First, I apologize about the previous post on the History of Bronson Caves in Cinema. It is not a complete archive. However, I am currently compiling an extensive archive of screen shots that is considerably more complete. Upon completion I intend to create an artist's book presenting the findings.
The following article appeared in American Cinematographer Magazine in June 1993 and reveals much about the early history of the caves.
THE CAVES THAT COULDN'T DIE!
(A Troglodyte’s Adventures in Bronson Caves and Brush Canyon)
BY JAN ALAN HENDERSON
Body-snatching pods used to hang out in them! Serial Superman Kirk Alyn’s arch enemy The Spider Lady took up residence in them. There have been missions that required an SOS Coast Guard signal. IT tried to conquer the world from them. Killers from Space brainwashed Peter Graves in them. Adam West’s Batman called them home! The loneliest Texas Ranger was bushwhacked in them! More than one Lost Horizon has been seen from them! Flash Gordon battled the great god of Tao on the Planet Mongo, and Charles (Ming, the Merciless) Middleton died in this Hollywood hot spot in 1936. Probably the most photographed pile of rocks on the entire planet, they stand stoically silent.
Nestled high in the Hollywood Hills, below the legendary Hollywood sign, is an indestructible landmark, Bronson Caves. Originally known as Brush Canyon, located in southern Griffith Park, it was developed by the Union Rock Company in 1907, as the Union Brick Quarry. The granite was first removed by truck, but the neighbors objected to the truck traffic, and a rail line was installed. This line ran through the main chamber of the cave to the street below, and ran during restricted hours in the morning and evening. The main cave and its two tributaries were drilled through the mountain to expedite the removal of granite from the back portion of the quarry.
The first cinematic appearance of the caves was the National Pictures serial Lightning Bryce, starring Jack Hoxie and Ann Little. Made in 1919, this Western adventure was directed by Paul C. Hurst, who also costarred as the villain, 'Powder Solvang.' It is open to speculation whether the method of ore removal (truck vs. rail) is the reason for the first appearance of the quarry in this early film. It is possible that Union Rock rented the facility to National Pictures during its conversion from rail to truck in 1918, as a means of supplementing their income during the quarry downtime. The rail tracks and trains in the quarry itself remained, and are evident in the serial.
Taking place in the 1919 Old West, Lightning Bryce could almost be classified as a horror Western. It features an ethereal mystery woman, Indians with sacred gold and crystal balls, and a visit to the Los Angeles Chinatown district, to an opium den run by Dopey Sam. Mixed in with primitive auto chases and western locales is Bronson Caves, as the stone quarry and canyon where the action in Chapters 8 to 10 takes place. Union Rock Company's equipment, outbuildings, scaffolding and conveyor belts are a major part of this serial scenery.
There are chases and captures, which result in the capture of a sinister Indian played by Steve Clement (a full blooded Yaqui Indian, also known as Esteban Clemente or Steve Clemento), who constantly tries to rob Lightning of the sacred gold nuggets. Clement, who was billed as the world's greatest knife thrower in Vaudeville, played a unique part in the formulation of the scenario for the classic jungle thriller, King Kong, in which he played the witch doctor. Clement had an experience in real life close to that of the fictional Carl Denham, while looking for an assistant for his knife throwing act. Playing the character role of Zaroff's Mongolian servant in The Most Dangerous Game, he related this tale to screenwriter Ruth Rose, of a scruffily dressed young maiden in a lunchroom, and an agent who refused to supply Clement with girls for his act. Steve Clement was also shot in the face by one Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in the classic Civil War drama, Gone with the Wind).
One of the cliffhangers involves the heroine and the Indian being hung from the top of Brush Canyon, only to be saved by Lightning Bryce. Bryce quickly dynamites the canyon, which is captured explosively by cinematographer Herbert Glendon.
Glendon gives the viewer a panoramic view of Brush Canyon through a series of long shots, filmed on the highest Eastern ridge of the canyon. There are magnificent silhouette shots of the principal players exploring the caves, with cave dust and smoke adding an eerie dimension to this silent serial gem.
It is interesting to note that in 1919, there was a rock ledge above the cave openings at the rear of the canyon. This ridge was approximately 10 feet wide, and looked as if it could hold three automobiles.
Operations ceased in the quarry in the late Twenties, and all the buildings, rail trains and scaffolding were removed. The ledge above the tri-opening cave was chiseled off, and the caverns have remained as they are today.
