Saturday, February 21, 2015

America's Super Heroes VS the Axis Powers in World War 2 Cliff Hangers

At 10 AM, one Saturday morning in 1952, my mother dropped five year old Lloyd off at the La Brea Theater, located at the corner of La Brea and Wilshire Boulevards in Los Angeles to see a typical Kids Movie Program. These were designed to give mom a little time off while making money for the theater owners at very little extra expense.

My mother gave me a quarter for admission and another quarter to buy a bag of popcorn, a soft drink and a box of candy. Times have changed to go to a movie since then. I put one half of my duplicate admission ticket in a fish bowl for the prize drawing between films and entered.

A typical Kids program consisted of between five and ten cartoons and two films. A typical double bill might have been Johnny Weismuller in the 65 minute "Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land" and Johnny Sheffield as Bomba the Jungle boy in the 75 minute "The Lion Hunters". Weismuller had played Tarzan to Sheffield's boy in the old MGM film series from the early 1940's. However, it wasn't the prize drawing, or the two films that brought the 5 to 10 year old audience to the theater. It was to watch the next episode in the weekly Cliff Hanger such as "Superman vs Atom Man", or "Commander Cody the Sky Marshall of the Universe".

Cliff Hanger's were still serious business in 1952, but four years later on August 4, 1956 the last one would be released "Blazing the Overland Trail" and ending a 42 year movie genre. When you think of the Chapter Serials two studios usually come to the forefront Mascott and Republic. However, it was actually Pathe and Universal back in 1914 that started it all.

Pathe's first release was the 20 Chapter "The Perils of Pauline" released on March 31, 1914 starring Pearl White. Universal Pictures was next the following month on April 14th with "Lucille Love: Girl of Mystery" a 15 Chapter entry. In fact Universal Pictures holds the record for Cliff Hangers at 137 ending with "The Mysterious Mr. M" on August 1, 1946. Mascott Pictures only made 30 of these serials ending with "The Fighting Marines" on November 23, 1936. While Republic Pictures considered the King of the Serials made 66 ending with "King of the Carnival" on June 27, 1955.

So who was the first film Super Hero? The answer might surprise those who immediately think of "The Avengers", or "The Justice League". The first motion picture Super Hero appeared in 1920 and was based upon the Johnson McCulley novel "The Curse of Capistrano", The film was "The Mark of Zorro" and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, played Don Diego de la Vega known as "Zorro". I can see the faces right now on my readers as they are trying to put Don Diego in the same category as David Banner, or Peter Parker.
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There are six recognized basic elements to meet the definition of a Super Hero;

1. Exceptional skills, or abilities. This does not mean having Super human strength, radioactive blood, or telepathy. It simply means knowing how to use your brain, use whats available to you and understand the situation. While "The Flash" has super speed "The Green Arrow" mostly uses his archery skills. In the case of Don Diego it was his swordsmanship.

2. A moral code of conduct to fight injustice which may attach itself directly to Number Three.

3. Motivation to do good and seek justice. In the case of Don Diego it is the treatment of peasants by the Spanish Governor, but in the case of the Dark Knight both two and three may seem warped as a result of what caused Bruce Wayne to become Batman.

4. A secret identity to protect the Super Hero's friends and family from harm. In Don Diego's case he becomes "The Fox El Zorro". Peter Parker became "Spiderman".

5. An underlying motif, or theme in the costume the Super Hero chooses. The Black Mask, Cape, Hat and clothing of "Zorro" along with the "Dandy" personality of Don Diego. A similar personality in a way to Clark Kent as compared to either Kal-El or for the matter Superman himself.

6. They need both supporting characters friendly to the Super Hero and a rogues gallery of enemies. In the case of Don Diego you are looking at Captain Juan Ramon head of the Military in Los Angeles and Lolita Pulido the women Diego loves, but must keep in the dark about his real feelings and identity.
So now the setting is in place. What follows is a look at some of the Chapter Serials that appeared during the years immediately prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and some of those that appeared after. Which would ntroduce"Batman" and "Captain America" to the screen among other characters.

On September 26, 1933 a prohibition era gangster named George Kelly was captured by the FBI. According to legend he was suppose to have shouted out: "Don't shoot, G-Men! Don't shoot, G-Men!" and a moniker for the FBI was born.
Look at some of the titles of the late 1930's to early 1940's serials and you will find: "Junior G-Men", "Dick Tracy's G-Men", "G-Men Never Forget" and "Flying G-Men". These crime drama's sometimes had the "G-Men" fighting enemy agents and spies.

