One of the first brand name novel-to-screen adaptations and an early California production, this was one of the most expensive films ever made when released in 1910. Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall play a Native American couple who encounter oppression and tragedy. It’s the sort of three-hankie stuff that D.W. Griffith reveled in.
In 1910, Biograph released what they claimed was the most expensive movie ever made. Filmed in California, it was adapted from one of the biggest bestsellers in American literature. The film starred Mary Pickford, well on her way to becoming the biggest star of them all, and was directed by D.W. Griffith.
Ramona is the story of a young woman from an aristocratic Spanish household and the struggles that she endures when she marries her Native American lover. While Griffith chose to focus on the love story, the original Ramona was something considerably more serious. (You can read a public domain copy here.)
The novel had been intended to spark social change. Jackson was inspired by Harriet Beacher Stowe’s abolitionist classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Basically, she appealed to her readers and by introducing likable characters and relatable situations. Instead of dry statistics on the plight of Native Americans, a romance and tragedy blend to reach the hearts of the readers. The plan worked. Ramona was a runaway bestseller. (Jackson’s efforts would, arguably, backfire.)
Around this time, the movies were starting to be treated less as a hobby and more as a real business. With that came problems. The 1907 version of Ben Hur had been produced by Kalem without obtaining the rights from the author’s estate. His family sued and the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1911, the court ruled that published works, like patented inventions, were the properties of the rights holders and that studios had to obtain proper clearance before producing a film based on another’s work. Kalem was ordered to pay $25,000 to the estate of Lew Wallace. (The great irony is that Kalem’s film wasn’t even a proper adaptation. It was just some chariot race footage with the Ben-Hur name slapped on.)
It was in this legal climate that D.W. Griffith persuaded his bosses at Biograph to obtain the rights to Ramona for the princely sum of one-hundred dollars. (Griffith himself had played Alessandro on stage twice.) He took full advantage of the glorious California vistas and had everyone, from extras to stars, lavishly costumed. As for the wigs, the less said about them the better.
When he filmed The Taming of the Shrew in 1908, Griffith chose to rework the story into one cohesive whole. It sacrificed accuracy to its source but was highly watchable. In this case, Griffith opted for the far more common “vignette” style of storytelling. That is, important scenes are show with little to no segue between them and only a few title cards to help things along. The result is much choppier pacing.
In light of his reputation, some may wonder at Griffith’s film condemning the oppression and abuse of minorities. Without opening this particular can of worms too far, I will simply say that D.W. Griffith had one of the greatest capacities for compartmentalization that I have ever seen. The matter drops.
The story concerns Ramona (Pickford), the daughter of a rich family. She falls in love with Alessandro (Walthall) and his ability to play… the lute? Alessandro is a Native American and deemed unsuitable. The pair elope when Ramona finds out that she has Native American blood as well (oh no, that old “conveniently not interracial” cliché) and they soon have a baby.
Oppression begins to take a toll on Alessandro. He and his family are driven from place to place, each time told that the land does not belong to him. The film finishes in tragedy for Alessandro but hope that Ramona will find some measure of happiness back with her Spanish friends and family.
In the end, many of the flaws of the 1910 Ramona are the flaws of its source novel. Even back in the day, Ramona was not without its detractors. Raymond Chandler famously described it as slop. Other critics felt that the novel romanticized a sunny past at the expense of realistically portraying middle and working class Californios.
The Journal of the Southwest sums up journalist and social activist Carey McWilliams’ view of the romanticizing of old California like so:
“(McWilliams) argued in Southern California that civic boosters of Los Angeles and southern California followed Jackson’s lead in mythologizing the Spanish colonial mission system and sentimentalizing the figures of Californio senores and senoras by positioning them as leisured souls in an idyllic setting
… McWilliams also noted that for Anglos the then recently restored mission in Santa Barbara was “a much better” and “less embarrassing” “symbol of the past than the Mexican field worker or the ragamuffin pachucos of Los Angeles.””
(If you have the Treasures III box set, do listen to Chon Noriega’s excellent commentary track. It proved to be invaluable in researching this review and pointed me in the direction of research on the subject.)
We can compare this romanticism to the way many modern people view medieval Europe. While it’s fun to imagine knights and princesses in their glittering palaces, the facts are that life in the middle ages was, to crib Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. If we go around believing in this shining myth, we will be doing a disservice to history and the countless serfs, soldiers and craftsmen upon whose backs the society was built.
Is it wrong to enjoy entertainment about those glittering palaces? Of course not! Not as long as we remember that we are not seeing life as it was but, rather, a Victorian mixture of history and legend. Pre-Raphaelite paintings are not real life. (Can I throw my hat into the “I hate Pre-Raphaelite paintings” ring? As a former teenage girl, one gets so tired of the kitschy things. They’re great when one is sixteen and oh-so poetic but it’s best to leave them there.)
So, now that the heavy lifting is complete, let’s talk a bit about performances. Henry B. Walthall and Mary Pickford play the romantic leads and, I have to admit, this is not their best work. (I am, of course, doing an apples to apples comparison of their other pre-feature performances, not their later work. Well, okay, Walthall was usually pretty hammy.) Frankly, I wanted to send them a little note assuring them that we could see them in the back row.
Without a doubt, the standout performer is neither Pickford nor Walthall. Instead, it is Kate Bruce. For those of you who don’t know, Bruce was always playing mothers in Griffith films. She was plain, prim, frequently saintly and often dead. Well, in this one, she is dressed to the nines and made up beautifully. She does a marvelous job as Ramona’s adopted mother. She practically spits nails at Alessandro. If only Griffith had given her juicy roles like this more often.
I know that this film gets a lot of praise as part of Griffith’s Biograph period but it simply didn’t go over for me. I found it stiff and stagy, with Kate Bruce and the deep focus shots of the California scenery being the best parts of the picture.
While Ramona is not the best work of either Pickford or Griffith, it is still interesting to see this early California production and to absorb the portrayals of race in the pre-feature period. It would also make an intriguing double feature with The Mark of Zorro, which starred Pickford’s husband, Douglas Fairbanks.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Ramona was released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the excellent Rags & Riches Collection: The Films of Mary Pickford. It was also included in the out-of-print Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 box set. This box is fabulous and well worth tracking down.