Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Empire Ranch: Action! in Southern Arizona

The Empire Ranch is just the kind of place Heyes and Curry might have worked at when they couldn’t avoid ranch work.  Located in southern Arizona, about 30 miles from the Mexican border, Empire Ranch was founded in the 1860s on 160 acres as a homestead.  It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which would have suited the ex-outlaws fine, although the small town of Sonoita is nearby.  At the present time, it’s still a working cattle ranch but a foundation administers the site, which is situated on Bureau of Land Management land.
View around Empire Ranch; Biscuit Mountain is in the center
On the first weekend on November, the Empire Ranch Foundation holds its annual “Round Up.”  There are talks about Western, Old West and cowboy life, presentations by and about the people who used to live and work at the ranch, demonstrations of horsemanship and shooting, cowboy entertainment and food, kids’ activities and, my favorite, sessions about the Westerns that were filmed on the ranch.
Entertainment area
You see, Empire Ranch was not just a working cattle ranch, it was also a movie set!  Actually, a few TV series also filmed there: Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Young Riders.  Some of the movies that I’ve reviewed on this blog filmed scenes there, too, such as 3:10 to Yuma (the original), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Winchester ’73, to name just a few.  More on this shortly.

Since this was my first time at Empire Ranch, I wanted to see as much as I could.  And even though I spent about five hours there (and another couple hours driving each way to and from, and passed through through Border Control checkpoints because it was so close to Mexico), I still missed out on a couple things.  I wanted to see the Dutch oven cooking demonstration but by the time I got there, they were packing up to leave.  And I completely forgot to get a cup of Arbuckles coffee inside the main ranch house--dang!
Back entrance to main part of the ranch house
But here’s what I did see and do:

There was a demonstration of roping cattle going on when I arrived.  This was in a small arena and a few men on horseback showed how to do it.

I watched for about 15 minutes and then moved on.  I could see why Heyes and Curry might get tired of looking after cattle for days on end.

I had a very interesting discussion with a rancher about cattle brands.  I learned that rustling is still a problem here!  I also learned that all Arizona-registered brands can be searched on the Arizona Department of Agriculture website and when someone wants to design a new brand, the state has to investigate and make sure it isn’t similar to one already in use.  It costs $75 to register a brand and the process takes a couple months.  And I learned that although fancy brands look nice, simpler ones are better because they are easier to see clearly and to make.  The rancher, Mr. Shock, had a table with various branding tools as well as other tools used for ranching.
Display of ranching tools
Another thing I learned from him is which particular tool ranchers prefer to use when castrating bulls.  But ‘nuff said on that!

Most of my time was spent learning about the movies that were filmed at Empire Ranch.  One talk was by two stuntmen, Rodd Wolff and Bunker De France.  This was fascinating!
Rodd Wolff on left, Bunker De France on right
They told stories about the movies they worked on and the actors and directors they worked with, including John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Jack Elam (Boot Coby in Bad Night in Big Butte).  They also discussed how some stunts were done and the safety measures they took to prevent injury.
Harness used when a stuntman had to fall off a horse
Another talk was by Marty Freese, who is the historian at Old Tucson Studios.  What a great job that must be!  He showed lobby cards of movies filmed at Empire Ranch, starting with the earliest movie, and discussed them in chronological order.  The landscape surrounding the ranch is not the same as Tucson because the elevation is around 5,000 feet; it looks more like high desert or prairie than the Sonoran desert with its cacti.  So movies could film at Old Tucson Studios and then go out to Empire Ranch and it would look very different.  But, just like at Old Tucson, there was a mountain called Biscuit Mountain (see the photograph at the top of this post) by the locals that often featured in the background of movies shot at Empire Ranch.

The third movie-related talk I attended was the one I was most eager to hear.  That’s because it was five men discussing the work they did on Westerns.  Rodd Wolff and Bunker De France participated as did Bob Shelton, along with Marty Freese who moderated.  The other participant was, drum roll please: Don Collier -- Mr. Tompkins in The Young Riders!
Don Collier
He was also in High Chaparral and mentioned that show’s upcoming convention next March in Tucson.  It was really cool to hear him discuss his career, although with four other people on the podium, he didn’t have all that much speaking time in the one hour slotted for this “Cowboy Conversation,” as these talks were called.

Mr. Collier didn’t talk about The Young Riders but afterwards, I went up and told him I was a fan (though I like ASJ more) and asked him about his time on the show.  He said he really enjoyed working with all those young actors, as he put it.  I also asked him what his favorite episode was and...can you guess?  It was the Season 2 episode called Pride and Prejudice; the one when Tompkins’ wife and daughter are “rescued” from the Indians who abducted them years ago.  That was one of my favorite episodes, too!