By the early 1930's, Bronson Caves was a featured landscape In the new medium of Talkies. 1931 saw the caves play host to Nat Levine's Mascot serial unit, for the production of King of the Wild. This 'all talking serial' features a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as the African sheik Mustapha. Involved with two cohorts in the murder of an Indian rajah, this serial features a letter written in invisible ink, a diamond field in a volcano, jungle animals, and a mysterious old man and woman. Photographed effectively by cinematographers Benjamin Kline and Edward J. Kull, this convoluted multi-genre serial is typical of what would be Nat Levine and Mascot's serial output of the early 30's.
Levine and Company next visited the caves at the end of 1931, for The Lightning Warrior, starring canine favorite Rin-Tin- Tin. Rin-Tin-Tin, then an elder statesdog, required a stunt double, and died in his master's arms shortly after the completion of this serial. Rinty had made silent films for Warner Brothers, which kept the studio afloat in the late 1920`s. The dog was found on a French battlefield by trainer Lee Duncan.
A madman agitator known as the Wolfman (ten years before the Lon Chaney, Jr. classic) triggers an Indian uprising. When Jimmy Carter (played by Frankie Darro) is
killed, the intrigue intensifies. Through twelve complex chapters, Rinty and his pals dodge peril at every turn. Bronson Caves play a vital scenic role in The Lightning Warrior, as the Wolfman's lair. Cinematographer Ben Kline moved into the co-director's chair, which he shared with Armand Schaefer. The show was photographed by Ernest Miller and William Nobles (who later worked at Republic).
John Wayne, Glenn Strange, Charlie King and Eddie Parker fought their way through the caves in the railroad action serial Hurricane Express (Mascot 1932). Hurricane Express is the second of John Wayne's trio of Mascot serials. The third and most popular of these chapter plays to showcase the rugged exterior of Bronson Caves is The Three Musketeers (Mascot 1933). This Foreign Legion thriller boasts a supporting cast of Jack Mulhall, Western favorite Raymond Hatton, Francis X. Bushman, Creighton Chaney (later changed to Lon, Jr.), and Noah Berry, Jr. The Duke plays an American pilot named Tom Wayne, who rescues the Three Musketeers (Mulhall, Hatton, and Bushman) from a group of Arab terrorists. These bandits, known as the Devil's circle, threaten the legionnaires through twelve suspense packed episodes, photographed by Ernest Miller and Tom Gulligan. Released as a serial and a 90 minute feature version, it was re-issued in 1948 as a 70 minute feature entitled Desert Command by Favorite Films.
The fantasy film Deluge (Admiral Productions, Inc., 1933) spotlights the caves with dramatic photography by Norbert Brodine. Brodine (on loan from MGM) gives the audience a preview of the photographic possibilities of Bronson Canyon and Caves, to be realized in 1950's science fiction features - most notably, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The star of Deluge is its breathtaking special effects. Often, but incorrectly, credited to Willis O'Brien, these effects were the work of Ned Mann and Russell Lawson (who constructed the miniatures), and Billy N. Williams, co-cinematographer. While Deluge remains largely unseen (Englewood Video did provide a limited VHS release), one can glimpse portions of the dynamic New York destruction sequence in Republic Productions' Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941), S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1938), and Republic's first 'Rocketman' serial, King of the Rocketmen (1949). It was replayed in the Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe episode entitled “Nightmare Typhoon”.
Two examples of effective night photography in the caves are in The Vampire Bat (Majestic, 1933) and The Monkey's Paw (RKO 1933). The Vampire Bat is a lurid tale of vampirism through Scientific means. With an all-star horror cast of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvin Douglas, and Dwight Frye, this crude yet atmospheric thriller was shot on the sets of the Frankenstein village and castle at Universal. Dwight Frye, once again playing a lunatic, Herman Gleib, whose nocturnal bat-keeping antics earn him the number one murder suspect moniker, is chased down by the torch wielding vigilante villagers. They corner him in Bronson Caves, which becomes an interior set that does not resemble the interior of the caves. It should be noted that Ira Morgan's eerie photography of the exterior/interior of the cave adds greatly to the Universal Gothic feel of this Majestic feature.
