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‘Stolen Ranch’ a charming, informative look at Lubken Ranch lifestyle in 1926

October 7, 2010

Inyo Film Journal No. 196

Every Saturday night of the Lone Pine Film Festival, the organizers choose a special film to show as their Hallmark movie. This year, a real rarity, a silent film shot in and around the Lubken Ranch, is screening. It is called “Stolen Ranch” and stars a very charming and sweet cowboy actor named Fred Humes. After you have seen one of his smiles on the screen, you’ll see that the word “charming” is not an exaggeration.
What makes this showing particularly wonderful is the music Bishop resident Bill Schuck has created for the film. The film is somewhat different from other Westerns of the time. It has a bad man who has stolen a ranch, but the themes revolve around the damage war causes soldiers and how the community must help them recover. The emphasis is less on gunplay than ranch life, and the famous rocks are only glimpsed occasionally. It is really worth the 65-minute running time and residents and history buffs will get a lot of insight about our heritage from the film.
What’s more, it is an early William Wyler film. He made several Westerns in Lone Pine during this period before he went on to win three Academy Awards. It is also a Universal Blue Streak Western, with a story by Robert F. Hill. The print was obtained from the Library of Congress which preserved it. Special help from Rob Stone and Richard Bann were instrumental in having the film back in Lone Pine.
Bann, who will also be in attendance at the screening, has written, “German-American William Wyler remains the most honored director in Hollywood history. His films generated a record 127 Oscar nominations and won 38 awards. Initially he had the good fortune of being related to the Laemmle family which founded Universal, the dominant producer of Westerns throughout the silent films era. That is where Wyler got his start, making several such low budget efforts, some shot in Lone Pine.”
“Stolen Ranch,” now preserved by the Library of Congress, was a routine Western that told of two veterans – one suffering from shell shock – who return from World War I, only to discover the family ranch has been claimed by a thief. Beginning on June 24, 1926, and using a working title of “True Blue,” the picture was lensed on location in Lone Pine, principally at the Lubken Ranch and environs.
Wyler of course would return to the theme of soldiers’ civilian lives after combat. Bann says, “Few could have predicted such success from ‘Stolen Ranch,’ but two decades later Wyler made ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives,’ which told of three servicemen similarly trying to adjust to civilian life after World War II; it was showered with a stunning seven Oscars.”
The two leads in ‘Stolen Ranch’ – both older than their young director, age 23 – were Fred Humes and Louise Lorraine. A corporal in The Great War, Humes was then a friend of Hoot Gibson, Universal’s reigning Western star. They were similar types, and both emphasized comedy. Humes, however, was one of many who failed to survive the advent of talking pictures. After several years working as a stunt double, bit player, and stand-in, Humes gave up movies in 1936, became a miner, and died a dementia victim at age 74 in 1971.
Miss Lorraine was a former “Wampus Baby Star,” a durable 5’1” silent serials heroine, and the second actress to re-create the role of “Jane” to Elmo Lincoln’s “Tarzan.” Lorraine was then married to yet another Universal cowboy star, Art Acord. She left movies before Humes did, and died in 1981 in her 80s.
While not documentary in style, the film provides a glimpse into what ranch life must have been like in the 1920s in the area. The Lubken Ranch house burned and was replaced by a house that is located on the site today. The ranch is for sale and was highlighted in a recent L.A. Times article. The film also shows the beautiful locations and the famous outcropping of rock out in the pasture that was used in Tom Mix’s version of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” filmed two years before.
Axel Madsen in his authorized biography on Wyler describes the process for making this series of films. They were five-reelers and cost about $20,000. “The actors were cowboys, but considered stars and although the pictures had a lot of action, there was room for character development and for plot. Nothing elaborate was attempted – lights were never used outdoors, only reflectors which also served as the leading lady’s folding screens when she changed costumes …Production manager Martin Murphy was there to keep the lid on expenses, always trying to cut down on the posse from eight cowboys ($7.50 each per day) to six or from five to four. Going on location meant living two or three to a room in claptrap hotels but going out of town added ‘production values’ to the film.”
Madsen even references a time that Willie (Wyler) staged a whole sequence complete with stagecoach and badmen riding up during the ten minutes the train was at the Lone Pine depot. Wyler had already served time in Lone Pine by the time he came to make “Stolen Ranch.” He had been first assistant director to William Crinley in 1925, working with Humes and filming in the Alabamas and on the desert flats. Neither film exists but they were probably “Taking Chances” and “The Gold Trap.”
Of these early two-reelers, author Jan Herman quotes Wyler as saying, “It was a hell of a good school for learning the elementary fundamentals of making films, which lie in movement. Movies are not stills. They are movement. And those Westerns – all routine elementary stories – had to move.”
The screening starts at 7 p.m. Saturday night at the Lone Pine High School Auditorium. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Langley can be reached by phone at (760) 937-1189 or by e-mail at

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