The last talk I heard was by John Larkin, an expert on the guns of the Old West.  He had a large collection of hand guns, rifles and shotguns and explained the history of many of them.  I saw a Winchester ’73, a Colt Peacemaker, a Schofield (Heyes’ weapon of choice: Wow!) and pistols used by Bill Hickok, though I’m not sure if they were authentic or replicas.
Mr. Larkin and maybe a Winchester '73
One thing Mr. Larkin said stood out for me: Gun belts of the sort that Heyes and Curry wore weren’t used in actual fact because it was awkward and too time-consuming to reach around and pull out a bullet from a belt like that, especially when doing it quickly.  Instead, men just kept their bullets loose in small leather pouches.

Time was running out so I walked quickly through the exhibit in the main house that told the story of Empire Ranch.  I spent a few minutes chatting with several writers who had tables set up inside to promote their books, all of which dealt with the West in one way or another.
Two of the several authors promoting their books about the West
Then I took a quick walk down to the beginning of the Heritage Discovery Trail, a scenic path that goes to, well, I'm not sure because I didn’t follow it.
Gate at start of Heritage Discovery Trail

By then it was getting late and I didn’t want to drive back along isolated roads by myself in the dark.  Like Curry and Heyes, I wanted a warm meal and a nice bed at the end of a long but very enjoyable day! 


Related Links:


History of Empire Ranch

General information about Empire Ranch

List of movies filmed at Empire Ranch

Monday, May 11, 2015

Convict Stage

With such a great title, Convict Stage should be a great movie.  Unfortunately, this 1965 black-and-white film does not live up its name.  It starts off with a stagecoach robbery that turns violent with the murder of the driver, shotgun messenger, and a young, female passenger.  The joking by the robbers, two young brothers named Jeb and Johnny Sims, shows their callousness.

Unfortunately for them, the young woman they gunned down was the sister of Ben Lattimore, a gunfighter married to a woman who doesn’t approve of guns, who is played by Harry Lauter.  Ben is the star of Convict Stage and the rest of the movie follows him as he attempts to exact justice for his sister.  His initial adversary and eventual ally is Marshal Jethro Karnin, played by Donald Barry.  Lattimore wants to just kill the Sims brothers but the marshal has a sworn duty to get them to trial so he is taking them by stage from Apache Wells to Prescott, a 24-hour journey.  One interesting point about Lattimore is his clothes: He wears a suit and regular shoes instead of cowboy duds.

Naturally, there are a few civilian passengers on the stage as well, since the stage company has a business to run.  Just like Stagecoach Seven, there are eight people riding the stage.  But this time, it’s the two women who ride up top—because it’s safer than being inside with the two murderers, even though they are handcuffed.  The man, a drummer, is forced to ride inside instead and he is none too happy about that, the mirror opposite of the TV episode.  Convict Stage introduced all these people rather quickly and it was at first confusing to keep them straight because not enough background information about them was given, but it became clearer as the movie went on.

Naturally, the stage encounters one problem after another.  Unbeknownst to the marshal, one of the women is actually the mother of the Sims brothers.  Played by Hanna Landy, she is the best part of Convict Stage.  Amoral and a crack shot in her own right, she apparently led her sons into a life of crime as the leader of a gang and is now dead set on rescuing them.

Faced with a bridge that was blown up and no way to cross a river, the stage heads instead to Calico, a ghost town they passed earlier, to hole up and prepare for the showdown Lattimore and the marshal know is coming.  The audience sees Ma Sims, who pretends to be a demure little old lady, playing the other people as she, too, prepares for the showdown by the other members of her gang. 

She and the other woman, who turns out to be Lattimore’s wife although that isn’t known by the other people, cook a dinner of beans for everyone but before the older woman is allowed to bring the food to the prisoners, the marshal says she has to be searched, which reminded me of the scene in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, when Penny (Belinda Montgomery) was asked to search the old woman played by Walter Brennan in drag.  As in the TV episode, the young lady in this movie missed the gun hidden in the stocking of the old lady, although unlike ASJ, here it was an unintentional oversight.

The shootout at the end of Convict Stage was the best part of the movie.  It was well done and had enough uncertainty to keep me watching and wondering what would happen next.  I won’t give any spoilers but I will say I noticed a few similarities to the gunfighting scenes in Stagecoach Seven.

Throughout this movie, I kept thinking of 3:10 to Yuma.  The premise of Convict Stage was the same—get a shackled prisoner from one place to another for trial and face a series of obstacles along the way.  However, each of those versions is a much better film than this 71-minute movie.

