Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ramona (Biograph, 1910)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The event last night in San Diego’s Old Town was a commemoration of the Adobe Chapel on Conde Street, which apparently was the first dedicated Roman Catholic church in San Diego after the Mexican War and had a convoluted history, which was presented on a leaflet they gave at the showing. The film was a 16 ½-minute adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, directed by D. W. Griffith and starring the 17-year-old Mary Pickford as Ramona from “the great Spanish house of Moreno” and Henry B. Walthall (later the “little colonel” in The Birth of a Nation) as Alessandro, a Native American with whom Ramona falls in love even though that costs her her life as a Spanish grandee’s daughter. Helen Hunt Jackson was a New Englander by birth and a friend of the famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (though Jackson far outlived Dickinson) who, like Verdi, was permanently scarred by the loss of her young spouse and their two children. She achieved her reputation as a writer of romantic potboilers, moved to Colorado for her health, remarried and became aware of the mistreatment of American Indians at the hands of white soldiers and settlers. In 1881 she published a nonfiction attack on the U.S.’s Indian policy with the incendiary title A Century of Dishonor, but it sold poorly, and the message Jackson got was that in order to bring Native American rights front and center to the American political discourse, she’d have to do what Harriet Beecher Stowe had done with slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: write a novel with all her skills at creating romantic tearjerkers and move people through their hearts instead of their brains. Ramona was an instant hit, but unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin it wasn’t a political success; instead it became a massive inducement to tourism in Southern California. Since Jackson had set her tale in real locations and given them their actual names — and apparently she based the characters of Ramona and Alessandro on a Native couple that had been married by the priest who was her technical advisor (so to speak) — promoters were able to stage Ramona pageants and offer Ramona tours. John D. Spreckels said that the big Mexican estate in San Diego he had just bought was the location of Ramona’s and Alessandro’s wedding — and the priest who’d worked with Jackson and actually married the real-life models for her characters said no, it wasn’t.

In 1910 the American Biograph company paid Jackson’s publisher, Little, Brown, $100 for the movie rights to Ramona and assigned the film to Griffith as director and Pickford and Walthall as stars — but none of the people were credited on screen, because as one of the seven companies of the Motion Picture Trust (the ones that had been licensed by Thomas A. Edison to use his patented movie camera and projector technology) Biograph had pledged not to bill any of the people who made their films, on the ground that they didn’t want the movies to adopt the “star system” that had become common in live theatre, where the leading players were able to make high salaries because people knew who they were and wanted to see them. We all know how well that turned out — starting in 1912, when Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, lured a winsome young actress previously known only as “The Biograph Girl” to his independent (and patent-breaking) company by offering to bill her under her real name, Florence Lawrence (that really was her name, not the sort of made-up star pseudonym that became common later!), movie actors got billing and were able to build up the followings that made more money for their studios as well as themselves — but in 1910 the rule was still that a movie just appeared with no clue on the titles as to who made it or who those people on screen really were. What’s more, Ramona was made only one year after Griffith started his career as a director with Rescued from the Eagle’s Nest in 1909, and it’s still a quite primitive movie: there are few of the luminous close-ups that later became a hallmark of his style, none of the quick cutting between scenes taking place in different locations at the same time, and a real disappointment when one of the most tragic scenes in his highlights-adaptation of the book (at 16 ½ minutes he could hardly do justice to the whole thing!), the burning of Alessandro’s native village by white settlers, is represented by nothing more than a plume of smoke coming up from the floor of a canyon and a few men on horseback and a horse-drawn wagon passing by on a road about midway down the canyon wall. One aches for the way the director of The Birth of a Nation could have depicted this action just five years later (and on a bigger budget than Biograph was handing its directors in 1910!).

