California may be the home of film, but these days most of them are shot elsewhere. Toronto is fobbed off as Los Angeles, Vancouver stands in for San Francisco. Atlanta passes for Sacramento.
Ah, but once there was a California town — mountainous and craggy, sandy and tumbleweed-strewn — that stood in for hundreds of far-flung locales on the silver screen.
Need a place that can look like the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan ("Charge of the Light Brigade," 1936) or maybe the vastness of the Himalayas ("Gunga Din," 1939)? Go to Lone Pine, Calif., the cinematic little town near Death Valley and Sequoia National Parks.
Looking for a location that could pass for the Gaza Strip ("Samson & Delilah," 1949) or Baghdad ("Bagdad," 1949) or Bangladesh ("The Lives of a Bengal Lancer," 1935)? Head to the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley; Lone Pine is nestled near both.
For a town boasting a higher elevation (3,727 feet) than population (2,035) on the southernmost tip of the eastern Sierra, with the Los Angeles basin to the south and Death Valley to the east, Lone Pine holds a special place in Hollywood lore as the go-to destination for movie moguls seeking exotic-looking locales without breaking the studio's budget. Many westerns were filmed there, too.
Reel upon reel of atmospheric pan shots were taken against the backdrop of jutting rocks and windy passes and endless chaparral-studded meadows. You could run the opening credits of a Hopalong Cassidy western over a pan of the Sierra Nevada range while playing the ballad "The Hills of Old Wyoming," and no one would be the wiser.
Those days are mostly gone now, preserved in film clips and assorted memorabilia at the Lone Pine Film History Museum.
The museum is worth a stop for anyone who remembers "The Lone Ranger" or Gene Autry ("The Singin' Cowboy"). It also might fascinate young-uns after they discover that parts of "Django Unchained," "Iron Man," "Gladiator" and "Tremors" were shot nearby.
"It's interesting," said Karen Stewart, doing docent duties on a lazy Sunday at the museum on the outskirts of town. "A lot of people younger than you and me are really into that 'Tremors' movie. They have like a cult following. They want to know exactly where certain scenes were [shot]. It's amazing how many people come in just for that."
All due respect to Kevin Bacon's thespian bona fides, but Lone Pine has seen much bigger stars, true movie icons, grace its streets. It's a Hollywood Walk of Fame-type list: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Jeanette MacDonald, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Hedy Lamarr, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Kirk Douglas, Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart.
You get the picture, right?
Well, maybe not. So important was Lone Pine to the great Barbara Stanwyck that, upon her death in Santa Monica in 1990 at age 82, her will demanded her ashes be spread in Lone Pine.
Strangely, though, Lone Pine is not a regular stop on the Southern California movie tourist map, probably because it's more than a three-hour drive away from Los Angeles. But also, perhaps, because the town was mostly known for its trove of B-westerns, a genre that gets little respect in today's Hollywood.
Pretty and stark landscape
I approached a thirty-something man gazing at a movie poster for "Ride Lonesome," with the smoldering visage of star Randolph Scott ("silent as gun smoke, hot as the revenge that drove him"). He was Nikolai Maslov of Corona, Calif., a former student at the University of Southern California Film School, who stopped by on his way to Mammoth Lakes.
Maslov hadn't seen many westerns and hadn't studied them at film school, but said, "Something you hear a lot about is how these movies influenced George Lucas to revive the adventure serial. So you see this history regurgitated in 'Star Wars' and the 'Indiana Jones' movies, too."
Stewart said some who visit the museum ask for detailed maps to tramp around the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley, looking for locations such as the famous shootout scene in "Bad Day at Black Rock"; the open space known as "Lone Ranger Canyon," where Tonto and his Kemosabe fought the bad guys in film and TV; and the "Django Unchained" campfire scene on a bluff that was supposed to be the Civil War South.
But there's enough inside the museum to fill an afternoon. Dale Evans' sparkly aqua blue wool gaberdine cowgirl outfit is a sight to behold, as is Autry's silver saddle, Rex Allen's rhinestone-studded "Nudie" suit and John Wayne's long black coat from "The Shootist."
A trip down Movie Flat Road, dusty and bumpy, yields little more than a pretty and stark landscape. Once movie companies were done filming, they left nary a trace. Better to kick back in the air-conditioned faux movie theater in the museum and watch the 15-minute documentary showing clip after clip of Lone Pine's star turn. You'll leave humming the tune to "The Hills of Old Wyoming" while staring at the Sierra Nevada.