Friday, August 07, 2009

In Old California, Part 2


When Hollywood got its start as a filmmaking community, Southern California was still part of the Wild West. Upon arrival in 1914, silent film star William S. Hart reflected: “The very primitiveness of the whole life out there, the cowboys and the Indians, staggered me. I loved it. They had everything to make Western pictures. The West was right there!”

For that very reason, Westerns were the fastest and cheapest films a Hollywood producer could make. Already by 1914, the market was oversaturated with Westerns and producer Thomas Ince told Hart that it was a dead genre. Nevertheless, Hart took the reins from America’s first movie star cowboy, Broncho Billy Anderson, and became an icon. He served for many years as an unofficial U.S. ambassador to foreign nations before Tom Mix claimed the title of “King of the Cowboys” in 1920. Hart’s last hurrah was the 1925 epic TUMBLEWEEDS, but his persona lived on in the performances of actors like Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and Clint Eastwood.

In 1925, Hart withdrew to the ranch house he'd
built in Santa Clarita Valley – now the William S. Hart Park & Museum. It was here that he entertained fellow stars like Mary Pickford and Joel McCrea, and friends like the infamous lawman Wyatt Earp (who died in 1929). Locals called Hart’s adobe “the castle on the hill” – an appropriate moniker since, for many Western fans, Hart is still the king.

A few miles north in Valencia is the carefully-preserved home of Hart’s contemporary and fellow Western star Harry Carey - now the Tesoro Adobe Historic Park. Carey starred in many of D.W. Griffith’s films and also in several of John Ford’s silent Westerns. He was mostly known as a character actor in the sound era, and he appeared alongside his friend John Wayne in films like ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947) and RED RIVER (1948). The latter was the only film to feature Carey alongside his son, Harry Carey Jr., who quickly became a regular in Ford’s Westerns: THREE GODFATHERS (1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), WAGON MASTER (1950), and RIO GRANDE (1950).

The current adobe structure was built around 1932 to replace a wood-frame home that burned down on the same spot. In the following years, it was often used as a meeting house for Western filmmakers. Los Angeles County only recently (summer '05) accepted the donation of the property, after conducting a historical and architectural survey, so there is a great deal of information available on the Santa Clarita Valley History webpage. The site also has some good historical photos.

Carey Jr. grew up in the Saugus adobe and, at age 88, still occasionally visits it. Film fans and tourists can still do the same and, in an era of sharp budget cuts, it’s worth supporting both of these testaments to Hollywood history.

"We usually had about fifteen head of horses at the ranch. There were two hundred head of whiteface cattle, six hogs, six milk cows, two goats, a herd of sheep, a very horny midget pony from a circus, and lots of dogs. My father would pick up any poor stray dog he found wandering along the road. People were having trouble feeding themselves, let alone dogs, so they would come out to our part of the country and dump them. They found a friend in my pop. He loved dogs and gave them a home for life. About once a week my mother would bring home meat scraps and bones from the local butcher shop and cook a mess of porridge in a huge copper kettle to feed them. Roaming the mountains and flatlands were coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and all the small game they hunted. They were many varieties of birds, from songbirds to the predators, and lots of lizards and snakes. It was a place my father never wanted to leave. He always threw a fit when my mom told him he had to go to town." - Harry Carey Jr., Company of Heroes

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