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Griffith had an affinity for RAMONA, having appeared in two stage
versions of the novel and having hectored his bosses into paying a
hundred dollars for screen rights -- this two-reeler was advertised as
the most expensive picture ever made. It falls into the class of
Griffith films in which he expresses sympathy for minorities and
suggests that the best thing to do with people is to leave them alone.
This statement may come as a bit of a shocker to those whose only
knowledge of Griffith is knowing, second hand about the racism of BIRTH
OF A NATION, but none to those who are familiar with more of his work:
BROKEN BLOSSOMS also falls into this category and, to a great extent,
so does BOAN.
Although this film is full of fine visual touches -- some excellent deep-focus shots of the characters with the distant mountains behind them dominate the camera-work --and has good performances by Mary Pickford in the title role and a slightly over-the-top performance by Henry Walthall, there is far too much solitary posing and the two reels are too brief for the story. Still, Pickford and Walthall are excellent in their scenes together, Griffith has some lovely landscape to work with and his stock company is up to their usual level of competence.
If you had not read the original novel or at least read up on the film
"Ramona", I don't think you'd have much of a notion of what is
transpiring. Though this is only a seventeen minute movie, the whole of
a novel is presented to us. If it wasn't for its landmark status as
representative of early silent films it wouldn't pass muster.
This is a tale of the inequitable treatment of Southern California Native Americans. Ramona is smitten by a member of the local tribe, and they eventually are wed despite the objections of her sort-of foster mother. The couple are run out of their home by land-grabbing white settlers. All this ends badly.
Consider that the novel "Ramona" was published in 1884 and that it achieved enormous popularity, so D. W. Griffith's film was destined to be a success. But besides its place in film history for the almost overwhelming interest of the story to the public it was one of the many pieces of work D. W. Griffith was churning out, making history just in the doing.
According to Darling Kindersley's "Chronicle of the Cinema", Griffith went on a "working vacation" one in which he shot 25 films in four months as he and his ensemble toured California. One of the films made was this, "Ramona."
Paul Spehr drives home the importance of "Ramona" and other Griffith efforts around this time:
it is camera work and editing that make the most startling advances during this period. Griffith "publicly laid claim to the introduction of 'large or close-up figures, distant views as represented first in 'Ramona', the 'switchback' (cross cutting gc), sustained suspense, the 'fade out', and restraint in expression', raising motion picture acting to the higher plane which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.'
One quite noticeable aspect of this film is the lack of dialogue frames. Instead there are graphic text frames inserted occasionally to detail what is transpiring. But in no sense is the filmed footage tied to the actual dialogue we see. But as mentioned above without prior knowledge of the subject the movie is so abbreviated that it doesn't come close to conveying the whole story.
It has taken me far longer to write this review than to see the movie.
When Native American Allesandro first glimpses Ramona (Mary Pickford)
he is completely smitten. After singing and strumming a tune on his
guitar Ramona becomes romantically drawn to the benign Allesandro in
spite of the the strong societal taboos facing such a relationship.
They elope together but wherever they turn they are met with racist
Before and after (Broken Blossoms) Birth of a Nation DW Griffith had no qualms about magnifying white man intolerance towards minorities. In Ramona he does a fine job of creating immense sympathy for the lovers and clear condemnation for the violent loutish behavior of the conquerers.
There are some stunning vistas to behold in this on location shoot in Ventura County CA. as the outcasts retreat to the perceived freedom of the great outdoors. Griffith's compositions are however mostly stilted and poorly blocked but it does not lessen the impact that Ramona is a brave socially conscious film that dares to hold up a mirror to the face of the majority of ticket buyers and take the other side.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Ramona" is an American 17-minute film from 1910, so this one is already over 105 years old. Very impressive. Nobody should be surprised that this is a silent, black-and-white film as this is already from before World War I. The writer and director here is D.W. Griffith the master of American silent film back then, especially when it came to drama. Today, he is not half as known as all the directors who also starred in their own films back then and focused on comedy mostly. In this film here, we have Mary Pickford and a couple more big names from the silent days. It is a story about the discrimination of Indians back then in the United States, an important subject. This is far from a perfect film and the flaws are easy to find (not enough intertitles, overacting, we learn more through the intertitles than through the acting, why does she need to be Indian to be with him if she really loves him?), but compared to other silent films from around that time, it is still really superior and the storytelling aspect is fairly strong and coherent here I must say. Thumbs up for Mr. Griffith once again. He created a decent watch here and I recommend it to silent film lovers.
Except for some nice visual touches in the B&W outdoor photography,
this RAMONA from D.W. Griffith is easily dismissed as the primitive
work that it obviously is.
Certainly MARY PICKFORD is nobody's idea of a Spanish girl but here she has a black wig and tries to look the role rather than the fair-haired image we usually have of her. Her acting style, as so often in these silents, is terribly over-the-top by today's standards and so are most of the others in the cast, particularly HENRY B. WALTHALL as her Indian lover.
