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Historians delve into storied past of Paramount Ranch

Film historian Marc Wanamaker (right) talks during a June 4 event at the historic Paramount Ranch about Ladyface Mountain, the peak in the background, and how he and Mike Malone use it to help ID films shot at the ranch as long ago as the 1920s. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
Pictured is Paramount Ranch's current western town, which was built in the 1950s and still in use.
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
12:39 pm PDT June 13, 2017

The National Park Service celebrated Paramount Ranch’s 90th birthday with a look back on nearly a century of film history at the storied studio ranch, where scenes from hundreds of movies and TV series have been filmed.

More than 100 film fans joined historians Marc Wanamaker and Mike Malone at the June 4 event, which was sponsored by the Santa Monica Mountains Fund. Participants took a short hike that offered an overview of the park, before settling down to listen to interviews and see film clips and stills. 

The venue for the event was one of the original ranch barns built to house equipment in the 1920s, when a young Gary Cooper’s star was beginning to rise in early westerns like “The Last Outlaw” (1927) and “The Virginian” (1929).

“This was the real old west,” Wanamaker said, explaining why the early film studios left New York and headed to California. 

Paramount Studios paid $412,000 for 2,700 acres in 1927. More than 100 films would be shot on the ranch during the golden age of the studio ranch.

“Paramount chose this location in 1927 because it was in a valley with 360-degree panoramic views,” Malone added. “In those days, there were no roads, no telephone poles, no houses, no airplanes. I’m not sure Ventura Highway was even paved yet.”

That 360-degree panorama has enabled Wanamaker and Malone to identify many scenes filmed at the ranch. The historians search the backgrounds for the distinctive silhouettes of the three main peaks surrounding the ranch: Ladyface Mountain, Arrowhead Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain.

Several permanent sets on the ranch also provide clues for the film sleuths. A massive North African desert fort built for the 1939 film “Beau Geste” was recycled in numerous later films, including a Peruvian stockade in the 1940 technicolor horror film “Dr. Cyclops.”

The original western town set used for dozens of westerns was redressed to become small town America for films like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” with Jackie Coogan in 1930, but many elements, like the New England-style church, remained visible.

The ranch’s unspoiled expanse of rolling hills doubled for locations all over the world. The ranch became China in 1932 film “Shanghai Express” and “The Adventures of Marco Polo” in 1938.

“They cast Gary Cooper in that one,” Malone said. “Talk about miscasting.”

It doubled for the African veldt for films like the 1933 “King of the Jungle” with Buster Crabbe;, and the 1952 film “Bwana Devil,” the first color 3-D film ever shot, as Italy in the 1932 Gary Cooper version of “Farewell to Arms,” Austrian village in 1939’s “Hotel Imperial,” and as mad scientist Doctor Moreau’s desert island in “Island of Lost Souls” in 1932.

“By the end of WW II, things had changed,” Malone said. “The studios didn’t want to maintain a lot of property. By the 1950s, films like ‘Quo Vadis’ and ‘Ben-Hur’ were being shot on location in Europe.”

Paramount eventually sold the ranch, but its film history was far from over. In 1954, the property was purchased by the Hertz family, who built a new western set on site. 

“They wanted to have a movie ranch,” Wanamaker said. “Hertz acquired some of the sets from the old RKO Ranch and built [the new] western town with the help of his son and a friend.”

The new set was featured in dozens of TV westerns, ranging from “The Cisco Kid” in the 1950s, to “Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman” in the 1990s. It’s still a popular film location, featuring in a wide variety of TV shows and films, including the 2014 film “American Sniper” and the recent HBO “Westworld” series. The western town continued to be used as a film location, but the ranch was split up and sold off. The central section of the old ranch gained a new resident, the original Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which occupied the main valley each spring from 1966 to 1989, but plans were moving forward to transform the valley into a housing development.

Activists fought back, and two large sections of the ranch were eventually acquired by the National Park Service. One of the parcels ended up in public hands through a series of events that suggest the plot of one of the early movies filmed at the ranch: The millionaire developer died suddenly in a plane crash, the bank that held the loan went bankrupt, and the executive director of the newly created Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy rushed in to save the day.

Retired National Park Service employee Alice Allan, who oversaw the park’s filming permits for many years, recalled that the NPS initially had no interest in Paramount Ranch’s film history, and that an early park supervisor actually tore down some of the historic buildings on site.

“Many public comments said ‘keep filming and let us watch,’” Allan said. “It wasn’t what the NPS expected to hear, but the public asked for it and they had to figure out how to accommodate it.”

The western set is still there. Location crews still shoot movies, TV shows, music videos and commercials on its dusty streets. In the middle of big valley, with Ladyface Mountain in the background and Sugarloaf Mountain in the foreground, it’s still easy to image that one is in old England, the African veldt, or even the wild west. After all, that’s what it looked like in movies.

“It wasn’t an illusion, it was the real west,” Malone said.

Paramount Ranch is located just off Agoura Road at 2903 Cornell Road in Agoura Hills. Regular weekend film history walks offer a look at the movie ranch’s colorful past. Check the Santa Monica Mountains Fund website (www.samofund.org) for more information, or visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area website at www.nps.gov/samo.