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THE HUMBOLDT HISTORIAN

WINTER SPRING 1988

North Central Nevada Historical Society

HOLLYWOOD COMES

TO THE BLACK ROCK:

THE STORY OF THE MAKING OF

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH

by Phillip I. Earl

Copyright 1988 by Phillip I. Earl
All Rights Reserved

 

     A trackless, barren expanse of sand left by the receding of ancient Lake Lahontan some 12,000 years ago, the Black Rock Desert stretches for more than a hundred miles across the vastness of northwestern Nevada. Ancient peoples first occupied the area 7,000 years ago, and their descendants were still there when Captain John C. Fremont and his men came down High Rock Canyon in late December, 1843, to become the first outsiders to lay eyes on the large playa.

     Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey mapped the southern section in 1867, and Israel C. Russell of the U.S. Geological Survey extended the work to the northern part in the early 1880s, producing a monograph which has become the basis for all subsequent studies.

     Overland immigrant parties passing west on the Applegate-Lassen Trail in the 1840s and 1850s knew the rigors of the Black Rock, as did horse soldiers operating out of Fort Churchill during the Civil War. A brief silver mining flurry led to the establishment of the camp of Hardin City on the north end of the Black Rock in 1866, but the mining of sulphur has been the principal economic activity in the area in recent decades.

     In November of 1909, the construction of the Western Pacific Railroad across the southern end was completed, l but the oddest bit of history associated with the Black Rock Desert is the filming of The Winning of Barbara Worth near Trego on the southern end during the summer of 1926.

     Based upon Harold Bell Wright's best-selling saga of the reclamation and settlement of California's Salton Sink, Barbara Worth was the third in a series of classic silent westerns filmed in Nevada during the 1920s. Both The Covered Wagon, shot on location at Skull Valley in White Pine County, and John Ford's The Iron Horse, filmed at Dodge Flat, just north of Wadsworth, were received with popular and critical acclaim, proving to other producers that the "big western" was no mere flash in the pan.2

     Wright's novel had cast the settlers of the Salton Sink as 20th-century pioneers, and Samuel Goldwyn himself, producer of Barbara Worth, spoke of his film as "taking up the history of the West where The Covered Wagon leaves off."

     As adapted for the screen by Francis Marion, however, the production became a showcase to exploit the appeal of Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky, whose appearance in Goldwyn's The Dark Angel in 1925 created Hollywood's first "love team."

     Goldwyn also had loftier pretensions. In an interview with Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times on June 18, 1926, he asserted that the success of The Covered Wagon demonstrated the popular interest in films of more substance than the general run of western productions up to that time, "something educational if it is made entertaining," as he put it.

     "Barbara Worth will be a great epic," he predicted. "It shows and proves what a great menace the desert can be without water, if not properly controlled by dams. In this picture will be shown an entire town swept away because of the faulty dam construction. The menace of the elements is a real life problem of everyday and 10 times more impressive to people than the menace of all the villains who every played in pictures." 3

     Goldwyn was also interested in a realistic location for filming, as was his director, Henry King, who had traveled to Italy to produce The White Sister and Ramola, and had ridden out Atlantic storms aboard ship for 17 days to get footage for Fury, a tale of the sea.

     In his interview with Grace Kingsley, Goldwyn said that he had chosen the Black Rock Desert because of its resemblance to the Salton Sink, but it was Henry King and two associates--Rostin Clampitt and Robert McIntire--who did the leg work to select the site.

     In February of 1926, they had set out on a 4,000-mile trip through southern California, Arizona and New Mexico. But they were still looking for a suitable film location when they debarked at the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Reno on April 14.

     After talking with some locals familiar with the desert country to the north, King decided to rent an automobile and take a jaunt out to the 40-Mile Desert between Wadsworth and Lovelock. Departing the next morning, they looked the area over and went into Lovelock. King decided to push on to Jungo before dark, but the men got lost near Haystack Butte and spent the night driving around aimlessly.

     At daybreak, they found themselves at Sulphur, west of Jungo on the Western Pacific Railroad, where the cook for a railroad crew invited them to breakfast on pork and beans before they set out west for Gerlach. Their radiator boiled over just outside of Trego, but the only water they could find was a thermal spring so hot that their driver burned his hands. Cooling enough water in an old washtub they found, they finally filled the radiator and got on their way, arriving at Gerlach at 10:30 that night with only one can of beans and two swallows of water between them. After finding lodging for the night in the small railroad community, they ate dinner.

