News Column

Ramona Days celebrates a book, California history, a silent-film legend and more

September 6, 2013


Sept. 06--Film historian Hugh Munro Neely remastered the classic 1910 silent movie "Ramona" and marvels at how the place where it was shot, Rancho Camulos just east of Piru, remains a trip back in time.

"It's fascinating to look at the film," Neely said, "and then go look at Rancho Camulos, to see where the film was made. Much of the buildings and plantings are the same."

People can do both when the film screens Saturday afternoon at Camulos.

For a little 17-minute one-reeler shot over several days in early spring 1910 on the remote fringes of Ventura County, the "Ramona" story sure has packed a mighty wallop that still echoes to this day.

It helped make famous director D.W. Griffith and, especially, lead actress Mary Pickford. Later dubbed "America's Sweetheart," she was by 1914, Neely noted, called "the most famous woman in the world" in magazines and became arguably moviedom's first superstar, touching off the sort of frenzied idolatry over celebrities that continues today.

It was part of the very early days of the film industry in California and signaled a sea change that would send its power base west from New York to what we now know as Hollywood.

The film also built upon the still-fervent interest in the 1884 Helen Hunt Jackson best-selling novel on which it is based; both were responsible for an early 20th century tourism boom in the area. Thousands of people got off a Southern Pacific Railroad Co. stop at Rancho Camulos to see the "land of Ramona," per a history on the rancho's website.

That in turn sparked a play adaptation (of the book) that's been performed in Hemet since 1923; in its 90th year, it -- called both the Ramona Outdoor Play and the Ramona Pageant -- remains California's official outdoor play and perhaps the longest continuously running one in the nation.

All this lives on in a more modern and much younger outgrowth of the story's considerable wake, the sixth annual Ramona Days celebration that takes place Saturday afternoon at Rancho Camulos. Neely will return to show the film's remastered version, cast members from the Hemet Ramona pageant will return to act out vignettes from the play, and flamenco dancers will perform to music that perhaps evokes the rancho's old ways under several generations of the del Valle family, who figured prominently in California's agricultural and political history.

The place is a national historic landmark, and Neely noted that "Ramona" is a "very important" part of film history. But that story, he added, is "only part of the richness that exists at Rancho Camulos."

Sprucing up a silent classic

Neely remastered the "Ramona" film for Turner Classic Movies in 2009 and for the past couple years has shown it at the Rancho Camulos celebration. He also gives a talk about it and fields questions.

"It's a special presentation," he said. "I really love doing it there. The people are so enthusiastic."

Neely directed the documentary "Mary Pickford: A Life in Film" and also has been affiliated with the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education in Culver City, where the remastering work occurred.

The original "Ramona" negative, he said, survives in the Library of Congress; he worked from a duplicate negative to remaster the film. It was tedious, frame-by-frame work, deciding how bright each one should be, among other factors.

Another bit of trickiness was deciding at what speed the film should run; Griffith was only allowed to do a one-reel film, or roughly 1,000 feet of film, so to get more story in, he told his cameraman to crank it slower than normal, at about 16 frames per second.

Neely and crew also commissioned a score for the film. As part of his research, he also got permission to venture into the hills above Piru to see where Griffith shot the mountain scenes.

"Ramona," he noted, is an important story of early California history. Jackson, a travel writer in her day, wrote it over her concern about injustices to Native American people.

"Basically, they'd had their land taken from them over and over again," Neely noted.

She'd written an earlier book, "A Century of Dishonor," hoping it'd result in legislation helping the Native Americans.

When it didn't, she layered such serious issues in the story of "Ramona," the romance between the title character -- "of the great Spanish household of Moreno" -- and the Indian, Alessandro.

In some ways, this short tale of forbidden love with dark consequences is Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" transferred to 19th century frontier California. Jackson set it in the 1840s, in the days just before California became a state.

'Ramona' country

In the early 1880s, Jackson visited Rancho Camulos, still a thriving land-grant ranch operated by the del Valles. When the book came out in 1884, many -- as they do today -- considered Camulos to be the "home of Ramona."

The Camulos history notes that Ramona's fictional home on the Moreno Ranch, as described geographically by Jackson in the novel, matches its location. Other things described in the book, such as the hill, the chapel, the bells and the fountain and courtyard, were clearly from Camulos, the site states.

But Neely isn't so sure; he doesn't think Jackson (who died in 1885, a year after the book came out) ever claimed Camulos was the home of Ramona. While it's true she described the rancho and surrounding valley in the book, she also described other areas of Southern California, he noted. Other historians through the years have claimed other settings for the book.