Looking at Columbia Pictures "The Flying G-Men" from February 2, 1939. The story is about a group of FBI agents hunting down an enemy spy ring from an unmentioned foreign power. One of agents becomes a Super Hero in the form  of  "The Black Falcon" to avenge the death of one of their number, This was a basic plot of the period and had to avoid any mention of either Germany, or Japan. Even though the sentiment in the United States against those countries was boiling over in confrontations between Americans for Germany and those against what Hitler was starting to do.

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Although fighting crime and not enemy agents and spies. Universal Picture's would release on January 9, 1940 "The Green Hornet". Unlike "The Flying G-Men" this serial had a subtle change to it that reflected strongly on the tone American's were starting to now show towards Japanese American's.

The actual shooting of this Cliff Hanger was completed in 1939 almost two full years prior to Pearl Harbor and released a full year and a half before that event. The radio drama "The Green Hornet" had appeared in 1936 and was an immediate hit.

"The Green Hornet" is about crime fighter and newspaper publisher Brett Reid who with his Japanese servant Kato fight crime within their city. However, when Universal Pictures decided to make the radio program into the first of two Chapter Serials they changed Kato's nationality from Japanese to Korean. Kato would be played in both serials by Chinese actor Key Luke. Luke was already known as Charlie Chan's Number One Son in that movie series and would become Master Po on the David Carradine 1972 television series "Kung Fu". Along with being the Chinese Shopkeeper who first possesses Gizmo in "Gremlins".

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While Universal Pictures was concerned about Kato's nationality Republic Picture was not yet thinking about the racial implications of certain characters. On November 15, 1940 they released a 15 Chapter Serial entitled "The Drums of Fu Manchu". The "Yellow Peril" of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novel was alive and well as he attempted to find "The Sceptre of Genghis Khan". His purpose to use this symbol to unite all the "Yellow people's" of Asia under his rule and then conqueror the "White" World. Fiction of course.

However, one of the hot button issues over American/Japanese relations in the 1930's had been Japan's unprovoked invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and with world tensions at the time. Releasing a "Fu Manchu" serial did not help American/Chinese relations. Just 13 months later China would be one of our allies and "The Flying Tigers" would be operating against Japan in that country.

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On May 9, 1941 just seven months before Pearl Harbor an evil criminal working for an unnamed Foreign Power calling himself the Gargoyle was planning sabotage and wholesale murder to bring down the United States economy. There is only one man that can stop him in this Columbia Cliff Hanger and so "The Spider Returns".

Move over Peter Parker this spider may not have radioactive blood, but he does swing a mean web.

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First seen in the October 10, 1938 "The Spider's Web" Richard Wentworth has dual secret identities. He is a Petty Criminal Blinky McQuade who works with the police department as a trusted informer. Unknown to the Chief of Police Wentworth is also the vigilante known as "The Spider" and a criminal the Chief wants arrested.

Dave O'Brien seen beside Mary Ainslee above is Jackson one of the few who know Wentworth's secret and his assistant. He had a smaller role in the first serial. O'Brien may look somewhat familiar to my readers who are fans of the cult favorite from 1936 "Reefer Madness". Dave O'Brien's next role would be as "Captain Midnight" the following year.

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I first met "Captain Midnight" in the television series starring Richard Webb on CBS from September 9, 1954 until January 21, 1956 and never missed an episode.Along with being a member of "The Secret Squadron". I even watched the reruns called "Jet Jackson", because the sponsor for the original live broadcasts, Ovaltine, owned the rights to the name and would permit it used in syndication.

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The background of "Captain Midnight".

The radio show started out as a local enterprise in Chicago, but went syndicated in 1938. The weekly programs told of World War One veteran pilot Jim Albright who now works for the Government as the head of "The Secret Squadron". In the 1942 Columbia Serial "Captain Midnight" became a World War Two pilot and on television Captain Midnight became naturally a Korean War Veteran.

What was "The Secret Squadron"?

On the radio program it was an aviation orientated paramilitary group of scientists, After Pearl Harbor the activities of the squadron took them on Government operations in foreign countries to retrieve military secrets and stop foreign agents. This was the similar responsibility in the Cliff Hanger. While on the television series the squadron became a private business enterprise reflecting on the 1950's business models. One of the main elements was that major members of the Secret Squadron were women. On "Captain Midnight" women were equals to the male characters a theme very unusual for the times as a "women's place was in the home".

So do you want to join the Secret Squadron? Here is a link to what was a live Ovaltine commercial from the Captain Midnight TV show with the dual purpose of getting new membership and tying in the next episode:

The Cliff Hanger's plot was simply lifted from the original radio program.

