Among its myriad trans-media permutations—plays, songs, pageants, pinball games—four major American films were made of Helen Hunt Jackson’s famed 1884 novel Ramona. An international bestseller published one year before Jackson’s death, the epic saga, set in Southern California in the early American period, tells of a tragic romance between the half-Indian Ramona and the full-blooded Indian Alessandro, who is murdered by a white man at the end. Intended as a brief for the beleaguered American Indian, Jackson’s lavish description of the region’s Spanish Catholic past instead was used to promote Los Angles as an Anglo Protestant mecca and helped propel the city’s phenomenal population growth—from circa 15,000 at the time of Ramona’s publication to 324,000 by 1910.
1910 was also the year of the, by then, literary classic’s first film adaptation: a silent one-reeler directed by D. W. Griffith, with MaryPickford and HenryB.Walthall in the lead roles. Two silent features followed: one in 1916 directed by Donald Crisp, starring Adda Gleason and Monroe Salisbury; and another in 1928 directed by Edwin Carewe, starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter. The fourth version, a 20th Century Fox Technicolor spectacular directed by Henry King, starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche, hit the big screen in 1936.
Only the 1910 and 1936 versions, however, and fragments of the 1916 version, were thought, until recently, to have survived the ravages of time and silver-nitrate stock. Now, thanks to a typically fortuitous, uncommonly circuitous, road to rediscovery, the 1928 Ramona is once again available for public viewing. The restoration saga goes like this: Legendary Czech film archivist Myrtil Frida came upon a print of Ramona in the postwar Soviet period at the Gosfilmofund near Moscow and brought it back with him to Prague’s Narodni filmovy archiv. There it languished until 2010, when it was rediscovered by film scholars Joanna Hearne, Dydia DeLyser and Hugh Munro Neely. With the generous support of the Library of Congress and technical supervision by Rob Stone and his staff, the film was restored to much of its black-and-white glory, had its Czech intertitles translated into English by DeLyser, Klara Molacek and Phil Brigandi, and, on March 29, 2014, received its restoration premiere, presented by the UCLA Film & Television archive and Diane Allen (Carewe’s grand-daughter), before a packed house at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.
The revival of the 1928 Ramona was extra special for two reasons. Unlike the other three versions’ directors and Ramona portrayers, who were all of Anglo and/or Irish descent, Carewe (ne Jay Fox) was part Chickasaw and Del Rio (nee Dolores Asunsol y Lopez-Negrete) was born and raised in Mexico. Moreover, despite Warner Baxter’s succumbing, as with the other three cinematic Alessandros, to “redface” casting, the involvement of an Indian director and a Mexican star indeed managed to lend greater authenticity to the film.
This extended, for promotional purposes, to Del Rio’s declining to be identified as “Spanish” and proudly proclaiming her Mexican heritage. In the film itself, Carewe’s personal investment (along with that of his screenwriting brother, Finis Fox) is discernible in the sensitive handling (and casting) of the ethnic underlings at the Moreno rancho where Ramona was raised, and especially in the Indian massacre scene. Visualizing what Jackson chose to narrate after the fact, and far surpassing the brutality in the 1936 version, Carewe tellingly reverses the standard western’s depiction of feral Indians besieging helpless pioneers. Here a ragged band of white “marauders” attacks a pastoral Indian village, mercilessly cutting down unarmed men, women and children, several as they pray to crucifixes and other Christian artifacts.
Joanna Hearne, who participated along with DeLyser, Neely, Brigandi and other scholars in a post-screening panel, pointed out that, as bold as the 1928 Ramona’s representation of Indians certainly is, it also must be viewed in the context of a “reformist discourse” about the “Indian Problem” in U.S. society at the time, to which Hollywood films were responding. Comparatively progressive Indian portrayal notwithstanding, however, Carewe’s adaptation, like Jackson’s literary source, also must be viewed in the context of a Eurocentric colonialist bias. The insertion of Christian iconography in the massacre scene was not solely a means of enhancing audience sympathy for the Indians. Though absent in the novel, the insertion is perfectly in keeping with Jackson’s belief that, whatever the depredations Native Americans may have suffered, conversion to Christianity was not one of them.