Morgan had a long career at Columbia Pictures in the 40's in Sam Katzman's serial unit. The Monkey's Paw features stunning night-for-night photography by second unit cinematographer Jack Mackenzie. This night time battle sequence was filmed in one evening in the caves and canyon on October 19, 1932, and wrapped at 5:00 in the morning. Special effects man Harry Redmond detonated the charges, which kicked up the dust in the canyon, adding to the overall effect of the photography. The last charge of the battle was detonated directly in front of the camera.
In 1934, Bronson Canyon returns in Western serial-fare. Mascot Pictures' production of Mystery Mountain starring Ken Maynard and his wonder horse Tarzan, made dual usage of the canyon and caves. A railroad camp occupied one end of the quarry, while the other end was the villain's hideout. Mystery Mountain was photographed by Mascot regulars Ernest Miller and William Nobles.
Ernest Miller and William Nobles also photographed the caves and canyon for Gene Autry's Western/science fiction/musical /fantasy/serial, The Phantom Empire (Mascot 1935). This show features the futuristic city of Murania melting via Jack Coyle and Howard Lydecker's stereopticon plates. This effect utilized a 4x5 stereopticon plate with soft emulsion, heated from underneath. Phantom Empire offers an ample helping of Gene Autry music, the cornpone of Frankie Darro and the Radio Ranch Regulars, and "Smiley" Burnett's hilarious harmonica solos. The art direction and photography involving the canyon and caves are spectacular.
Soldiers riding through the canyon are photographed in much the same style as the exterior of Red Rock Canyon was, for the Universal Pictures' Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, and Buck Rogers serials. With an Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves style trap door installed on the back main tunnel, and stunning floor to ceiling laboratory equipment inside the caverns, Phantom Empire's science fiction/musical/Western elements make this a unique serial jewel.
Condemned to Live (Invincible Pictures, 1935) is another tale dealing with vampirism which utilizes the caves and cliffs of Bronson Canyon. By inter-cutting ocean shots with those of the rock strata of Bronson Canyon, the audience is led to believe that the caves and canyon are part of this European shoreline. Condemned To Live was filmed on Universal's backlot, as was Vampire Bat (with Bride of Frankenstein having just completed production). Condemned To Live also used the bell tower set of Lon Chaney, Sr.'s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (Universal 1923), with Ted Billings in his Tyrolean costume from The Bride of Frankenstein as the bell-ringer.
Comic adventure strips were the rage in the 30's. The Sunday and daily appearances of these cartoon features were a sure sell at the box office. Flash Gordon premiered on Sunday, January 7, 1934, in Hearst newspapers throughout the country. Distributed by King Features, Flash Gordon was created by Alex Raymond, a former Wall Street brokerage clerk turned cartoonist. Raymond simultaneously created Jungle Jim to serve as an introduction piece to the new science fiction cartoon. Flash and Jim were created as competition for early favorites Buck Rogers (created in 1929) and Tarzan (created in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs). In an ironic twist of fate, Johnny Weismuller, who originated the role of Tarzan in the Talkies in 1931 for MGM, ended up playing Jungle Jim for 'Jungle Sam' Katzman and Columbia's "B" picture unit.
The Jungle Jim feature Mark of the Gorilla and several other features make use of Bronson Canyon. Two years after Alex Raymond's Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon successes, Universal attained the rights to Raymond's strip. The serial, a highly successful medium in the 30's, would be the format for the interplanetary adventures of Flash Gordon. A radio show of Flash Gordon had been a success, running simultaneously with the comic strips. One of the reasons for Flash Gordon's success was a highly sex- charged story line.
The interior tunnels of Bronson Caves are among some of the most striking backgrounds for Flash's battle with two of mighty Mongo's greatest beasts. The Gocko was the first of these Herculean terrors to be encountered by Flash. Played by Glenn Strange, this monster was aided by wire riggings hooked into the ceiling of the caverns. The suit was reconstructed for the Fire Dragon in later chapters. The Caves also provided the scenery for the climactic ending of Flash Gordon, where Ming the Merciless enters the Sacred Temple of the god Tao. A false perspective was utilized in the tunnel to make the Gocko appear larger than Flash in these battle sequences. A carefully disguised small person stood in for Buster Crabbe as Flash to make these scenes seem larger than life.