     Early the next morning, they drove 10 miles out on the Black Rock, returning to Gerlach by way of Trego. King was impressed with the location possibilities, and Gerlach had all the facilities and accommodations the large film crew would require. Sending the car back to Reno with their driver, they caught the Western Pacific for Oakland that evening and were back in Hollywood two days later.4

     Shortly after King's return, Goldwyn contacted the Winnemucca Chamber of Commerce and Winnemucca Mayor Carlton E. Haviland for assistance in finding office space and scouting out likely filming locations near the community. H. C. Oastler, manager of the American Theatre, offered to take care of other details, and Lovelock rancher W. H. Cooper was contacted about furnishing livestock, horses, pack mules and burros for the production.5

     The June 7 edition of the Humboldt Star announced the expected arrival of the film crew and gave more details of the picture. Three false-front cities were to be constructed-one at Trego, to be known as Barbara Worth, another at the sand dunes, near Blue Mountain west of Winnemucca, and a third at Gerlach.

     King was planning on a location time of six to eight weeks, according to the Star story, and had already made contacts in town to rent 25 farm wagons and buggies and several large freight wagons. Editor Stanley Bailey also announced that he and United Artists publicity director H. F. Arnold would begin publishing the Barbara Worth Times, a semi-weekly supplement to the Star, on June 25." 6

     King and four associates--Karl Borg, art director; Friend Baker, cameraman; Edward Sowders, King's assistant; and Lewis King, the director's brother--arrived in Winnemucca the next day. Lewis King remained behind to hold a press conference while the others caught a Western Pacific special west to Trego where lumber was being unloaded to begin construction on the film city.

     Thanking the people of Winnemucca for their cooperation, he announced that he had set up an office in the Hotel Humboldt to interview locals who would be interested in a few weeks of work as extras on the set. Forty to 50 men, women and children would be needed for the initial work, he said, and as many as 300 later on.7

     W. H. Cooper had meanwhile been making contacts with several Lovelock ranchers to hire horses and purchase feed. He had also been as far east as Battle Mountain seeking livestock and had been arranging to rent wagons, carts and buggies. On June 10, the Star carried a notice that he was also seeking farm animals--hogs, goats, chickens, cows with calves, mares with colts and horse teams--and wagons in poor condition.8

     Goldwyn had completed casting by that time, with the exception of the second lead, Abe Lee, a role which was to go to Gary Cooper a few days before filming began.

     Neither Ronald Colman nor Miss Banky was enthusiastic about coming to Nevada. Colman had just completed Beau Geste at an isolated desert location in Arizona, and his co-star had only recently returned from the making of Son of the Sheik with Rudolph Valentino. However, United Artists had both of them under contract, and they had no choice in the matter.9

     The carpenters, plumbers and other set-construction personnel left Los Angeles by rail for San Francisco on June 11. Transferring to the Western Pacific at Oakland the next day, they arrived in Gerlach on June 13. Part of the crew remained in town to begin the construction of false fronts on the buildings to be used in the film segments shot there, while the remainder motored out to Trego to start work on sets, buildings and dining and sleeping facilities.

     Western Pacific laborers were putting in new water mains at Gerlach for the flood sequences, and railroad officials announced on June 16 that Luthur Greybanc had been appointed station agent for the new movie town at Trego. Sidetracking had been completed by that time, and the carpenters were at work nailing up the prefabricated building sections which had been cut to specification in Oakland.10

     In Lovelock, rancher Cooper had arranged for the renting of 50 horses from Ray Clemmens, F. B. Salinas and B. A. Preston. He also secured 25 Fresno scrapers and 20 wagons of various types in the valley. P. A. Quigley sold 100 tons of hay to Cooper for the livestock to be used in the film. Several men from Lovelock got work as extras,
among them P. H. Wolf, W. H. Orton, Jack Wycoffe, Ray Cahill, Lawrence Lang, Joey Olaeta and Virgil and Albert Smith.