Wherever that truth lies, the book caused a stir. When the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. laid tracks through the Santa Clara River Valley in the late 1880s, a stop was put in at Rancho Camulos so people could go in search of "Ramona" country. The book was so popular that schools, streets and towns were named after the novel's heroine, the Camulos site states.

Enter Griffith stage left, in 1910. He was an aspiring filmmaker working for the Biograph Company in New York; in those days, Neely noted, the film industry was all back East.

Griffith, he added, had a personal connection to "Ramona"; he'd played Alessandro in a stage version. He was, Neely said, "very sympathetic" to the Native American cause. The film is subtitled: "A Story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian."

(Only a few years later, Griffith would instigate charges of racist undertones toward African Americans in his 1915 film epic "Birth of a Nation.")

Griffith thought "Ramona" was an important story and convinced his Biograph bosses to buy the rights to it from the Little, Brown and Co. publishers for the princely sum of $100.

He also convinced Biograph that he could film longer out on the coast in California. "Ramona" also was one of the first films to shoot on location.

"The film industry in California is just on its very first legs," Neely said.

Soon, film industry power would shift west and the rest is Hollywood history.

When the one-reeler was done, Biograph billed it as its "most elaborate and artistic movie yet filmed." The film's publicity, per the National Film Preservation Foundation, touted the film's authenticity and claimed it occurred in the "identical locations and buildings" where Jackson placed her characters.

And even well into the 1920s, Neely said, the book was still "insanely popular."

Lipstick on the Venus de Milo

Pickford (born Gladys Louise Smith in 1892 in Toronto) went on to become one of the biggest stars in the first 20 years of U.S. cinema. She was "amazingly famous" in those days, Neely said.

"It is amazing, when you think of it," he added. "Prior to the movies, you didn't really see famous people in moving images, at all."

Her peak, he said, was around 1922. By then, she was married to Douglas Fairbanks -- perhaps the first Hollywood power couple. They moved into a mansion in Beverly Hills they called Pickfair. Parties there in the '20s and '30s were the social events, drawing a who's who of the time: Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, No l Coward, H.G. Wells, Pearl Buck, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Gloria Swanson, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, among them.

She remained at the top until the dawn of the sound era later that decade, Neely said. It was Pickford who famously said, "Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo."

She did four "talkies" as they were called in those days, but her career waned thereafter. She died in 1979 at age 87.

The "Ramona" story spawned three other movies, in 1916 (which was filmed partly in Casitas Springs), in 1928 (with Dolores Del Rio in the title role) and in 1936 (with Loretta Young as Ramona).

Neely has never seen the Ramona pageant cast do excerpts of the play at Rancho Camulos -- he's too busy that day -- but he has been to Hemet to see them do it; they put it on every spring.

Over the years there, some famous actors have taken on the Ramona role, including Raquel Welch in 1959 and Anne Archer in 1969.

"They are wonderful," Neely said of the Hemet players. "It's a very colorful presentation."

It's quite a lasting legacy for a tale that spans the dying days of once-dominant Native American cultures, the Spanish/Mexican land grant days and the birth of the planet's most powerful entertainment conglomerate. Just as intriguing as the story of "Ramona," it seems, is the story behind it.

Said Neely: "It's a fascinating one."

Ramona Days

Helen Hunt Jackson's acclaimed 1884 novel "Ramona" will come to life in various forms during this sixth annual celebration from 1-6 p.m. Saturday at Rancho Camulos Museum, about two miles east of Piru along Highway 126. The physical address is 5164 E. Telegraph Road, Piru.

Film historian Hugh Munro Neely will show his remastered version of the 1910 film "Ramona" several times during the afternoon. Cast members from the famous Hemet Ramona pageant will perform vignettes from a play based on the Jackson novel at 2 and 4 p.m. There also will be a barbecue dinner, other food, music, traditional and flamenco dances, arts and crafts sales, used book sales, museum and garden tours, free children's activities and more. Visitors are encouraged to come in costume and character.

Tickets are $7 in advance, $10 at the gate. Children ages 12 and under get in free. Call 521-1501 or visit

Rancho Camulos is open for docent-led tours without appointment on Saturdays from 1-4 p.m. Regular, group and school tours, as well as private event bookings, are available by appointment year-round. Call 521-1501.

Watch 'Ramona'

To watch the 1910 film "Ramona," and learn more about its history, visit


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