Leon Worden

Movie trivia from Beale's Cut

By Leon Worden

Wednesday, April 9, 1997

eaders of John Boston's "Time Ranger" column know that John Wayne and company take a rather circuitous stagecoach ride from Bisbee, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico by way of Newhall, California in the 1939 John Ford classic, Stagecoach. One minute they're being chased through Monument Valley by Geronimo and the Apaches. The next minute they're under fire as they barrel through Beale's Cut.
    Of course, the Apaches were actually played by Navajo. The city of Tonto (near Bisbee) was actually Republic's movie town in Studio City.
    You might have known that, but I'll bet you didn't know John Ford used exactly the same shot of Beale's Cut 22 years earlier — same camera angle and everything — in his 1917 film, Straight Shooting, and again in 1924 in The Iron Horse.
    There were some interesting factoids among the Western volumes assembled by local bookseller Jan Heidt (One for the Books, 259-5595) for the city's huge poetry gathering at Melody Ranch last weekend.
    "Ford is either a very consistent or a very lazy film maker," author Edward Buscombe says about Ford's reuse of Beale's Cut. "But who, shooting a Western in Hollywood (at that time) would suppose that 50 years later every shot would be put under the microscope?"
    Even in his own time, however, Ford had his critics. Big Bill Hart took a crack at the famous director in his autobiography, saying Ford should have made the chase scene more realistic by having the Indians shoot the lead horses pulling the stagecoach. You see, that's just what the Indians are doing in a 1907 Frederic Remington painting that hangs on one of Hart's mansion walls.
    Ford's response? "In actual fact that's probably what did happen, (but) if they had, it would have been the end of the picture, wouldn't it?"
    John Wayne pulled down a whopping $3,700 for his co-leading role opposite Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, one of the biggest Western pictures of all time. It was better than Duke's rock-bottom $2,500-per-picture contract with Monogram in the early 1930s but still less than Trevor and seven other actors were paid for the half-million dollar film, which was shot in 47 days and released two months later. "In those days post-production work was speedy," Buscombe notes.
    Ford wasn't the only one to use Beale's Cut in those early Westerns.
    Beale's Cut, 1909(We interrupt this story for the obligatory historical aside: Beale's Cut, alternately known as Fremont Pass and Newhall Pass, is the 90-foot-deep, hand-cut gash through the mountain southeast of Sierra Highway and San Fernando Road. General Phineas Banning drove the first stage through the pass in 1854 when it was only 30 feet deep. Troops under the command of General Edward F. Beale, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, deepened it in 1863 to ease travel between Newhall and the pueblo of Los Angeles. In 1910 the roadway was replaced by the nearby Newhall Tunnel, which gave way to modern-day Sierra Highway in 1938.)
    If you've been around town awhile you've probably seen the photo of silent Western star Tom Mix and his wonderhorse Tony supposedly jumping over Beale's Cut. For years, folks have speculated whether it was Mix or a stunt double who made the jump, and whether the jump was actually made at all or if the photo was a composite.
    Robert S. Birchard answers the question in a book called "King Cowboy," an exhaustive anthology of all the old Tom Mix movies.
    The jump sequence appears in the 1923 film, Three Jumps Ahead. Birchard says yes, the still photo was doctored — if you look carefully, you'll see that the horse and rider are twice as small as they should be in proper perspective — but also yes, the jump was really made — not by Mix or his horse Tony, but by their stunt doubles. Earl Simpson, a horse trainer and stunt man with a ranch in Searchlight, Nevada, made the jump on his stunt horse with the help of a wooden ramp they used to gain altitude.*
    Although the footage of the jump survives in a promotional trailer made by Mix in the 1930s, the film itself is lost, as are many of the old Tom Mix movies that were filmed in and around Newhall in the 'Teens and '20s.
* * *

    Letter writer Bob Van Koningsveld had an interesting theory on the turn of the century in yesterday's Signal. The way I'd heard it is that Jan. 1, 2001 is the true dawn of the millennium because there was no year Zero. Anyone?

* It is possible that we may never be absolutely certain of the identity of the stuntman who performed the jump over Beale's Cut in Three Jumps Ahead (Tom Mix, 1923). According to Santa Clarita Valley historian Jerry Reynolds, stunt man Richard Talmadge "claimed to his dying day (1982) that he made the jump atop a horse named Ranger" (see Reynolds, Santa Clarita: Valley of the Golden Dream, 1992). It should be noted that Birchard, in his King Cowboy: Tom Mix and the Movies (1993), uses hearsay evidence to establish Simpson's identity as the performer of the jump. Birchard quotes Simpson's grand-neice, who writes: "Tom Mix did not make this jump . . . but my great uncle, Earl Simpson, did, on his specially trained horse. Earl Simpson was a horse trainer, stunt man and stand-in for Tom Mix. He had a ranch in Searchlight, Nevada, where he trained horses for movie stunts. That famous photo of Earl making the leap hung for many years on my great aunt's wall." Still others insist that local cowboy Andy Jauregui made the jump. Others say no one did; there are stories passed down from locals who allegedly remember Tom Mix faking the jump, low to the ground in downtown Newhall for later editing.
    It is important to note that there were at least three different trailers for "Three Jumps Ahead," all shot at different times and all showing Beale's Cut. At least one version, seen in most still images, is a photographically produced composite, but the others could have been real jumps. The only thing that's agreed upon for sure is that Tom Mix and Tony never jumped over Beale's Cut.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.

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