting the film with an appreciative
audience, on a big screen, proved to be unexpectedly emotional for both of them
and brought back a flood of bittersweet memories. Mariette was overcome at
first, and explained that the production—her very first experience in a
movie–came at a vulnerable moment in her young life: she was caught in an
abusive marriage and had to play an abused daughter onscreen. Her only regret
is that she didn’t take advantage of being with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott
to learn about their long and interesting careers. When I complimented L.Q. on
his moving death scene, he revealed that Peckinpah made him shoot it fifteen times, causing makeup men to repeatedly
patch up his face after it was bloodied by rolling over the rough, rocky
terrain. The sold-out crowd appreciated the actors’ candor in reliving their
experience working with the quixotic director and their two stalwart stars.

Returning guests included stuntman Loren Janes, Republic
Pictures’ leading lady Peggy Stewart (who’s still going strong at 90), Clu
Gulager, Andrew Prine, child actor Billy King, who worked in three Hopalong
Cassidy films, and Diamond Farnsworth, a longtime stuntman (like his dad, the
great Richard Farnsworth) who now works as second-unit director on NCIS. When he hosted a program on stunt work
there was no shortage of questions from the audience.

It was lovely catching up with old friends like Cheryl
Rogers Barnett, daughter of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and her husband Larry,
as well as Melinda Carey, daughter of Harry Carey, Jr., who told me she is
planning to reprint her dad’s wonderful book Company of Heroes and has found a cache of unpublished
material—enough to fill a second book.

On Saturday night, film historian Ed Hulse and I took to the
stage following a screening of another locally-filmed widescreen Western, Ride Lonesome, starring Randolph Scott,
directed by Budd Boetticher and written by Burt Kennedy. We weren’t sure if the
attendees would find our musings about the film nearly as interesting as the
first-hand recollections of the previous evening, but to our great relief they
were highly attentive and posed interesting questions. Best of all, when
someone asked about Scott’s horse, another audience member knew his name
(Starlight). Someone else provided us with a perfect postscript: following his
retirement, Scott made sure the animal was well cared for at nearby Anchor
Ranch for the rest of his life.

to say, this is an unusually savvy movie audience, as befits the festival’s
rarefied setting. I can’t wait to return. I offer my congratulations and thanks
to all the people who work so hard to make the annual event so enjoyable. If
you want to learn more about Lone Pine Film Festival (and its wonderful museum)
click HERE. 

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