One of the bonus features was interesting, though: Besides stills and lobby cards for the movie, and trailers for five other Westerns, there was also a “Pressbook Gallery” feature that contained newspaper articles about the film and the actors in it; the background information was informative.   

Convict Stage was filmed entirely on location in Kanab, Utah, and the landscape definitely helped raise the movie up a notch.  As a B-movie, Convict Stage is just about acceptable but it certainly won’t be winning any awards from me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mescal on TV

DVD cover
Alias Smith and Jones aired in the early 1970s and the show was filmed at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  Part of the third season was filmed on location in Moab, Utah, which stood in for Wyoming.  (Which made me really want to visit Wyoming--imagine my surprise when I finally visited the state in 2011 and it turned out to look nothing like the Wyoming in the TV show!)  Fortunately, it is possible to visit both places and I did so in 2008 and 2010.  It was a thrill to see where the episodes were actually filmed and what the Universal sets and Moab really looked like.  Another location I recently had the opportunity to visit was Mescal, near Tucson, Arizona, which is part of Old Tucson Studios.

DVD cover
Beginning in 1974 and for the following nine seasons, Little House on the Prairie was broadcast on NBC.  Starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, it was based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Although I really enjoyed the books, I was never a fan of the TV show.  When I visited Old Tucson Studios in 2010, I was interested to learn that it had been filmed there and I saw some of the sets that were used in the show.
Close-up of LH building
When I visited Mescal a few days ago, I learned that Little House had also filmed at that location.  Mr. Frank Brown, the caretaker who lives on site and gives guided tours of Mescal, pointed out a building that was alternately used as either the school or the town hall in the TV show.
Little House schoolhouse
Completely incongruously, this building is located right
next to the field that was the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral in the movie Tombstone.  This building is not in the best condition but the sets at Old Tucson Studios have been better maintained. 

The main attraction of Mescal for me, however, was the fact that another TV Western was shot there.  For three years, from 1989 to 1992, Mescal was the main location of filming for The Young Riders. Airing on ABC, this show was a fictionalized account of the adventures
DVD cover
of Pony Express riders and it quickly became one of my favorite shows of that decade.  One of the stars was Anthony Zerbe who played Teaspoon, a former Texas Ranger, and perhaps one reason I liked the show so much was because he and I share the same birthday.  The rest of the main cast included several young actors, a couple of whom have become much more well known: Josh Brolin as James Butler Hickock, aka Wild Bill Hickock, and Stephen Baldwin as William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill.

Marshal's office
Set in Sweetwater, Nebraska, the first season cast also included Melissa Leo as Emma and Brett Cullen as Sam Cain, the town marshal.  Quite a few scenes occurred at the marshal’s office.  The building is about halfway down the main street of Mescal on the left, as you enter from the parking area.  A small building
YouTube shot of marshal's office
attached to it has a Post Office sign on it now but I don’t recall it being there in the show.  Other than that, the building hasn't really changed over the years.  Unfortunately, Sam and Emma were written out The Young Riders at the end of the first season.  Mr. Brown said Emma's house was not located right at the Mescal set, so that is why I don't have a photo of it.

Bunkhouse & Rachel's house
Bunkhouse close-up
Teaspoon and the riders lived some ways out of town at a waystation.  In the second season, Rachel took on the motherly role; she was played by Clare Wren.  Her house was in close proximity to the bunkhouse where the Pony Express riders stayed when they were “home.”  It was a thrill to see those buildings up close!  Both are located near the parking area on the left but are set a short distance away
from the main street.   The corral where the riders broke horses is falling apart but still visible behind the bunkhouse.

Rachel's house
Another view of TYR buildings
Back of bunkhouse
Mr. Brown said the first four-sided buildings at Mescal were built for The Young Riders.  Rachel’s house still had yellow paint on it and a faded picket fence around the front.  I was able to peer inside the windows of the house but it was empty.  Inside the bunkhouse, though, I could see a table and what appeared to be a fireplace set into a wall.  The windows were so dirty, however, that my photos did not come out well.  The side walls and especially the back exteriors of these buildings and, in fact, just about all the buildings at Mescal, were in poor condition; the wall boards were buckling and the porches were used for storage.  It's a shame the buildings aren't better maintained.