     Pershing County officials appointed three men--E. A. Perez, Wilbur Springer and W. H. Cooper himself--as deputy sheriffs at Barbara Worth since the location site was just inside the northern boundary of their jurisdiction. United Artists officials agreed to pay the men $4.50 of their $5-a-day salary, with the county picking up the remainder.11

     Barbara Worth had taken on all the trappings of a frontier community when editor Bailey of the Star came out on June 18. He noted that a hundred head of cattle and several dozen horses had been brought out, as had horse-drawn conveyances of every description. Thirty-five extras from Winnemucca and Lovelock were also on hand, and the stars and technical personnel from Hollywood were scheduled to be in town within a day or so.

     Henry King had named himself mayor of the town, Bailey reported, and had appointed other company personnel as city councilmen. Their first official act on June 18 was a resolution supporting the rules drawn up by camp manager I. N. Liner: no liquor or profane language, quiet after 10 p.m., meals in the mess tent only and no visitations of men and women to each other's quarters. Liner also laid down strictures regarding the conservation of water, keeping horses outside the living areas and the reporting of all illnesses and injuries to the infirmary.12

     A postal facility was also established at Barbara Worth, as was a bank and an office for the Barbara Worth Times. Extras and other film personnel were housed in large tents, and every effort was made to assure their comfort and safety. Dr. L. A. Eshman, a Los Angeles physician, had been bought up to establish a clinic. Director King also hired H. S. Anderson, a San Francisco chef, to supervise the commissary and prepare meals.

 

Pershing, Humboldt and Lander County ranchers provided most of the livestock, wagons and other transportation rigs needed for The Winning of Barbara Worth. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Click on Photo to Enlarge

 

     Portable generators provided electrical power. There were also showers and a recreation tent complete with books, radios, phonographs, records and projection equipment for showing motion pictures and the clips from the current film which were to be sent to the DeMille Studio in Los Angeles for developing.13

     Although Winnemucca, Lovelock and Gerlach supplied all the extras for the initial filming, word that there was work at Barbara Worth spread to Reno. On June 16, an unemployed Reno laborer, A. S. Gorman, and his son, Ray, set out afoot for Gerlach. They became lost somewhere north of Pyramid Lake and wandered for three days without food before reaching Black Sulphur Springs near Sheep Pass. They got their bearings at the springs and stumbled into Barbara Worth on June 19 where Dr. Eshman treated them for exhaustion and exposure.

     Three carpenters from the film city had a similar experience when their car broke down on a trip to Sulphur. They had neither food nor water with them and spent two nights and a day wandering in the Pahsupp Mountains. They found water at an abandoned sheep camp, and two of them continued on until they finally spotted Barbara Worth from the top of a mountain. When they came in, they could neither eat nor drink for several hours. One of them finally recovered sufficiently to accompany a deputy sheriff in an automobile to rescue the third man. When found 20 miles out, he was thirsty, hungry and exhausted but otherwise in fair condition.14

     Goldwyn and King arrived at Barbara Worth on June 21 with Miss Banky, Colman, Gary Cooper and the remainder of the cast. The entire 150-man production unit accompanied them, as did technicians and carpenters from Gerlach where work on preparing the sets was almost complete.

     Goldwyn, King and the others found the accommodations much to their liking. The well to provide hot water had been completed by that time, and laborers laid the last section of pipe into camp that day. Camp manager Liner had tested the water when the well came in and found it to be too salty and brackish for drinking. So he had arranged with railroad officials to haul water in at a cost of $150 a tanker.

     In spite of camp rules, liquor was readily available at Barbara Worth until Goldwyn and King arrived. Taking stock of the situation at that time, they contacted Nevada Prohibition Administrator George Brady and had him station two of his agents at the movie camp. Barbara Worth was officially "dry" thereafter, but a Lovelock resident who worked as a teamster during the filming once told this writer that members of the cast had their own private stocks or were able to arrange for deliveries from Reno and Gerlach.15

     Henry King had planned on filming the first scenes on June 20, but set changes and costume alterations ordered by art director Borg moved the date up to June 21. A crowd of spectators from Winnemucca joined the extras on the set that afternoon, and some of them were hired on the spot to be part of a street scene which included a wagon train, settlers, Mexicans and cowboys, but disaster struck right off. A wagon overturned on a grade at the edge of town when the horses spooked, spilling six extras out in the dirt. The driver was taken to the infirmary to be examined by Dr. Eshman, but he was pronounced fit after he regained consciousness two hours later. 

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