Jackson had underscored this position in her non-fiction book Glimpses of California and the Missions, published one year prior to Ramona. As with the later work’s whitewashing of feudal conditions in the Mexican ranchero period, Glimpses glosses over critical accounts of the mission era, picturing it instead as one that transformed the Indian “from the naked savage, with his one stone tool . . . to the industrious tiller of the soil, weaver of cloth, worker in metals, and singer of sacred hymns.” Alessandro allegorizes this myth in the novel and its cinematic translations, all of which emphasize his Christian faith and its “civilizing” effects—violin-playing in the novel, mandolin-playing in the 1910 version, a beautiful singing voice (of sacred hymns) in the last two films. Indeed, without the “sanitizing” of his “savageness,” Ramona’s attraction to Alessandro would have been as unthinkable as, without her Indian blood, their marriage would have been taboo, if not illegal, given anti-miscegenation laws.
Then there’s the ending, which in Carewe’s film arguably does more damage, or undoes more good, than in Jackson’s novel. In the latter, Ramona, following Alessandro’s death, returns to the Moreno rancho, now freed of her since-deceased evil stepmother. Sensing that, like the Indians’, the Californios’ (Mexican Californians) days are numbered, she eventually moves, with her betrothed stepbrother Don Felipe, to Mexico to start a new life. Though the decimation of the Indians and disenfranchisement of the Californios are historically accurate, the fait accompli of their allegorical “killing off” and “exiling” in the novel leaves small room for redress, much less reversal.
Carewe’s ending, like that in Griffith’s and King’s versions, eschews the Mexican epilogue. But its alternative, deus ex machina denouement is even more troubling. In a catatonic state following Alessandro’s death, Ramona is brought to the rancho and Don Felipe’s loving care. When one of his guitar-strumming serenades snaps her back to reality, her film-ending words, which bring rejoicing to Don Felipe and the rancho staff, likely would have caused Jackson more grief than her novel’s commercial exploitation. “It is just as though I had never been away!” Ramona effuses to a beaming Don Felipe—a Hollywood-dictated ending to be sure, but one that not only wipes the film’s blood-stained slate clean but takes Alessandro’s memory and that of the Indian people along with it.
As disheartening as this ending may be, the film in its entirety, taken in its overall historical and restoration context, is a wondrous achievement—enhanced, at the Wilder Theater premiere, by Mont-Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s live accompaniment and, for all time, by Dolores Del Rio’s ravishing screen presence. As Del Rio biographer and post-screening panelist Linda B. Hall reminded the audience, quoting Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich: “She’s the real beauty!” Additional panelist tidbits included Brigandi’s relating how Carewe’s film was influenced by the Ramona Pageant in Hemet, an annual outdoor staging of the novel that began in 1923 (and continues to this day), which in turn would be influenced by the film. Brigandi also reported that Crisp’s 1916 version, in striving to render every incident in the novel, and perhaps building on the box-office bonanza of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, ended up even longer than Griffith’s two-hour-forty-five-minute epic. DeLyser noted how the song “Ramona,” recorded on vinyl by Del Rio, predated today’s pre-sold, synergistic marketing by coming out before the 1928 film’s release. Along similarly prescient lines, Brigham Young University professor James D’Arc pointed to the film’s partial “runaway production” to Utah—more specifically, Zion National Park—whose majestic canyons and mountain peaks, Carewe believed, provided the perfect visual correlative for Jackson’s “American Love Classic.”
As for other opportunities to catch this rare find, Neely’s release of a DVD through his Timeline Films (no date yet set) will enable home viewing and more local screenings, and for Ramona buffs willing to travel farther afield, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival plans a presentation at the Castro Theater on May 30.
VincentBrook teaches at USC and UCLA. He has written or edited five books, including, most recently, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and Woody On Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (both 2013).