One place I didn’t have the chance to identify was Tompkins’ General Store.  William Tompkins was played by Don Collier, who was in The High Chaparral, which was also filmed at Old Tucson Studios and whose sets are in the same vicinity as those of Little House on the Prairie.  I definitely want to return to Mescal to find out which building was the mercantile in The Young Riders

Side view of marshal's office
Mescal is actually quite small; there is just one main street lined with buildings, a side street partway down from the main thoroughfare with one building at the end on the right, and then a small street paralleling the main street, where the Little House building can be found at the far end, and then Rachel’s house and the bunkhouse off to one side.

View of Mescal from TYR buildings
The towns depicted in The Young Riders look fairly large in size but that is due to the magic of cinematography and the camera angles used to film the action.  Watching episodes now on YouTube makes me wonder what Mescal looked like when The Young Riders was in production and the buildings were kept in excellent condition.  I had a hard time picturing all the hustle and bustle of Sweetwater—all the extras going about their daily business—when I was there.

Far end of the main street of Mescal
I suppose it is appropriate, though: The heyday of Westerns is long over and those movies have faded into memory, and even though some filming is still done there, Mescal is now more of a ghost town than an active movie set.  But maybe one day Mescal, and Westerns, will ride again.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mescal in the Movies

Entrance to Mescal
Anyone who likes to watch Westerns will enjoy visiting Mescal.  This is the sister site of Old Tucson Studios that is located in the desert near Benson, Arizona, about 90 minutes from where I live and east southeast of Tucson.  I'd been wanting to visit for many years but it was always closed whenever I was in town.  However, the local photography club that I recently joined after moving to Arizona was going on an outing to Mescal so I eagerly signed up.

This past Saturday, I finally was able to see Mescal in person!  This is where films such as Hombre, starring Paul Newman; The Outlaw Josey Wales, starring Clint Eastwood; Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer; The Quick and the Dead, with Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Sharon Stone either partially or in their entirety were filmed.
Site of shootout between
Josey Wales and 4 Yankees
in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Other movies shot there were Monte Walsh, Buffalo Soldiers, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Tom Horn, and Dirty Dingus Magee.  A couple TV shows also filmed at Mescal and they will be the subject of another blog post.
Mescal consists of a main street lined with buildings on both sides, a smaller side street with a few buildings, and a back street that runs behind the main one; there are also a few buildings off to one side near the parking area.  Mr. Frank Brown is the caretaker and he lives on site.  On the rare occasions Mescal is open, he gives one-hour tours for $10.00.  He has lots of stories to tell about the movies that were filmed there and he opens up some of the buildings for visitors to go inside.  However, visitors must stay within visual range of Mr. Brown, not just to ensure that no damage is done but also because the surrounding desert is filled with rattlesnakes.

Saloon in The Quick and the Dead
The tour starts at what is now called Kilmer Saloon--but it was named that many years after Tombstone was filmed--and is the saloon where people signed up for the quick draw competition in The Quick and the Dead.  This building is located to the right just after the entrance to Mescal.  The very small building at the far right was a Mexican set used in a Lee van Cleef movie but Mr. Brown couldn't recall which one.

Inside the saloon there isn't much left but Mr. Brown pointed out where the board where the gunfighters signed up had been situated.  I walked around the room and took a look behind the bar--which is not often shown in the movies--and I
Saloon interior
went up the staircase and found only an empty room with a few boards inside, and a window out of which I could see other buildings that were in a sad state of repair.  After savoring the atmosphere on my own for a few minutes, I rejoined the group and continued the tour.

Walking down the street, away from the entrance, there is a small side street and the building at the end was the hardware store in Monte Walsh.
Hardware store in Monte Walsh
This is a movie I have yet to blog about.  The original version with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance is the film that was shot here.  The 2003 version stars Tom Selleck and Isabella Rosselini and the only reason I would watch that is to compare it with the original1970 movie.  That is just like how the original version of 3:10 to Yuma was filmed at Old Tucson Studios and the remake was made elsewhere.

Missouri Bank
I quite liked The Outlaw Josey Wales so it was cool to see a couple of the buildings that were used in the film.  One I already mentioned earlier; it's on the left side of the main street as you look down from the entrance to Mescal. The other is located behind the main street--when you make a left turn at the end of that street with the hardware store, there is another street that parallels the main street of Mescal.  Walk a short ways down that street and across the field, toward the main street, you'll see what was the Missouri Bank in The Outlaw Josey Wales.  A scene at the end of the movie that took place at the bank was filmed at Mescal.  Here is my review of the film.

