A poster for “Ramona” featured on the program for the premiere of the restored film.
Only 86 years after it originally opened in Los Angeles, the newly restored motion picture “Ramona” premiered March 29, 2014 at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theatre. Long thought lost, the film’s survival is as inspiring as the original “Ramona” tale itself.
Author Helen Hunt Jackson’s wildly popular novel “Ramona” appeared in 1884, saluting Mexican cultural life. Jackson aimed to raise awareness about the plight of California’s Native Americans while telling an entertaining story. The story revolved around the mixed-race orphan girl, Ramona, who endures discrimination and hardship. With the way the story glamorized Mexico’s native born or those of mixed blood, it could be described as perhaps America’s first romance novel. Readers fell in love with the soaring visuals as much as the romantic myth. Many readers loved the story so much that they considered the characters real.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
A copy of the “Ramona” sheet music, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $3.99.
At the same time Jackson was publishing her work, western cities were finding new ways of promoting themselves as cultural, social and business destinations. Illustrated lithography brochures, postcards and signs mythologized California and Los Angeles as a romantic, adventurous land of opportunity. Settlers sped west, influenced as much by the dramatic, sympathetic story of young Ramona as by the advertising material itself.
Once here, many travelers sought out locations mentioned in Jackson’s novel, helping give birth to California’s tourism industry. Rancho Camulos and Old Town San Diego welcomed the swelling number of guests. The town of Hemet organized the “Ramona” pageant in 1923, drawing tourists and natives.
The popularity of “Ramona” attracted filmmakers as well. Legendary director D. W. Griffith produced the first version of the “Ramona” story in 1910, starring Henry Walthall and Mary Pickford, shooting at what were considered the original locations. In 1916, Donald Crisp directed a second version of the novel, followed by Edwin Carewe’s 1928 film featuring Warren Baxter and Dolores Del Rio, and finally, Fox’s 1936 film starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche.
Soon after the 1928 film’s release, it seemed to disappear. Decades after it played in the United States, neither archives nor fans could find a copy of the film, that is, until a few years later. Film historian and producer Hugh Munro Neely paired up with author Dydia DeLyser and the historian of the Rancho Camulos Museum to uncover a lone print at the National Film Archive of Czechoslovakia.
The story of “Ramona’s” film survival mirrors that of Ramona and Allessandro, as they wandered the state seeking shelter. The Czechoslovakians had closely guarded the motion picture and many others until the Soviet takeover. At that point, the Russian archive confiscated many American titles, and transferred the material to the Russian archive. In the 1960s, the head Czechoslovakian archivist convinced Russian authorities to return these prints to Czechoslovakia, where the film remained until being discovered a few years ago. Getting the film from Eastern Europe to the United States became an another adventurous march through red tape; once solved, the film was repatriated to the Library of Congress.
A still from “Ramona,” featuring Warner Baxter and Dolores Del Rio, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $33.99.
Director Edwin Carewe’s granddaughter, Diane Allen, worked with the Library of Congress to restore “Ramona,” mostly title cards. The film is a worthy salute to the almost forgotten Carewe. This new version made its’ premiere in Los Angeles as a salute to Carewe as well as early California, even though the Library of Congress actually handled the work. The restored “Ramona” features both glorious images of Dolores Del Rio as well as striking landscapes.
Carewe’s film version plays up the struggles and dignity of native-born Mexicans, with several historians believing that Carewe beefed up this part of the story in order to highlight his own Indian mixed blood. The director had actually himself been born as Jay Fox, a Chicksaw Indian, in Gainesville, Texas, in 1883. “Ramona” hits all the major tropes of the novel, but makes some interesting detours into more dramatic scenes.
The Library of Congress’s restoration work on this quality 35mm print looks wonderful, from its sharp look to the gorgeously recreated Art Deco title cards.
Del Rio shines from within as “Ramona,” a charming, likable girl entranced by love. Director Carewe promoted her Mexican heritage to European audiences, and applied lightening makeup to her face to make her appear more European. She gives a charming, strong performance as the willful girl, only heading into over the top shenanigans at the off-the-wall ending. Warner Baxter remains as stiff as always as love interest Allesandro, but his trim form attracts appreciative glances from the audience. Vera Lewis’s haughty birdlike demeanor and Mathilde Comont’s jolly maid steal the show, however.
Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra have again devised a lushly romantic score that fits the operatic elements of the story. The group opened with an overture of the famous song, “Ramona,” featured on 1928 sheet music. Sauer noted that playing the sheet music, or variations of it, throughout their performance would jolt local audiences out of the story. Mont Alto composed its score from actual 1920s cue sheets, which it merged into an evocative score.
Del Rio as Ramona on “Screen Secrets,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $44.99.
One of the main deviations from the actual “Ramona” story is how much the film focuses on the Native American plight, reversing the standard western trope as the cowboy/westerner always good and the Native Americans as bad. In this, the Native Americans show dignity, honor and pride, while the whites appear lawless and blood-thirsty.
Neely led a panel discussion after the film, which addressed the historical impact of the motion picture, portrayals, the story’s adaptation over the years, and its successful depiction of Native Americans. Several who had written about “Ramona” praised the film and its contents, since virtually no one had ever seen it before.
One very interesting tidbit. A story romanticizing and glamorizing California was shot on striking locations in Utah rather than native soil. A few quick shots of California did appear, however, with quick scenes set at the San Juan Capistrano and San Fernando missions. Per historian Marc Wanamaker, the main house set was actually an administration building at Clune’s Studio, now the Raleigh Studios, and still stands, though a bit remodeled and restored.
Although the newly restored film premiered in Los Angeles, it will soon screen at the Library of Congress, followed by a showing at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in May. A fall screening at one of the Utah locations is planned as well.
For those wanting to know more about the story of Ramona, head out to the outdoor play staged in Hemet, taking place in late April and early May of this year. The longest-running outdoor play in America, the “Ramona Pageant” is recognized as the official California State Outdoor Play.