Sentimental California romance
Ramona is one of the most durable and long-lasting examples of the Western genre. It started life as a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 to 1885), first published in 1884.
Jackson was an American poet and writer who became an activist on behalf of improved treatment of Native Americans by the United States government. Ramona was made five times into a film, first by DW Griffith in 1910; it became a Mexican telenovela; it is an outdoor stage play performed annually, the ‘official state play’ of California; and it was made into a musical in 2018.
The story is set in Southern California after the Mexican–American War (1846 – 48) and it tells of an orphan girl who suffers racial discrimination and hardship. Originally serialized weekly in the Christian Union, the novel became hugely popular. It has had more than 300 editions and has never been out of print, though it is possible that its romantic, tragic and picturesque qualities were just as attractive to readers as its political content. The author’s friend Emily Dickinson once described Jackson’s literary limitations: “She has the facts but not the phosphorescence.” However, one year after Jackson’s death the North American Review described Ramona as “unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman” and named it and Uncle Tom’s Cabin the two most ethical novels of the 19th century.
That comparison was actually telling because Jackson herself set out to write a book which would do for the American Indian what Harriet Beecher Stowe had done for (what was then called) the Negro.
The praise wasn’t universal. The New York Times referred in 1916 to “the long and lugubrious romance by Helen Hunt Jackson, over which America wept unnumbered gallons in the eighties and nineties,” and complained of “the long, uneventful stretches of the novel.” Raymond Chandler later described it as slop. I haven’t summoned up the courage or stamina to read it, life being too short, so I cannot judge who was right. You must make up your own mind, dear e-reader. It’s in the public domain and available here if you are brave enough.
The first film
I have however, seen the DW Griffith motion picture. It was a Biograph 17-minute short, one of an incredible 87 films Griffith made that year alone. Subtitled The Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian, it starred Mary Pickford, then only 18, as Ramona. ‘America’s Sweetheart’ had begun working with Griffith on motion pictures in New York the year before, doing almost one a week. She wasn’t yet quite the megastar she would become but she was already very well known in the movie business. Ramona was the third of the ten silent movies she made which we might (vaguely) describe as Westerns.
Griffith paid Jackson the princely sum of $100 for the rights. It’s interesting that the man who would be branded a racialist, even at the time, for his 1915 picture The Birth of a Nation would, in 1910, make a film which was so evidently anti-racist, and it shows that it’s not so cut and dried as that. In fact Griffith had himself played Alessandro, the Indian in the story who elopes with Ramona, on the stage. He filmed his picture in California, in the novel’s original setting, an early example of location shooting. This and the outdoor filming give the picture a certain grandeur of scope despite its short duration. It was one of the most expensive films ever made when it was released.
Griffith often sets his action against a dramatic natural backdrop of hills and mountains, showing the ‘little’ human story against the noble grandeur of the landscape, suggesting perhaps that Ramona and Alessandro’s plight is part of a grander historical struggle.
The photography and picture quality are today remarkably good, and the picture is certainly more than watchable from that point of view. The cinematographer was GW Bitzer, a Griffith regular who would also work on The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Birth of a Nation.
Griffith had, of course to strip away vast amounts of the plot of the long novel. In his version Ramona (blonde Pickford in a heavy dark wig) falls in love with a lute-playing Native American named Alessandro (Henry B Walthall, also bewigged), who works on the rich Moreno estate. She rejects a rich Spaniard named Felipe (Francis J Grandon), who is very downcast about it. Because of this she is disowned by her furious mater (Kate Bruce, often a mother for DW Griffith and in this picture in some danger of upstaging even Pickford and Walthall with her antics). Now Ramona learns that she too has some Indian blood in her veins. Thus, it isn’t so shocking to white audiences that she might go off with an Indian and have a baby. You might call that a cop-out but it’s true to the novel.
So Ramona and Alessandro run away together. Naturally, they are married by a priest. It couldn’t be that daring. Alessandro’s village has been attacked by brutal whites. The couple survives in the ruins, until one day they’re driven off with their infant child (who has appeared between scenes) by white settlers who insist that this is “our land”. In the wilderness, only tragedy awaits them. The baby dies. A white man with a gun even drives them from the grave. Alessandro goes crazy (he was overacting enough before; you can imagine how it goes now) and is then murdered by another white. At last the rich Don Felipe turns up again while Ramona is tending the corpse. The film suddenly stops. Will they end up together?
