“James Cruze, My Big Brother”

by May Cruze

Working with Real Indians

Starting at original Page 171 (edit #9 page 240)


Discussing its possibilities with a group of us at his home, he said, "That story is right up my alley. I've heard my father tell plenty of tales about crossing the plains with Brigham Young's Mormons." Glancing at me, he continued, "It's really part of our heritage. You know our grandmother was buried somewhere along the trail. I'd like to make it on a magnanimous scale with covered wagons galore, but I doubt if they'll allow me enough money for that."

The studio writers prepared a scenario which was not overly pretentious, although at Jimmy's insistence, the budget was upped somewhat over that for the ordinary program picture. By train, automobile and horse-back, Jimmy traversed thousands of miles before he chose a location site for making the picture. Then he went to Ogden to consult with Otto Meek, the owner of an immense ranch near Baker, Nevada, which extended across the Nevada line and into a corner of Utah. The old Reed Hotel in Ogden, where the little boy from North Ogden had spent his first night away from home, had been somewhat improved but was still Ogden's finest hostelry, now known as the Marion Hotel. Here, Cruze the well-known director, presided over an important meeting, All the details for making The Covered Wagon were worked out in advance, including the buffalo hunt on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, while all the Mormon big-wigs in Utah were doing their best to give their home-town boy the red-carpet treatment.

The Meek ranch was seventy miles from a railroad and afforded the necessary wild and wooly background, including a river to represent the Platte, through which the covered wagons floundered. Here, the Lasky location department found ways and means of assembling several hundred head of oxen and horses, ox-bows, 150 wagons with canvas tops, wild horses, cattle, some of the long-horned variety that had to double for the hard-to-get oxen and hundreds of Indians from the two nearest reservations.

A tent city which was known as Camp Cruze, was built to house and feed the vast technical crew and cast, the wranglers to tend the livestock, policemen to run the camp and stop the fights, as well as doctors and veterinarians to care for the ill and injured.

The principals, carefully selected to portray the rugged pioneers included Earnest Torrance, Alan Hale, Tully Marshall, Lois Wilson, Ethel Wales, J. Warren Kerrigan and Charles Ogle. Besides these, there was a long list of minor actors and extras. Sideline music was supplied by three musicians, who not only spread cheer on the trying location with their modern music, but also changed to old-fashioned musical instruments and clothes and performed in front of the camera as part of the wagon train.

The musicians were Speed Hansen, who played guitar and banjo and knew a wealth of entertaining songs. Babe Eagan, a violinist who subsequently became famous with her own all-girl band and, Don McNamee, an accordionist and composer. Later, Speed and Don were members of the Beverly Hillbillies, which launched mountain music on its road to fame when radios first came into being. On the screen, these musicians were shown playing tunes of the period, especially 0h Susanna, on their 1850 instruments, with synchronized accompaniment by the theater orchestras.

When The Covered Wagon was released and road-showed, "0h Susana" was the theme song, cleverly interspersed in the elaborate musical score for the silent picture. But while the picture was in production, the actors and crew had their own working theme song, sung to the tune of "A Hunting We Will Go," and for which Jimmy supplied the absurd words:


A r-r-rimpting we will go,

A r-r-rimpting we will go, .

 Zeke, Zeke, Petruchio,

A rimpting we will go.

Everyone ON the location took it up and sang it as they worked and they all used "Zeke" as an all-utility by word then and for many years to come. The location was a tough one, flecked with a great deal of hardship, and when it was over the weary actors declared that the actual pioneers who crawled across the country in covered wagons, had nothing on their imitators when it came to suffering privations.

It was before Hollywood had attracted a large group of more or less educated and "hep" Indians, who joined Central Casting and the guilds and became an active segment of motion-picture players. The Covered Wagon Indians knew nothing about acting or pictures. They came direct from their reservations, the Bannocks from Idaho and the Arapahoes from Wyoming, Through their managers and interpreters, each tribe demanded their own camp and certain choice beeves, which they slaughtered and cooked themselves. If this food was not forthcoming, they would not work. However, when the food situation and their accommodations were ironed out to their satisfaction, one of the Bannocks accidentally found out that the Arapahoes were getting more money than they were, they held a pow-pow and decided to quit. That night, living up to the reputation of their race for conserving words, without so much as an "ugh," or the formality of giving notice, they packed up their blankets and other belongings and set out on foot, single file, toward their reservation, They had trekked twelve miles before their absence was discovered. They were overtaken and when their gripe was made known, their wages were adjusted and they returned to Camp Cruze.

In a roundabout manner, Jimmy somewhat rectified his invention of an Indian ancestor so many years before in New York. With proper ceremonial rites, the Arapahoes bestowed upon him their highest honor. They made him a tribal chief called, "Standing Bear" because of his stature, muscular body and powerful arms. This was the first ceremony of its kind, later repeated with another luminary of the Cinema. It carried a lot of weight with these copper-skinned descendants of warriors and, at a later date, it proved a bit embarrassing for Big Chief Standing Bear. when the picture was released, a large group of Indians was collected and brought to Hollywood to work in the prologue which featured col. "Tim" McCoy of the U.S. Cavalry, an expert on Indian lore and languages. These natives of a western reservation, refused to live in a white man's hogan and they appropriated a plot of vacant ground on Ventura Boulevard near Lankershim, where they set up housekeeping in their own tents.

There were many Arapahoes among them and for publicity purposes, Big Chief Standing Bear (my brother) took them on a tour of his newly acquired estate in Flintridge, an exclusive suburb of Pasadena, the real hub of California aristocracy. An extravagant landscape Job had transformed his twelve acres into a manor worthy of any country gentleman. When the visiting aborigines saw the deluxe one-hole golf-course, shimmering in velvety greenness and shaded by a huge live-oak tree, they went into a huddle with many gestures and much pow-pow in their own language. Presently their spokesman approached Jimmy and politely informed him that, since he was now their brother, they had decided to pitch their teepees on this nice spot and live there for the duration of their stay in Hollywood.