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Taken straight from the radio program the villain in the serial is Ivan Shark the number opponent from the series beginnings. Shark is bombing American cities for an unnamed foreign power. It is up to the Captain played by Dave O'Brien and the members of the Secret Squadron to stop him and restore order. On radio Ivan was joined by Baron von Karp, Admiral Himakito and von Schrecker, but these new Axis enemies did not appear in the serial.

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The plane in the serial and the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket used as a model for the TV show's plane.

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Dave O'Brien                    Richard Webb

Captain Midnight #1 for September 1942 and Dark Horse Comics 2010 Captain Midnight issue.

On April 4, 1942 Republic Pictures released one of the best Cliff Hangers "Spy Smasher".

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Republic Pictures production number 1196 was filmed between December 22, 1941, only 15 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and January 29, 1942. The story involved a Nazi agent known as "The Mask" who operates out of a U-Boat located off the coast of the United States.

Kane Richmond played Alan Armstrong aka: Spy Smasher and his twin brother Jack a character not in the Fawcett comic series. This Cliff Hanger is considered by film historian's Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut (The Long-Underwear Boys "You've Met Me, Now Meet My Fist!" The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. New York: Routledge Publishing, 1973) as having some of the greatest stunts in any serial ever made. Probably this can be contributed to Stunt Coordinator Yakima Cancutt 

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According to Harmon and Glut Chapter 11 of this 12 Chapter serial has the most unusual ending in any Cliff Hanger. The audience witnesses "Spy Smasher" shot at point blank range on top of a building and falling to the pavement below dead.

When the audience sees Chapter 12 they are awaiting to find out how he escaped at the last minute as was the traditional ruse. The audience is surprised to find out that 'Spy Smasher' is actually dead. However, the switch was made when Jack knocks out his brother and assumed the identity of the Super Hero. Alan is still alive and filled with revenge and has a final show down with "The Mask" in the U-Boat ending the serial.

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Across town at Columbia released "The Secret Code" featuring "The Black Commando" on September 4, 1942. Note the "The Black Commando's" outfit is almost the exact same as "Spy Smasher's".

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The Black Commando fights Nazi saboteurs complete with a U-Boat waiting off the coast of the United States. Talk about borrowing a competitor's idea. However, Columbia Pictures redeemed themselves with their next two entries.

Should I ask you who Lewis Wilson was I would expect a blank stare in response. Wilson has the distinction of being the first actor to play Bruce Wayne aka: Batman on the motion picture screen. Along with 16 year old Douglas Croft as Dick Grayson aka: Robin the Boy Wonder.

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Playing the Evil Japanese Scientist in the 1943 "Batman" released on July 16th was character actor J. Carrol Naish as Dr. Tito Daka aka: Prince Daka. Naish looks like the stereo typical Japanese even to wearing what were called "Tojo Eye-Glasses".

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The plot has Prince Daka hiding out in a deserted Amusement Park in what was originally the Japanese section of Gotham City. While he captures American scientists and business men turning them into his "Electronic Zombies".

Columbia's "Batman" had strong racial overtones and slurs. The first Chapter "The Electrical Brain" has a narrator giving this description of the area Daka is hiding:
This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.
While even one of Daka's American henchmen tells him:
That's the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin.
In the final Chapter "The Doom of the Rising Sun" Prince Daka is in a life and death fight with both Batman and Robin. Daka has the upper hand when Robin accidentally throws the wrong switch in error causing a trap door in the floor to open. As a result the evil Japanese scientist falls to his death in a pit of crocodiles. This time "The Boy Blunder" blunders into the right action for democracy.

On the plus side this serial had an influence on the "Batman" mythology that started to appear in the very next issue of the D.C. Comic after the Cliff Hanger came out. For dramatic effect the serial created "The Bat Cave" under Wayne Manor and the entry through the Grandfather Clock in the Library.

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The other change was caused by the appearance of actor William Austin as Alfred Pennyworth. In the comic books Alfred was overweight and short. As a result of Austin's look the butler became tall, thin and more British.

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In 1949 Columbia would do a sequel "Batman and Robin" starring Robert Lowery as Bruce Wayne and Johnny Duncan as Dick Grayson.
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I remember in 1965 just before I went into the Navy that Columbia Pictures had Special Screenings of the entire 1943 serial in one sitting called "An Evening with Batman". All 15 Chapters at Four Hours and Twenty Minutes were shown without intermission. As a result of the reception over this re-issue a decision was made to create a television version and the Adam West/Burt Ward series was born.