Ming's soldiers traveled through the caves in often repeated footage throughout the thirteen interplanetary episodes of Flash Gordon. The success of Flash Gordon prompted two equally successful serials, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (Universal 1938, presented in green tints, as were the reissues of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Old Dark House) and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (Universal 1940). The success of Flash Gordon led Republic Pictures to the comic strips. They purchased the rights to the Dick Tracy strip for $10,000. Hiring unknown bit player Ralph Byrd at $150 per week to play Chester Ghoul's protagonist, Republic was off and running in the serial sweepstakes of popular comic heroes.
With the box office popularity of Dick Tracy, Republic cast Byrd opposite Bela Lugosi in S.O.S. Coast Guard (Republic 1937). This well mounted episodic Coast Guard adventure featured effects by Jack Coyle, Howard Lydecker, and the new West Coast transplant, Theodore Lydecker. Most rewarding of these effects is the stereopticon plate gag, recreated with the rock walls of Brush Canyon.
Bela Lugosi's character Boroff has developed a gas that will quite literally melt anything on contact. With his mute assistant, played by serial veteran Richard Alexander, (Prince Barin from the first two Flash Gordon serials), Lugosi wreaks havoc on all who dare defy his new world order. In the serial's climactic sequences, Ralph Byrd and troops deal with Lugosi's monstrous mystery gas and save the day with only a small part of Bronson Canyon and Caves being melted in the process.
Columbia Pictures and Peter Lorre paid a visit to Brush Canyon in the seldom seen Island of Doomed Men (Columbia 1940). Lorre plays a sadist named Steven Denel. Denel would arrange for parole for an inmate, then have him shipped off to Dead Man's Island to work his secret diamond mine (Bronson Canyon). Cameraman Ben Kline's moody photography adds to the bleak desperation of this picture. Lorre leers at his wife (played by the sexy Rochell Hudson), and gleefully flogs the hero (Robert Wilcox) by lantern light in the Canyon.
By 1940, Columbia and Republic Pictures had their own in-studio caves (exteriors and interiors). Both studios continued to use the Canyon exterior as well as the Caves interiors and exteriors.
In Chapter 5 of The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Republic revisits the Canyon and repeats the stereopticon plate melting effect of the entrance to the main tunnel. The Scorpion and his henchmen lure Captain Marvel to the back of the Cave by using a dummy of the Scorpion rigged with a loudspeaker. Marvel discovers the wire and follows it to his mannequin foe, only to find that the walls of the cave are rapidly melting around him. The Scorpion has aimed the Sacred Golden Scorpion (which is a powerful weapon with the potential of turning ordinary rock into gold) at the opening of Bronson Cave, turning the opening into molten liquid. With waves of lava about to consume him, Marvel spies a hole in the cave ceiling and springs through it, avoiding the molten destruction.
Cinematographer William Nobles and Directors William Whitney and John English mix interiors of the in-studio cave and exteriors of Bronson Caves for a highly imaginative result. In one sequence, when the Scorpion is describing his devilish plans to his henchmen, the lighting and photography seem to give the interior studio caves an eerie golden glow. The stereopticon plate effects are again handled masterfully by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and this effect is repeated in countless Republic serials, most notably King of the Rocketmen and Radar Men To The Moon. Shot in a mere 39 days, and released to standing room only crowds in March of 1941, Captain Marvel is classic serial fantasy. It may be the best sound serial ever produced!
This chapter play might well have been The Adventures of Superman. In 1940 Republic had optioned the Superman story and character, but due to legal complications with D.C. Comics, Republic ceased negotiations with D.C. and turned to Fawcett Comics, which owned Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher, and Captain America. Eight years later, Sam Katzman and Columbia's serial unit brought Superman to the screen in 15 chapters of glowing sepiatone.
While heavily relying on their in-studio caverns, the first Superman serial uses front and back cave entrances of Bronson Caves. The entrance to the Spider Lady's hideout is the front single tunnel of the Cave (in 1966, this opening served as the entrance to the bat cave in 20th Century Fox's popular Batman television program, starring Adam West and Burt Ward), while the back trio of tunnels serve as the backdrop for a mining disaster in Chapter 2, entitled Depths of the Earth. For the interior of the mine, Columbia used their studio cave interior. While cinematographer Ira H. Morgan's low angle photography enhances Bronson Caves as a mine front, there is little his photography can do to save the cheapness of the interior cave sets.
The late 1940's saw a declining movie industry, the emergence of television, and more location shooting for Bronson Caves.