Fly's in Tombstone
The O.K. Corral in Tombstone
Keep walking along that street and you come to Fly’s Photography Gallery from Tombstone. In the small field next to it is where the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral occurred.  Well, where the shootout in Tombstone happened according to the movie Tombstone!  Both the building and especially the field look really small.  You can read my review of Tombstone here

Buffalo Soldiers set
I haven't seen Dirty Dingus Magee and it isn't available through Netflix, where I access most of the movies I blog about, so I don't know when I'll be able to see it.  However, Buffalo Soldiers, with Danny Glover, is available and I put it at the top of my queue.  The large house in the background was one of the sets in the movie but we didn't go there because Mr. Brown said it was filled with rattlesnakes.  He took a look at our shoes and said we didn't have the right footwear to walk through the desert over to the house.  I look forward to watching this movie and finding out if Joe Simms (Louis Gossett, Jr. in The Bounty Hunter) encountered any of these soldiers as he drifted West.

Hanging Tree in Maverick
A closer connection to ASJ can be found in a gnarled tree standing by itself in the desert as you head back towards the main street where most of the better-preserved buildings of Mescal are located. This was the tree in Maverick--the 1994 version with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner--where Mel Gibson was hanged at the beginning of the movie.  Roy Huggins has a writing credit on this film.

Tom Horn set
Tom Horn is also available on Netflix and that is now on my list of movies to see.  Starring Steve McQueen, it will be interesting to see how this movie portrays the title character.  Although he wasn't a character in any episode of ASJ, the TV show did deal with the Johnson County War in several episodes in the third season (Bushwhack!, What Happened at the XST?, The Day the Amnesty Came Through, Witness to a Lynching).  This building was used in the movie and is located when you round the corner after walking past the "O.K. Corral" location and are about to head back up the main street of Mescal.

Lily's place
About halfway up the main street, as you finish the tour and head back to the parking area, is a small building that was used as Lily's place in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.  I don't think it said "Undertaker" for that movie, though!  This was the second movie with Paul Newman that was filmed at Mescal and I wonder what he thought of the location, which is so different from Connecticut.

With my photography group, I spent about an hour and a half at Mescal and it was well worth it.  In fact, I would like to visit Mescal again and hear more of Mr. Brown's stories about the Westerns that were filmed there.  Mescal is a gem and I sincerely hope the buildings are preserved so more people can visit and appreciate the history that was made there.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

El Dorado

I apologize for not posting any blog entries here over the past eight months: I was in the process of moving from the East Coast to the Southwest and that was very time-consuming.  But now that I am living in the West, I love it!  And I am ready to resume writing blog posts about movies and other aspects of the Old West.  Thanks for reading!

Back in the fall, I attended a special screening of El Dorado in Tucson, Arizona, where the movie was partially filmed.  Cindy Mitchum, daughter of Robert Mitchum, one of the stars of the movie, along with John Wayne, signed posters of the movie (see photo at right) and did a question-and-answer session before the film began about her father’s work.  The interviewer had a hard time eliciting information from her but the little she did offer was interesting. 

As for the movie itself, I was not enthralled with it.  The 1966 movie was a remake of Rio Bravo and that is a far, far better film.  Perhaps if I had not seen Rio Bravo first, I would have liked this movie.  El Dorado is not a bad movie, it just doesn’t hold up well at all in comparison to the other one, despite that fact that both were directed by Howard Hawks.  It’s 126 minutes long and it really did seem long.

One of the few good things in El Dorado, though, is Michele Carey (Betsey in A Fistful of Diamonds).  Her voice is completely different!  Her character is a strong young woman who can take care of herself, a surprising and very different role from the one she portrayed on ASJ.  R.G. Armstrong (Max in The Bounty Hunter) plays her father and Paul Fix (Clarence in Night of the Red Dog) plays a doctor.  Robert Donner (Preacher in Never Trust an Honest Man, Nate in The Bounty Hunter, Charlie Taylor in The Day the Amnesty Came Through) is also in El Dorado, playing one of the bad guys.

I highly recommend watching the bonus DVD before viewing El Dorado itself– you will appreciate the movie much more if you do.  The first bonus feature, which lasts around half an hour, discusses the history and making of the movie, has in-depth commentary from several film critics, and interviews with various people involved in the film, including James Caan and Edward Asner.  It is well worth the time to see this! 

The second bonus feature is a short overview of the artist whose paintings are used in the opening credits; it’s quite interesting.  The next bonus feature is a short interview with A.C. Lyles, a producer at Paramount, taking about working with John Wayne, who insisted on being called “Duke.”  The final extras on this DVD are the original trailer for the film and a series of still photos, both lobby cards in color and black-and-white photos taken on the set during production of El Dorado.

Although El Dorado does have some positive aspects, there are plenty of other Westerns I would recommend watching before viewing this one.