Ramona was billed by Biograph as the most expensive movie made to its time (which it might have been if one only considers American movies; no U.S. studio had yet produced a film longer than two reels, or about 20 minutes, but the French had already made the world’s first feature film, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, in 1908 and hired a major “name” composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, to provide the background music to be played live in the theatre as it screened) and the first film ever made on location: the credits ballyhooed that it was “taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.” Apparently at least some of it was shot in San Diego as well; the whole point of screening it at the Adobe Chapel was that the building supposedly appeared in the movie— though the only glimpse of anything that could have been it was the scene in which the priest who married Ramona and Alessandro sends them on their way after the ceremony. (The real priest who had traveled through the Indian country with Helen Hunt Jackson and married the real-life models for Ramona and Alessandro pointed out that no Roman Catholic priest would marry a couple outdoors, as John Spreckels claimed they had and as it was depicted in the Ramona pageants, and in 1910 D. W. Griffith couldn’t have filmed the ceremony in the actual chapel because artificial lights weren’t yet being used in filmmaking: all films were illuminated by daylight and interiors were sets with walls and floors but not ceilings. Various sorts of cloth were held up over the tops of these sets to control the intensity of light so the early cinematographers — including Griffith’s favorite, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, who shot this film — could get an appealing and properly exposed image.) Ramona is not only primitively directed but mostly abominably overacted; scenes that cried out for restraint get the hideous hands-over-heads, deep-furrowed grimacing and all the rest of the dreadful gestures early silent-film actors fell into; even Pickford, who’d become one of the major stars of the silent era largely by knowing when to cool it, does beaver imitations all over that artificial scenery. What saves Ramona is the beauty of the natural scenery and the uncompromising vigor with which the story (or at least as much as Griffith and his co-writer, Stanner E. V. Taylor, could get into a two-reeler) is told, particularly in the no-holds-barred condemnation of the whites’ treatment of the Indians. It may seem surprising that Griffith, whose most famous film is the openly racist The Birth of a Nation, should be so good at depicting the plight of oppressed people of color (he did it again in Broken Blossoms, in which the sympathetic victim of prejudice was Asian), but perhaps — like an earlier Virginian, Thomas Jefferson — Griffith was able to see through the socially current prejudices against Indians even while buying into the ones against Blacks.

Charles was unable to make it to the Ramona screening with me, but I downloaded the film from and showed it to him later — and the comparison was fascinating in its own right. The print screened in Old Town was from a Milestone DVD of another, longer Mary Pickford movie, came from Pickford’s personal print, and had excellent image quality — far better than the download — but it also came equipped with a really dire score, a combination of a string-heavy chamber orchestra for some scenes and self-consciously “primitive” drumming in others. The download also came with a soundtrack (a lot of their silent films don’t) that began unpromisingly with a couple of typical modern-day Mexican pop songs, complete with saccharine vocals, but then got better with a Latin guitar instrumental that yielded to recordings of Native American chants, which suggested how this story should be scored for film: with Latin music to represent Ramona’s upper-class Californio upbringing and gradually changing to traditional Native music as she and Alessandro are driven farther and farther away from civilization by the prejudices that ultimately destroy them. Not surprisingly, Ramona has been filmed several times since this version: Michael Druxman’s 1975 book Make It Again, Sam lists three subsequent feature-length Ramonas, from 1916 by a company called Clune, directed by Donald Crisp (mostly known as an actor) with Adda Gleason as Ramona; a 1928 version from United Artists directed by Edwin Carewe with Dolores Del Rio; and a 1936 color version from 20th Century-Fox, directed by Henry King with Loretta Young as star. The 1936 Ramona was actually started at Fox Film before Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures took it over in a merger, and Fox production chief Winfield Sheehan was grooming a half-American, half-Argentinian Latina starlet named Rita Cansino for the lead — but when Zanuck took over he fired Cansino and gave the part to Young, with whom he’d been working ever since the early 1930’s at Warners, and Cansino’s promising star career was derailed until she met a car salesman named Edward Judson, who became her manager and husband, and he had her hairline raised with electrolysis and her remaining hair dyed red, changed her last name to Hayworth (after Haworth, her mother’s maiden name) and got her a contract with Columbia and, ultimately, the superstardom that had eluded her at Fox.