Film Historian Shares More of Malibu’s Colorful and Strange Movie History
• Much-Loved Beach Named for Actor and Activist Has Own Lengthy History as Film and Television Shooting Location
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
Film historian Harry Medved was at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Visitors Center recently, to share another chapter in the area's film history. He was joined by Mike Malone, the park service's former film historian, who recently retired but is still actively researching film history.
The talk included various film locations in the mountains above Oak Park and Agoura; Ahmanson and Paramount Ranches; Malibu Creek State Park, which was the 20th Century Fox Ranch until the 1980s; and Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu.
“All of Malibu is in the the recreation area,” Malone reminded the audience.
The Fox and Paramount ranches were owned by the studios. According to Medved, William Randolph Hearst also wanted a buy a movie ranch in the 1920s.
“Hearst wanted the Malibu Rancho, but he couldn't buy it because of the Rindges,” Medved said. “It was untouchable. May Rindge, who owned all of Malibu, wouldn't sell.”
“They had armed guards on horseback,” Medved said. “Las Flores was as far as you could go. It was all private land.”
Rindge, the widow of Frederick Hastings Rindge, the last owner of the entire Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, famously spent the family fortune in the legal battle to keep what is now Pacific Coast Highway from being built. She sold La Costa Beach and then the Malibu Colony to fund the lawsuit, but she would not sell the ranch to Hearst.
Hearst settled instead for the Agouri Ranch, which was later divided into the City of Agoura, the Ahmanson Ranch, the Jordan Ranch and Medea Creek, according to Medved.
“Hearst leased to the smaller studios that couldn't afford their own ranches. “Many Republic pictures were shot out there,” Medved said.
Malibuites who regularly drive Kanan Dume Road and shop or work in the Agoura area may recognize landscapes familiar from dozens of films, including “Of Mice and Men,” “A Walk in the Sun,” “Man from Alamo,” “The Red Pony,” “Little Big Horn,” and grade Z horror flick “The Thing with Two Heads,” “Back to the Future, Part III,” and many more.
While much of the area has been developed, the mountain ridgelines remain the same and several key film locations are part of the SMMNRA and Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. Medved and Malone have shot video in the area and matched the current landmarks to the background shots in the films to verify the location. Medved has also extensively researched studio shooting schedules and interviewed crew members.
Malone continues to research local film history and is planning a hike in April to Lasky Mesa, a popular film location that is where Scarlet O’Hara shouted to the heavens “As God is my witness, I’ll nevah go hungry again!” in “Gone with the Wind.”
When Pacific Coast Highway finally opened, the studios had access to Malibu’s formerly private coast. Arroyo Point, now Leo Carrillo State Park—named for actor and park advocate Leo Carrillo— became a top filming spot, because it offered not only a sandy, secluded stretch of beach, but dramatic rocks and the now-famous sea cave that was featured in dozens of films.
According to Medved, the 1933 film “Sylvia Scarlett” was one of the first documented Leo Carrillo film shoots.
The beach has doubled for Mexico, the Yucatan, Hawaii, the South Pacific, and the dinosaur-infested bay at the center of the earth in the 1959 “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” starring James Mason.
Medved screened an interview with budget movie mogul Roger Corman, who shot many of his 350-plus films at Leo.
“They called it ‘Corman’s Cave,” Corman said, referring to Leo’s often-filmed sea cave. “[Leo Carrillo] has the best rock formations,” Corman said.
Corman filmed numerous grade Z films at Leo, including “It Stalked the Ocean Floor,” in 1955, its tag like was “Terror Strikes from Beneath the Sea!” followed by “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent,” both in 1957.
“They didn’t have lifeguard stations then,” Corman remembered.
Other Leo films include “Gidget,” in 1959, “Beach Blanket Bingo,” in 1965, and “Point Break,” in 1991. “It was the birthplace of the beach film,” Medved said.
TV shows filmed at Leo include episodes of “Perry Mason,” “Falcon Crest,” “The Rockford Files,” “Star Trek Deep Space Nine,” “The X Files,” and “The Mentalist.”
“It’s been home to so many monsters, from pterodactyls to Brittany Spears,” Medved said.
In 2006 Clint Eastwood transformed the beach into the South Pacific for “Two Letters from Iwo Jima.” Six truckloads of black sand was imported and installed in giant sand boxes to transform Malibu into an isolated Pacific atoll.
“The 1995 film “The Usual Suspects” uses the sea cave for an important scene involving disposing of a body. The cave was also featured in “The Karate Kid,” the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and, more recently, in “Inception,” in 2010.
Medved said that while the film industry has largely abandoned Los Angeles in the past decade, the SMMNRA still offers an affordable option for local film shoots. It also preserves an amazing panorama of cinematic history.
Medved’s book “Location Scouting in Los Angeles,” published by Acadia Press is widely available. He is also the author if an Acadia Press book on Oak Park.
His early book on film locations,“Hollywood Escapes: The Moviegoer's Guide to Exploring Southern California’s Great Outdoors,” is out of print, but not difficult to find second hand.
Malibuites interested in film history can keep an eye out for future film-themed activities in the SMMNRA, including the upcoming Lasky Mesa hike in April, at www.nps.gov/samo.