Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Trem Carr, W. Ray Johnston on Set

"Lost in the Stratosphere" | Placerita Canyon

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Balloon liftoff scene: A combination of local film and Army footage from the real flight in the Dakotas.

On the east side of today's 14 Freeway at Placerita Canyon Road, Trem Carr (left) and W. Ray Johnston — the brains and money behind the progenitor of both Melody Ranch and, indirectly, Disney's Golden Oak Ranch — pose with a prop weather balloon capsule for the decidedly non-Western "Lost in the Stratosphere" (Monogram Pictures 1934).

Producer Carr leased the land shown here from Standard Oil Company of California in 1931 and established a Western movie town with sets built by his associate Ernie Hickson.

Carr had been producing pictures in Placerita Canyon since about 1925, and W. Ray Johnson distributed them. In 1928, Carr and Johnston entered into a formal partnership which, in 1931, became Monogram Pictures Corp., prompting Carr to lease this movie property.

By 1936, when Carr's 5-year lease was up for renewal, Hickson had purchased land a mile or so to the west, so they moved their filming operation there. After Hickson's death in 1952, the new owner, Gene Autry, named it Melody Ranch.

Incidentally, in 1940, Johnston purchased the main house at 22931 8th Street (corner Wayman) in Newhall that vaudeville actor Charley Mack built in 1928.

Dial up the clock to the late 1950s: Walt Disney consolidated the few small movie ranches at today's 14 Freeway and Placerita Canyon Road, including the original Trem Carr Pictures Ranch shown here, into the Disney Golden Oak Ranch.

Most of Monogram's issuances were "B" (low-Budget) Westerns, but occasionally they'd make a military-themed picture, sometimes even with airplanes. "Lost in the Stratosphere" is one of these exceptions.

The Plot.

The cutline accompanying this photograph (shown below) reads:

"Lost in the Stratosphere" Brings East and West Together

W. Ray Johnston, president of Monogram Pictures, is shown here with Trem Carr, vice president in charge of production, looking over the huge metal ball especially designed for Monogram's new novelty thriller, "Lost in the Stratosphere," which has scenes of the actual ascent in the Dakotas by the army flyers in one of the climactic scenes from the picture.

It was fairly common for directors (in this case, Melville W. Brown) to cut in stock and newsreel footage when it suited their purposes.

The balloon capsule takeoff scenes and the faked airplane landings (they don't really land) appear to be the only portions of this picture shot locally. The bulk of it was filmed in one of the Poverty Row studios in the Sunset-Gower Street area.

Publicity for the film debut in late 1934-early 1935 called the picture "a very timely one with practically every country in the world making experiments in the regions above the clouds to determine causes for changes in weather" (The Hammond Times, Munster, Indiana, February 1, 1935).

In 1931, the Swiss-born physicist Auguste Piccard and his assistant Charles Kipfer became the first humans to enter the stratosphere during a flight out of Germany in which they reached a record altitude of 51,775 feet (9.8 miles), ostensibly making them the first people to witness the curvature of the Earth with their own eyes. The flight was made in a black and silver aluminum ball, not unlike the fake one shown here, which replicates a U.S. Army Air Corps version.

To make the picture work, Monogram interwove a love triangle starring James Cagney's brother, William Cagney.

"The new Monogram film, 'Lost in the Stratosphere,' is the entertaining story of two young army officers who, after spirited rivalry in various affairs of the heart, both fall in love with the same girl, only to have their romantic complications cut short by an assignment to make a stratospheric flight" (Telegraph-Forum, Bucyrus, Ohio, January 16, 1936).

"Bill Cagney, making his first appearance for Monogram on his new long-term contract with that studio, and June Collyer have the romantic leads in this spectacular air production which was written by Tristam Tupper and Albert E. DeMond. The story concerns itself with two irrepressible young lieutenants in the air service who rank at the top as fliers but at the bottom when it comes to their many lady friends. Offered a chance to have their names indelibly printed in the annals of science, they make a flight into the stratosphere in the interests of science and fortunately return with very important information for the benefit of future flying. Eddie Nugent heads the supporting cast with Edmund Breese, Frank McGlynn Sr., Pauline Garon, Matt McHugh, Russ Clark and Lona Andre also cast in important roles" (The Star Press, Muncie, Indiana, July 14, 1935).

It seems none of the publicity mentioned the one cast member whose name most film buffs would recognize a century later: Hattie McDaniel, "Mammy" from 1939's "Gone With the Wind." If it's any consolation, McDaniel was the only one of them who was invited to (and did) participate in the April 1939 groundbreaking of the Val Verde Park Pool. The following February, she became the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award. It would be 51 years before there was another.

In our picture, she plays the personal servant to the love interest (Collyer).

We may never know if Ernie Hickson built the fake balloon capsule, but he was the art director and provided props for this picture, as he did for all Monogram pictures filmed at Trem Carr's ranch and, later, his own movie ranch down the road.

Further reading: Melody Ranch: Movie Magic in Placerita Canyon.

Click image to enlarge | Download archival scan

LW3661: 9600 dpi jpeg from original 8x10 photograph purchased 2019 by Leon Worden.
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