The former Lasky Ranch, bordering Griffith Park near Burbank, and future site of the Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Memorial Park which opened in 1952, is steeped in movie history. Once part of the Spanish-era Rancho Providencia, the Lasky Ranch was used for more than three decades as a filming location for scores of Hollywood productions. As documented in my book Silent Visions, Harold Lloyd filmed his “rural” comedy The Kid Brother there in 1927, while Rudolph Valentino filmed exteriors for both Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922) at the ranch (see below).
As shown here, the ranch also appears in an unlikely pair of films, D.W. Griffith’s monumental yet incredibly racist Civil War epic The Birth of A Nation (1915), and the Three Stooges comedy short Playing The Ponies (1937). Several massive ancient oak trees that witnessed both productions are still standing today.
It is well-documented that Griffith staged the Civil War battlefield sequences from The Birth of A Nation at the Lasky Ranch. Above, by stitching together a production still from the movie, and test footage of the battlefield, both looking east, a prominent group of trees (the BOAN group) appears to the south (right) side of the field, consisting of a near tree (N1), a far tree immediately behind it (F2), a small tree standing where the two images overlap (S), and tree 3 and tree 4. Also visible are two hills, H1 and H2, and a path running between them.
This circa 1922 view above looks east, showing the field of view (yellow lines) of the BOAN battlefield images above, and the dirt path between hills H1 and H2. The blue line marks the Los Angeles River. Beyond the hills lies a clever bullring set from Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand (see below).
The aerial image below, looking south at the Lasky Ranch, references the Three Stooges in Playing The Ponies.
The aerial view above looks south towards the Lasky Ranch horse race track and the same path and hills H1 and H2 discussed above. The inset image of Curly, Larry, and Moe reveals trees 4 and 3, part of the BOAN tree group (yellow oval).
Below, more views looking west at trees 4 and 3, part of the BOAN tree group.
If you’re not overloaded yet, the following steps in my analysis are even more technical, so hold on, or you can just take my word and skip to the end. :) To begin, let’s take another look at the BOAN tree group (below).
Next, the image below shows how the Lasky Ranch was heavily graded while being converted into a cemetery, removing or changing many landmarks. Hills H1 and H2 were lowered (to accommodate more burial plots), and the battlefield was scraped flat.
Trees F2 and S from the BOAN tree group were lost during the Forest Lawn conversion. Hundreds of pine trees, now 60 years old, were later planted among the sturdy native oaks to complete the landscaping.
There remain today at Forest Lawn several massive oak trees, standing among smaller second and third generation oaks, and dozens of pine trees, now 60 years old, that were planted in the 1950s as part of the cemetery landscaping. These massive oak trees must include those that appear during The Birth of A Nation, and Playing The Ponies – but how can we be sure which is which? By using logic, aerial views from Google Maps, and studying the candidate trees in person, I am convinced that trees N1 and 3, appearing in both films, are the two trees identified at left.
By visiting Forest Lawn in person, it quickly became evident which tree is which. First, many trees in the above aerial view are pine trees, planted 60 years ago, and thus were not present during the filming. Next, there are a few scattered, small oak trees that represent second or third generation young growth. Then there are three massive oak trees that line up in position with the original trio of trees (orange oval). Likewise, we know trees F2 and S of the BOAN group were lost during the conversion. If we assume that the smaller tree 4, which stood away from the BOAN group, was sacrificed to make way for more burial plots, then the two massive trees standing south of the trio must be the surviving trees N1 and 3. Since there are no other massive oak tree candidates from which to choose, these two trees must be the ones to appear in The Birth of A Nation.
As further collaboration, the black and white image above comes from that detailed west-looking image appearing in Playing the Ponies. While the original view looks west, to aid with comparison I flipped the image to approximate how it would appear when looking east. With this visual approximation, we would expect tree N1 to have many dense trunks, and would expect tree 3 to be somewhat “Y” shaped. When viewed in person, trees N1 and 3 are both consistent with this expectation.
Trees N1 and 3 were already massive and old during the production of The Birth of A Nation one hundred years ago. Today they stand as silent witnesses to a century of movie history.
Playing The Ponies Copyright 1937 Columbia Pictures Corporation of Cal. Ltd.
View of the BOAN trees at Forest Lawn.