On December 24, 1943 Columbia released "The Phantom" starring Tom Tyler. Unlike many of the leads in Cliff Hangers Tom Tyler had a very interesting motion picture career starting in 1924 as an extra, in 1926 he was one of the charioteers in the silent classic "Ben Hur", and ending in 1953 as a semi-regular on the "Gene Autry Television Show".

My article, "Tom Tyler: the 'B' Cowboy Star Who Became a Mummy, Captain Marvel and a Classic John Wayne Bad Guy" is found at:

Tyler will always be remembered for four specific roles. The first is the small but critical role of Luke Plummer the killer John Wayne as "The Ringo Kid" is after in John Ford's classic 1938 Western "Stagecoach". Next Tom Tyler was cast as the original version of the Mummy Kharis in Universal Pictures 1940 "The Mummy's Hand". Tyler had a very diabolical look and way about him. Unfortunately he would be replaced in the next three films by an overweight Lon Chaney, Jr. In 1941 he had the title role in Republic Pictures "The Adventures of Captain Marvel". The fourth role is the one I am speaking about "The Phantom: the Ghost Who Walks".

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The plot of "The Phantom" revolves around the search for "The Lost City of Zoloz" whose location is contained upon seven pieces of Ivory. However, unknown to the members of the expedition Dr. Max Bremmer is actually working for his own, unnamed country, to find Zoloz to turn it into a hidden airfield for attacks upon Africa and Mediterranean ports.

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A change from the very popular comic strip was in the name of the man behind the mask. In the strip "The Phantom" is Kit Walker, but as that first name had yet to be used. When we see Tom Tyler not dressed as "The Phantom" he goes by "Walker" and claims his real name is Geoffrey Prescott. The African Jungle was doubled by the Hollywood Hills around the "Hollywood" sign and Griffith Park.

According to Harman and Glut this was one of the better Columbia Serials and Tom Tyler's performance added to his label as "The Gary Cooper of the B movies".

In 1955 Columbia Pictures went into production with a sequel "Return of the Phantom", but ran into trouble with King Features. Columbia's option to use the name had run out and King Features would not permit the studio to renew that option. So producer Sam Katzman went into overdrive and "Return of the Phantom" was changed to "The Adventures of Captain Africa". Actually flash back scenes had to be redone with John Hart in the "Captain Africa" costume raising the overrun on the serial.

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John Hart                               

In promoting the original serial Columbia's PR Department got an interesting idea and the following are two promotional pieces of material tying "Batman" Lewis Wilson to "The Phantom" Tom Tyler. Only problem in my opinion is that the Tom Tyler Cliff Hanger is far superior to the Lewis Wilson one, but then it was the characters that the PR department wanted the potential audience to consider.

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Between Columbia Pictures "Batman" and "The Phantom" Republic brought out what many consider to be the best stunt filled Cliff Hanger ever made "The Masked Marvel" released on November 6, 1943.

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The idea of the character of "The Masked Marvel" as presented in this serial is very unique. The above picture is of Stunt Coordinator Tom Steele who is seen on screen as the title character. However, he is not really "The Mask Marvel". Tom Steele is the physical body the audience will see whenever the character is on screen until the last chapter. The voice provided for Steele when he speaks comes from actor Gayne Whitman, but Whitman is also not "The Masked Marvel". Neither of these two actors even get screen credit for their performances and the viewer has no idea until Chapter 12 "The Man Behind Mask" which of those on screen credited actors is the real Super Hero.

After wearing the specially designed mask at the end of the final episode Tom Steele starts to remove it and the face you now see is either that of actors: David Bacon, Richard Clarke, Bill Healey, or Rod Bacon. The audience is suppose to accept the fact that when the mask is in place the physical appearance of the "The Masked Marvel" has also changed. This same plot device was used by Republic in their February 12, 1938 serial "The Lone Ranger". When there were several possibilities as to who is behind that famous mask also.

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The mask does look similar also. The lobby card for the first Chapter "Hi-Yo Silver".

In "The Masked Marvel" our hero is up against a Japanese saboteur Mura Sakima and his henchmen. There is one stunt that has Tom Steele as "The Masked Marvel" being chased up a flight of stairs by one of Sakima's henchmen. It is a unique aspect of this Cliff Hanger as you really have Tom Steele chasing Tom Steele. Another great stunt has a mine car full of dynamite heading for a moving train and Steele crashes his car into the mine car jumping out at the last second as the special effects team explode the dynamite. A wonderful example of stunt work performed in real time.

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There are some other great stunts in this classic serial, but it is remembered not for that or the mystery of who "The Masked Marvel" turns out to be, It is remembered for the murder of actor David Bacon.