It’s a series of vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. Of course the audience would anyway have been very familiar with the story.
Muder most foul
To be brutally frank (and that’s my mission in life) the acting is melodramatic to an extreme degree and completely over the top. Characters wave their arms in the air in horror most of the time. But that’s what they did then. I think the actors still thought they had to be noticed by those in the back row, and directors wanted a show. To be fair, as the 20s dawned many actors in silent movies did tone down their act.
The 1916 version
Still, it’s a key moment in cinematic history, I guess. It was popular enough to be remade very soon, only six years later, this time by the Clune Film Producing Company (a later name for Pickford’s Famous Players), with WH Clune as producer. This was a much grander affair, a 14-reeler, no less. It was amazing how far and how fast silent movies were progressing at this time. Tragically, the film is considered to be lost because only reel 5 is preserved, at the Library of Congress. Who knows how good it was, or if/how much the actors overdid it.
It was directed by Donald Crisp, already a vet (he had started in movies in 1908). As an actor he had appeared in three Westerns directed by Griffith, and he directed his own as well from 1914 on. In the 1940s and 50s he would return as an actor to Westerns in a sort of elder statesman role. You will have seen him in The Oklahoma Kid, Ramrod and The Man from Laramie, among others.
This time Adda Gleason was Ramona. She had done a lot of films (mostly shorts) but this was her biggest role. Her career was near its peak and she would only do four smaller parts in the 20s, descending eventually to Rock Person in One Million BC in 1940.
The picture is also notable for being the debut of Ann Dvorak, aged four, playing Ramona as a girl. Her career would last into the 1950s and Westernistas will remember her in Abilene Town with Randolph Scott, The Secret of Convict Lake with Glenn Ford and Flame of Barbaray Coast with John Wayne. She was also ‘Sue Younger’ in Lippert’s Jesse James sequel The Return of Jesse James in 1950, which we shall be reviewing next month.
Monroe Salisbury was Alessandro, and Ramona was his most famous role, as with
Gleason. He had been the wicked Sir Henry in the 1914 The Squaw Man and had had a smaller part in the 1914 The Virginian. He would star in movies till 1917.
Bert Glennon was behind the camera. It was his very first motion picture. He would work on silent movies before being taken up by John Ford and photographing several of his great Westerns, then becoming a regular on oaters through the 50s, working a lot with Randolph Scott.
The New York Times review was headlined ‘RAMONA’ SHOWN UPON THE SCREEN; Elaborate Movie Version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Romance of the Mission Indians. OVER THREE HOURS OF IT. Fine Photography In This Picturesque but Somewhat Tedious Photoplay at the 44th St. Theatre.
Dolores is Ramona
Ramona came back to the screen in 1928, towards the end of the silent era, just as talkies were becoming a thing. This was the first United Artists film with a synchronized score and sound effects, but no dialogue, and so was not technically a talking picture. In some ways this is the most famous version because it starred the exceedingly beautiful Dolores Del Rio as Ramona, and the hot property Warner Baxter as Alessandro. Furthermore, a song, Ramona, was recorded by Del Rio and it became a smash hit. It doesn’t feature in the story but Del Rio sang it at showings of the film and a record was often played of it when she was not present. You can listen to it, and see some great photos of Dolores at the same time, on YouTube here.
For decades, this Ramona too was thought to be lost but archivists rediscovered a copy in the Národní Filmový Archiv in Prague in 2010. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress transferred Ramona’s highly flammable original nitrate film to acetate safety stock. The restored version of the 1928 film had its world premiere in the Billy Wilder Theater at the University of California, Los Angeles on March 29, 2014.
It was directed by Edwin Carewe. Carewe (1883 to 1940) was a fascinating character: he was a Native American motion picture director, actor, producer, and screenwriter. His birth name was Jay John Fox. His older brother Finis Fox wrote Ramona’s screenplay from the novel and created its intertitles. Edwin would in 1930 direct the first talkie version of The Spoilers, with Gary Cooper, no less, but this film too is tragically lost.
This Ramona is an 80-minute picture and it was shot partly on location in Zion National Park, Utah. It was photographed by Robert Kurrle, who also shot the Western Rio Grande for Carewe in 1920.
