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. 

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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.

Here’s John Wayne and friends in a musical moment from "Westward Ho" (1935) —
Here’s John Wayne and friends in a musical moment from "Westward Ho" (1935) —

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.

—and here’s the same spot today.
—and here’s the same spot today.

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.

Needless 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. 

Images from Lone Pine Film Festival 2013

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    Lone Pine Film Festival 2013

    Here is the elaborate “period” dental wagon designed by the late J. Michael Riva for Quentin Tarantino’s "Django Unchained." Thanks to the filmmaker it is now on display in Lone Pine.
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    Lone Pine Film Festival 2013

    A Republic Pictures leading lady in the 1940s, Peggy Stewart stills works in films, television episodes and commercials today—and likes playing a variety of characters.
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    Lone Pine Film Festival 2013

    Stunt veteran and 2nd unit director Diamond Farnsworth poses in the Alabama Hills with his four-year-old grandson Zane.
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    Lone Pine Film Festival 2013

    How many towns do you know with a street honoring Tim Holt?