Bacon was cast as Bob Barton a role some would consider jinxed, because all four previous actors injured themselves and were replaced. David Bacon even joked on the set that he would probably get hurt going home in his car. Two weeks after production completed on the film he was found in his car murdered. There was a small knife wound in his back that punctured his lung.  Here is a link to the Wikipedia bio about the actor whose murder remains unsolved to this day.

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In 1944, it was still "Timely Comics", not "Marvel Comics", and "Republic Pictures" brought a popular comic book to life, but with major changes.

CAPTAIN AMERICA Chapter One was released on February 5, 1944

Any reader of "Timely Comics" in 1944, soon to be sold to "Marvel Comics", knew about "Steve Rogers". How he wanted to join the military, but was turned down over and over again, because he wasn't strong. They knew how "Rogers" became part of the "Super Soldier" program. That "Captain America" was created to fight the Nazi's. These same readers also knew about "Rogers" friendship with the young "James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes".

"Republic Pictures" dropped all reference to the "Timely Comics" character, and now, "Captain America", was a local city "District Attorney" named "Grant Gardner", portrayed by Dick Purcell.

The character of "Bucky Barnes" was dropped, and instead, the audience had the heroine of, "Grant Garner's secretary Gail Richards", portrayed by Lorna Gray, below with Dick Purcell.

With the changes to the main characters, instead of portraying a Nazi Spy Ring Leader, such as "The Red Skull". This screenplay had Lionel Atwill portraying "Dr. Cyrus Maldor aka: the Scarab". Who is behind a rash of suspicious suicides among some top scientists and business leaders.

Seven writers apparently worked on the screenplay, Royale K. Cole, Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Harry L. Fraser, Grant Nelson, and Joseph F. Poland. The reason for the extreme changes they made in the characters, according to "Republic Pictures", was that the studio was never told who "Captain America" was by "Timely Comics". So, they let the seven screenplay writers create their story. Sounds a little far fetched, but that is the official story.

Yet, the credits state the screenplay is based upon the character appearing in "Captain America Comics", by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

However, James "Jim" Judson Harmon was a "Golden Age of Radio" and cultural historian and Donald F. Glut is best known for his novelization of "The Empire Strikes Back", but is also a science fiction writer and historian. The two had another explanation for what "Republic Pictures" did to "Captain America"

We have to go back to the 1940 serial "The Mysterious Doctor Satan" and the character of "Bob Wayne", who is seeking justice against "Dr. Satan" over the death of his step-father and disguises himself as the crime fighter "The Copperhead". The two film historians believe that originally the script for "Captain America" was the sequel for the return of "Bob Wayne" as the "Cooperhead". Having acquired the film rights to the "Timely Comics" character cut the studio's costs by just changing the lead character's name in the already written screenplay.


Then there is the story that the script was really to have been "Superman", but "Republic Pictures" lost out to "Paramount Pictures" in obtaining the character, because that studio already had the Max Fleischer Studio's cartoon series going. Interesting in hindsight as "Paramount" would eventually purchase "Republic Studios".

Of course it could be also argued that once "Superman" came to the live motion picture screens it was in a 15 Chapter Serial in 1948 from  "Columbia Pictures" not "Paramount". However, Max Fleischer provided the animated flying sequences. My article on the character is 
"SUPERMAN, SUPERBOY, SUPERGIRL: Their Origins and Beginnings in Motion Pictures and Television" at:

So, in short, only those who were at "Republic Pictures", at the time, know the true story and unless some document turns up, we will never know.

According to the screenplay, the motivation for all of these murders is revenge, because "Dr. Maldor" feels he was the one that should have gotten the fame for the discovery of a Mayan ruin that the others claim as discovering. There is also a machine called the "Dynamic Vibrator", designed to make ore mining easier, but could be turned into an Earthquake causing weapon. For 15-Chapters, "Captain America" is attempting to capture the "Scarab" without knowing he is "Dr. Maldor", who at times seems to help "Grant Gardner" to avoid detection.

This has been a short look at one period of time in the history of "The Cliff Hanger" during the Second World War and I admit a select group at that. However, I hope it has piqued your interest in this almost forgotten motion picture genre.

I live in Newhall, California and up the road from my home not 12 minutes away is Vasquez Rock's Park. It was there that "Captain Marvel" and "Rocket Man" flew and many a "B" Western hero fought off Indians and outlaw gangs. You would recognize the rocks in a moment. My article is
"VASQUEZ ROCKS: The Most Important Pile of Rocks in Motion Picture History", ready to be climbed, I did, at:

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