by Paul R. Spitzzeri
At the Homestead, we’re occasionally asked if the site has been used for movie and television filming and the answer is seldom. We were surprised to learn some years ago that La Casa Nueva was a location for a 1936 B-western starring singing cowboy Tex Ritter called Song of the Gringo, this film being made when the Homestead was bank-owned and vacant.
The movie was shown on Turner Classic Movies and Temple descendant, Gary Temple, noticed the use of the house and contacted us. We actually showed the DVD for a staff lunch and had a great time with the less-than-stellar production, but also really enjoyed the scenes that showed the interior and exterior of the house.
It was also said that, in the late 1920s when the Temples still occupied the ranch, that the first Spanish-language talking film was partially shot at the Homestead, but details were scant and nothing has surfaced about that.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a July 1921 photograph taken of the Workman House with a portion of the large reservoir and swimming pool that was directly east of the residence. While we don’t know for which project the image was taken, there is a stamp on the reverse that reads “Compliments of Metro Pictures Corp., Lou Strohm, Location Manager, July 1921.”
Metro Pictures was founded six years earlier by Richard Rowland (no known relation to the Rowlands of Rancho La Puente), Louis B. Mayer and others as a distributor for a French company making films in New York and New Jersey, where many early studios were created.
In 1918, Mayer left to form his own studio, while Rowland continued to run the business until it was sold to theater magnate Marcus Loew as a unit to produce movies for his chain of motion picture houses (the surviving Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles opened four months after the photo was taken.)
Loew joined forces in 1924 with Mayer and merged Metro, Mayer’s studio and the Goldwyn Studio, which Loew just acquired, to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM, which became a major force in the film industry. Meanwhile, the Metro Studio, which Rowland continued to operate for a period, was on Cahuenga Avenue, near Melrose, in Hollywood. In fact, a post in the “That’s a Wrap” series from September 2017 features a pair of photos taken at the lot.
As stated above, we don’t for which Metro production, the Workman House photo was taken, but it does appear that the swimming pool was at least one of the considered locations on the site, otherwise why would it have been included? There were over a dozen films released by Metro in the last few months of 1921, but there is at least one of them that could be what Strohm had the Homestead in mind when he visited.
The Idle Rich released at the end of 1921 (in those days, filming and post-production could be done quickly,) the plot involves the story of a wealthy young man, played by popular actor Bert Lytell, whose money is not looked upon favorably by his girlfriend. When his estate is lost, however, after the executor kills himself, he moves from San Francisco to San Diego to a smaller property left by a relative. There he finds junk, but conceives of an idea to sell them for cash and he creates a bartering and exchange business. He gets his girl back and his high society position in the bargain. Perhaps the Homestead was considered as the location for the San Diego property?
There certainly could have been other possible films for which Strohm visited the ranch, including some that never got made. But, there is another intriguing possibility. In a book on famed director Rex Ingram, it was noted that, when Ingram was looking for a location for his November 1921 wedding to his leading lady, Alice Terry,, Strohm scouted for his friend as a favor.
Strohm’s son stated that Ingram “wanted a romantic place,” so it could be that the Homestead was visited for that purpose. Ingram, whose The Prisoner of Zenda was then in production, and Terry had their nuptials at El Molino Viejo, the old mill for the Mission San Gabriel and which happened to be part-owned by William Workman when he was granted the mission lands in 1846. So, perhaps, the photo was not for a film location, but for a wedding, though tied to the movie industry.
Then again, the visit to the Homestead and photographing of the pool and the Workman House could well have been for future possibilities and not specific projects. Strohm was well enough known that, in 1922, he wrote an essay “The Location Man: What You Must Know to Become One” for a book called Opportunities in the Motion Picture Industry. In his piece, Strohm noted that
One of the first requisites of a location man is that he should know of the surrounding country. A studio is situated in a given part of the country, but the script often calls for the filming of scenes that purport to represent an entirely different locality . . . It is then up to the location man to find a suitable location . . . Out here in the rugged California country, it is usually not a difficult thing to find any required location. . . Today, whenever a location man is on tour, and he comes across a spot that appears to hold valuable possibilities for future location for a given purpose, it is immediately photographed.
In his short essay, Strohm concluded that “there are not many location men” and that “it is not a field that is overcrowded, since each studio or producing company requires but one.” As for his work, Strohm, a Los Angeles native who was a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff (which likely gave him his experience with the lay of the land) before he went to work for Metro by 1920, worked as a location scout for MGM until at least the World War II years and he died in 1955.
With regard to the reservoir/swimming pool, it was a new addition to the Homestead by the Temples, who poured large sums into improving the ranch after it was acquired in late 1917 and then available for their use when a lease with a Japanese farmer, known only as K. Yatsuda, expired at the end of 1918.
The reservoir was utilized for the irrigation of walnut trees and other crops raised on lands lower in topography to the south, but it was also used for swimming and, as the photo shows, it had slide, ladder and dressing rooms, though there were also a diving board, lights for night swimming, a second set of dressing rooms (these were divided by gender) and a covered grandstand.
In the background is the Workman House, remodeled recently with the addition of electricity, indoor plumbing (including solar panels to heat the bathroom’s water), and the outfitting of the west end of the house for the Temple family to stay in during weekend visits.
This photo is an early example of the documentation of the site from the early years of the Temple family’s ownership of the ranch and has the added interest of having some connection, though not known in detail, with the film industry.