REEL CULVER CITY
by Marc Wanamaker
“ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT” SHOT IN PART IN CULVER CITY AVIATION & MOTION PICTURES – EARLY PARTNERS
CECIL B. DEMILLE CREATES “40 ACRES” BACKLOT/RANCH
Recently, I have been researching the history of the RKO-Pathé “40 Acres” back lot in Culver City for a new website: “40 Acres: The Lost Studio and Backlot of Movie & Television Fame.”
The “40 Acres” lot [which is a bit of a misnomer as it was only 29 acres] was created by Cecil B. DeMille to build outdoor sets for his first independent films – such as The Volga Boatman in 1926 – shortly after DeMille took over the Thomas Ince Studios in 1925, after the death of his friend, producer-director Thomas Ince.
From 1926 on, sets for such films as The King Of Kings (1927), King Kong (1933) and Gone With The Wind (1939) were built on the “40 Acres” backlot/ranch that was located off of Ince Boulevard, Lucerne Avenue and Higuera Street. The backlot continued to act as a setting for the “world” and world history in many films over the years.
With the succession of various companies owning the studio, the famed lot hosted many different styles of film sets. The many companies which owned the studio property built by Ince in 1918 on Washington Boulevard and the “40 Acres” included: Thomas Ince Studios (1918-1924), Cecil B. DeMille/Pathé Studios (1925-1929), Pathé Studios (1929-1931), RKO-Pathé (1931-1957), Selznick International Pictures (1935-1957-leased), Desilu Culver Studios (1957-1967), Paramount (1967-1968), and Culver City Studios (1968-1979).
FILM WON “BEST FILM” OF 1930
While researching the more unknown sets used on the old “40 Acres” lot, my colleagues and I discovered that important scenes from Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930) were filmed on “French village” sets on the “40 Acres” backlot! All the experts on the film’s history were unaware that Universal shot some of its key scenes in Culver City. Most of the film was either shot on the back lot of Universal Studios or on location in Irvine California. This was a major discovery as related to an important classic silent-era film.
DIRECTOR MILESTONE INJURED ON SET
During the filming on the “40 Acres” lot, there was an incident that injured its director, Lewis Milestone. In a small article in the Los Angeles Times on June 7, 1930, a headline announced: “FILM DIRECTOR’S FACE INJURED IN EXPLOSION SCENE.”
The story continued: “Dynamited debris yesterday injured Lewis Milestone, director, during the filming of Universal’s production of All Quiet on the Western Front at the Pathé Studios in Culver City. Milestone was directing a scene in which 250 soldiers were marching past a church when it was blown up. The air for a hundred yards was filled with flying debris following the blast, and one jagged two-by-four board hit the director’s head. A German war helmet he was wearing saved Milestone from serious injury, but a splinter from the board tore a gash across his face.”
The sets used on the “40 Acres” lot/ranch included the “French village” that was built on both sides of Ballona Creek connected with a stone bridge. Jefferson Boulevard – which was just a small dirt road at the time – which was just a small dirt road at the time – was the southern border of the ranch. The church that was blown up was located next to what became Jefferson Boulevard.
La Ballona Creek was also used for the swimming scenes before the ensuing battle began, so the film company dammed up the creek to create enough slow-moving water for the actors to swim in. After Universal finished using the ranch, the French village sets were re-used for many years and modified for a number of other films. A section of the Jefferson Boulevard side of the ranch was converted into a jungle set and also used for many years.
In 1976, the “40 Acres” backlot was demolished and the property converted into an industrial park that has been used in recent years as motion picture and television production facilities.