Saturday 9 May 2009

Ramona (1910)

Director: D W Griffith
Stars: Mary Pickford and Henry B Walthall

I'll take any chance I can get to see a silent movie, and this one's an interesting one for a number of reasons. Opening TCM's annual Race in Hollywood season, this time focusing on 'Latino Images in Film', it's a look at the oppressive nature of the white race, based on a popular novel of the late nineteenth century by Helen Hunt Jackson, published in 1884. The film's subtitle is telling: 'A story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian'.

Jackson apparently based her work on a government report on the treatment given to Native Americans in southern California, called A Century of Dishonor which title aptly describes the contents. Seeing overt injustice but not much attention being given to the report, she wrote a novel called Ramona to highlight the subject and succeeded admirably, given that the book has run through 300 reprintings and has never been out of print. It seems to have been a major factor in defining the culture of southern California.

Probably because I grew up in England where we had our own ethical stories to deal with, I'd never even heard of Ramona, a sort of west coast attempt to tap into the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin had on perception of slavery to raise perception of the historical treatment of Native Americans. This was the first film version, made in 1910 by the Biograph company, and something of a major production for the time. Running 17 minutes or two reels, it is nonetheless obviously an epic story cut down to the quick and it's easy to see audiences thrilling to what is really little more than a synopsis, then heading home to read the book to each other.

And of course the point of its inclusion in TCM's Race in Hollywood season is that it has Hispanic and Native American leads. Well, not quite. This is 1910, so 'racial masquerading' is in full force and they're both played by white actors. Incidentally, I hadn't heard that precise term before but it really sums up the concept very nicely indeed so I'm sure I'm going to carry on using it frequently. If I ever get round to writing my article on the most insane casting choices Hollywood has run through, it'll be mentioned often.

The leads are Mary Pickford and Henry Walthall. Walthall was a prolific actor who had entered film in 1908 for the Edison company in a film that still exists, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest, which also featured as an actor the man who directed this film, D W Griffith. Pickford has been described as 'the most popular star in film history', which is certainly a contentious claim but one with merit. Best known as America's sweetheart, this film came only a year into her screen career, though she'd effectively made a film a week in 1909! It's also a full decade before she married Douglas Fairbanks and in fact a year before she married her first husband, fellow silent screen idol Owen Moore.

Of course neither Pickford nor Walthall play within their race, both being 'whites', in the parlance of this film. Walthall is 'Alessandro, the Indian' and Pickford the title character, 'Ramona of the great Spanish household of Moreno.' Caucasians being 'whites' and Native Americans being 'Indians' is hardly surprising, but this is far enough back that Hispanics or Latinos are simply 'Spanish'. And just to confuse matters, Ramona isn't 'Spanish' at all, being half Scots and half Indian orphan. However she's been brought up to believe that she's Spanish by the Morenos, who had fostered her.

She's being pursued by Felipe, a full blooded son of the Morenos, but falls instead for Alessandro, one of the Temecula Indian sheep herders the Morenos bring in annually to help with the shearing. Alessandro is also the son of the chief. When Señora Moreno discovers what's going on, she goes ballistic and the whites promptly burn down the Temecula village. Ramona discovers that she's part Indian and elopes with Alessandro, bearing his child and moving out into the mountains. However wherever they go, they meet up with whites who wave guns at them and tell them to get off their land. In the end Alessandro is shot dead, just before Felipe can come to rescue them both.

And I had to work most of this out afterwards, because it isn't too obvious in the film. Viewing without foreknowledge, I assumed, as perhaps I was supposed to, that Ramona was a full blooded Hispanic being raised by a white family and Felipe was just a wealthy Hispanic in the neighbourhood, who was merely seen as a good match for Ramona beause of their shared race. The story is generic enough though that none of that matters and the real drive of the story that sits behind the melodrama speaks to how universally awful the whites are.

And here's the key. The Indians are all virtuous; the Spanish mostly so with some misguided action as well to make them human; but the whites are all terrible. All they do is steal land, threaten people and then shoot them. Putting together what the film shows us and what the book tells us, as far as I've just read, there isn't really a place for Americans in this picture of southern Californian culture. The Indians predate that concept and the Spanish all see themselves as Mexican anyway.

Films from the early teens are generally pretty dire. This was a time when filmmakers were starting to realise just what the medium could really do and it took a while to string everything together into the art form we know today. Ramona was made in 1910, four years before Charlie Chaplin; five before The Birth of a Nation. Lillian Gish hadn't even acted on screen yet, though she and her sister had both worked in the same stage company as Mary Pickford as child actors.

This is surprisingly good for the time though, even given obvious limitations. At one point what looks like the cameraman's elbow brushes over the corner of the screen. Many of the same locations are reused, even when there seems to be no apparent need: one particular tree in a clearing springs quickly to mind. However there's decent use of scenery: shots looking down the hill to the burning Indian village or up at the San Bernardino mountains. What appears to be the entire film is shot outdoors, apparently shot in Camulos, Ventura County, California, where the novel was set. Given the propensity of Hollywood PR to go well beyond exaggeration into outright fiction, it wouldn't be too surprising to find that it was actually Romania or Mozambique, but in this instance it's believable.

Pickford is good as Ramona and is a magnetic presence on screen, showing why she quickly came to be such a huge star. Walthall is decent but hardly seems a giant in his craft. In a film where some of the extras really seem to be people who walked onto the set and jumped into a costume, he doesn't seem to fit that description much less. More notable to me was Kate Bruce as Señora Moreno. She raves and shakes and gestures, even though she's laden down by wildly ornate costumes and what looks like heavy pancake makeup. In another story, she could have easily been a horror lead. I could see her raging at Karloff in the early sound era Universal horrors but I have no idea what her voice sounded like. She made nearly 300 films but only a couple look like sound films, even though she lived until 1946, so maybe her voice was an issue.

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