It is said that the attack on Alessandro’s village was especially well staged and shot.
Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times found much to praise in what he called “an Indian love lyric”: “This current offering is an extraordinarily beautiful production, intelligently directed and, with the exception of a few instances, splendidly acted. The scenic effects are charming…. The different episodes are told discreetly and with a good measure of suspense and sympathy. Some of the characters have been changed to enhance the dramatic worth of the picture, but this is pardonable, especially when one considers this subject as a whole.”
Variety was slightly less flattering. Its review said that “As a screen story, as drama, spectacle or entertainment, the film is weak” but added that because of “the background, the popularity of the novel, the … drawing power of Miss Del Rio, the class production and the publicity impetus of the song, it will doubtless be a winner.”
Del Rio, who worked a lot with Carewe, was enjoying a meteoric rise to stardom and was billed as “the female Rudolph Valentino”. She would make it even bigger in the hit 1932 musical Flying Down to Rio. She would be absolutely outstanding later in life in our noble genre when she was Elvis’s Indian mother in Flaming Star (a very good film) and then Spanish Woman for John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn (probably the best thing about that tiring picture).
Baxter too was at the top of his form. A matinée idol in the silents, he came to prominence as the Cisco Kid with the early talkie In Old Arizona the same year as Ramona, for which he won one of the first Oscars. He would do the talkie version of The Squaw Man for Cecil B DeMille in 1931 and he would be Joaquin Murrieta for William A Wellman in Robin Hood of El Dorado in 1936.
In 1936 Fox, which had purchased the rights to Ramona from Edwin Carewe, decided to do a big-budget talkie version in Technicolor, with Henry King directing (despite a 1935 news story saying that John Ford would do it) and, as the title screen announced, Darryl F Zanuck in charge of production. It starred Loretta Young as Ramona and Don Ameche as Alessandro (though Gilbert Roland was considered). The title role was to have gone to Rita Hayworth but Zanuck thought she was too juvenile. Young was a great beauty, who had started as a child actor in the early silent days and by the late 20s she was already a leading lady. Shooting on Ramona had to be delayed when she became pregnant by Clark Gable (they had starred together on Call of the Wild). A story was put out that she had become ill while traveling. She would later win a Best Actress Oscar. I remember her for Along Came Jones with Gary Cooper and Rachel and the Stranger with William Holden and Robert Mitchum.
Ameche was a dapper, mustached leading man known as The Latin Lover. He didn’t do Westerns. Thus we scorn him. Kent Taylor was Felipe Moreno and Jane Darwell had a role as an aunt. John Carradine (who had also acted in the play), J Carrol Naish and Russell Simpson all had parts.
It was shot in Kanab, Utah and Mesa Grande Indian Reservation, Escondido, California by William V Skall and was the first film produced by Fox in full three-strip Technicolor. It had a huge cast. Lamar Trotti did the screenplay and it had a rather slushy score by Alfred Newman.
The New York Times wasn’t much politer about this version than it had been about the earlier ones. Its review praised the use of new Technicolor technology (“Chromatically, the picture is superior to anything we have seen in the color line”) but found the plot “a piece of unadulterated hokum.” It thought “Ramona is a pretty impossible rôle these heartless days” and Don Ameche “a bit too Oxonian for a chief’s son”. I must say that having sat through it on YouTube I found it pretty dreary.
The last big-screen version of Ramona (so far) was in 1946. Wikipedia simply says “Ramona is a 1946 Mexican drama film directed by Víctor Urruchúa and starring Esther Fernandez. It is an adaptation of the 1884 American novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson. The film was both a financial and critical failure.”
At any rate the story has had lasting appeal, both on the page and on the screen.
I don’t think Bob Dylan had Helen Jackson’s story in mind when he sang about Ramona on Another Side of Bob Dylan:
Shut softly your watery eyes
The pangs of your sadness
Shall pass as your senses will rise
Although who knows? Few people are more steeped in American popular culture than Mr Dylan.
From a Westernista’s point of view I will say that despite this lengthy and doubtless less than thrilling essay, all versions of Ramona may be safely skipped without any loss to street cred, or trail cred. You might just want to have a quick look at the DW Griffith one for historical interest. You can spare 17 minutes, can’t you?