The Lone Ranger had long been a popular character on radio, and its transference to the T.V. screen surprised no one. With veteran Republic player Clayton Moore assuming the title role of The Lone Ranger, and Jay Silverheels as his faithful sidekick, Tonto, this program was an instant success. Bronson Caves and Canyons provided most of the exterior scenery for the first three episodes, which were entitled The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Butch Cavendish, played by the veteran Western/horror actor Glenn Strange, ambushes a group of Texas Rangers in Brush Canyon. After the ambush, Tonto, the Lone Ranger's faithful companion, finds him wounded and nurses him back to health in Bronson Caves.
Bronson Caverns, Canyon and surrounding area played an indispensable part of the 50's science fiction film craze. One of the early visitors to the cave was Robot Monster (Astor Pictures, 1953). This barely watchable, no-budget feature sports a monster which is basically a man in a gorilla suit with a space helmet on, and a bad case of fleas, gyrating around the back entrance of the cave, with feathers blowing madly throughout sequences of long spaced-out embellishments from this furry asinine alien.
Low budget monsters slithered in and out of Bronson Caves throughout the 50's. Some memorable - or unmemorable, depending on the viewer's perspective - monsters the caves were invaded by were the Killers From Space, Teenage Caveman, The Cosmic Man, The Brain From Planet Arous, She Demons, Invisible Invaders, and The Return of Dracula.
Of these troglodytes from other worlds, and demons from the center of our own world, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Allied Artists, 1956) photographically captures the majesty of Bronson Caverns more than any other picture that featured the Caves. The plot is simple 50's paranoic fare. The hero and heroine are confronted by their hometown friends and family who cultivate pods from another world. These pods are placed next to the sleeping townsfolk, and produce an exact replica of that person. Once the soul integrates with this alien horticulture, the zombie-like subject becomes free of all material strife, and is in a state of blissful euphoria produced from
their new-found plantlike immortality. Fleeing the townsfolk, the two heroes, Miles Bennell -aptly played by Kevin McCarthy - and his former sweetheart Becky Driscoll - sensually played by Dana Wynter - take refuge in a mine shaft (Bronson Caves), complete with a secret crawl space specially dug into the cave floor, covered over with a board walkway. The two struggle to stay awake, after being awake for several days. They hide beneath the false cave floor as the townspeople thunder over them.
The photography of Ellsworth Fredericks, ASC, makes this entire series of scenes horrific. Especially effective is the low angle photography of the two protagonists, soaking wet, trying to keep still as the townsfolk run across the planks merely inches above their heads. After the townsfolk have gone, hearing music the hero goes to check out the Canyon, and the heroine falls asleep. When he returns, he is unaware that she has slipped into slumber and has been possessed. Frederick's intense camera work conveys Kevin McCarthy's reaction of terror, as sweat and mud-soaked schizophrenia, as McCarthy rants and raves to his heroine Wynters, who has been taken over by her pod double.
Fredericks' camera conveys, through a series of low-angle shots, the paranoia of a love lost in a matter of minutes. McCarthy's character runs hysterically into the midst of a traffic jam. He approaches one truck, pulling the canvas backing off the trailer, finding it loaded full of pods, and shortly finds himself in the psychiatric ward. Ellsworth Fredericks' photography of the Caves and this entire low budget thriller is stunning.
The Return of Dracula is another 50's B horror/thriller set in Brush Canyon. In this Gramercy Pictures effort, the Caves play a main part in establishing the atmosphere of this low-budget venture. This descendent of Dracula, expertly played by Francis Lederer, after disembarking from a local train, transplants his coffin deep in the Canyon, in the bowels of Bronson Caves. With many fog-laden coffin openings, this budget filmed saga of Dracula featured a pulse-pounding musical score by composer Gerald Fried.
The amount of Westerns made in Bronson Caves would be incalculable, let alone the amount of television shows. The location is more often booked than not. It served as the backdrop for the conclusion of the John Wayne classic The Searchers, and was used extensively in the Western TV favorites Bonanza and Gunsmoke. The pilot for The Adventure of Superboy was shot in the canyon by Superman TV. producer Whitney Ellsworth.
With its 90-plus year history, it is highly unlikely that Bronson Caves will be torn down to accommodate a mini-mall. In our ever-changing world, it's nice to know some thing of Hollywood history will remain until the end of time.