The story is compressed into two reels, which is probably just as well considering the limitations imposed on it by silent screen techniques and title cards that attempt to tell too much in too little time.
It's all over before it begins. A time capsule of early attempts to create feature films.
This film is part of a DVD set entitled "Treasures III"--a set of four
DVDs all about social issues and reform. The fourth disk (where you'll
find this one) is about ethnic issues in particular.
In many ways, this film is reminiscent of the later film, THE SQUAW MAN as both are about people falling for and marrying Native-Americans--though in RAMONA, it involves a Spanish (not Mexican) lady and SQUAW MAN was an Englishman. In D.W. Griffith's own "special" way, he was trying to promote racial harmony and understanding--this, the same man who made BIRTH OF A NATION, a film that almost single-handedly was responsible for the rebirth of the KKK!! Oddly, RAMONA stars, of all people, Mary Pickford! At the time, he was one of Griffith's favorite stars, but she looked little like a Spaniard--even under the dark wig and makeup. Why he didn't get a woman who looked the ethnic part is odd considering this was a relatively expensive film when it was made. In 1936, the film was remade starring Loretta Young(!) in this role!! At least the 1928 version starred Delores Del Rio--a Mexican lady.
Ramona falls for an American-Indian, but is attacked by her family. Likewise, her love interest is also punished and he is eventually sent to a reservation. In an odd twist, Ramona learns that she, too, has American-Indian blood--thus making her love not so forbidden after all (and more palatable to the more racist elements seeing the film).
Now that she has chosen the Indian life, she sees how nasty persecution of her new people is by the Whites. She also needs to learn what it is like to live a simple life of poverty. This is a nice attempt by Griffith to promote better treatment for natives. Also, the film features some wonderful cinematography at this point in the film--with amazing vistas of the American West. Sadly, however, this is ruined by a goofy scene where her husband goes crazy and starts jumping about wildly. This is not one of silent film's best examples of acting. Subtle it ain't. And, to make it worse, after he collapses, Ramona herself collapses over the now dead body of her lover.
For 1910, this is very good stuff. Too bad that Griffith lost all the good will and karma he generated in this film with his later infamous BIRTH OF A NATION. Even INTOLERANCE (which followed BIRTH OF A NATION) couldn't do much to improve his image today. Most people just remember him for his Klan-loving mega-epic about the evils of letting Black people "out of their place". Ugghh!
Regrettably, this is not a good film by any standards. Aside from fine location photography, it's a complete mess. Of course, it's an epic tale of love and suffering, squeezed into less than 20 minutes, filmed probably in a couple of days. But even under these circumstances it should have been better. As the film proceeds, it becomes more and more ludicrous, with white men perpetually stepping into the frame, declaring "This is my land!". The acting is disastrous. Mary Pickford has only two expressions in her acting book; the tragic death of Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall) sadly comes across as one of the funniest in the silent films. Only veteran Francis J. Grandon gives a decent, less-than-rabid performance in one of his last films, before he turned into directing. All said, the film is presented on BluRay in good quality and has a soaring (contemporary) score, played by violin and piano. Wouldn't hurt one to watch it, but make sure this isn't your first encounter with Miss Pickford. She has done better.
Around 1910 there was a trend of "Noble Red Man" films in American
cinema, mostly Westerns, which addressed -- generally in a primitive
way -- the social wrongs perpetrated against Native Americans by white
interests in the Federal United States. D. W. Griffith had spurred on
the genre -- ultimately superseded by the dramatic need to portray
Native Americans as villains in motion pictures -- through making "The
Red Man's View" somewhat earlier, and had appeared in a stage
production of "Ramona" before he'd entered the movie business. "Ramona"
was among the first narrative films to be shot in Southern California
and one of the first American motion pictures made from a popular novel
for which the rights was cleared through its publisher. Before, any
literary matter was considered fair game for early movie companies, but
Edgar Wallace's 1907 suit against Kalem for their unauthorized
adaptation of "Ben Hur" had lately changed the rules; Griffith and
Biograph paid $100 for the film rights to the book.
Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel had served as a pioneering effort in developing sympathy among mainstream Americans for the plight of the Native American, despite its trappings of tragic, nineteenth-century romance and melodrama. In boiling down the 26 chapters of Jackson's novel to the single reel Biograph film, Griffith and Stanner E. V. Taylor created an adaptation that still requires some familiarity with the source for the viewer to fully digest its action. In 1910, practically everyone in the overwhelmingly female film audience would have had contact with "Ramona," whereas a century or more later that is generally not the case. Likewise, the broad, gesture-based style of acting in this early silent film doesn't travel particularly well. Moreover, some may take objection to the anachronistic style of Maria Newman's music score for the 2009 Pickford Foundation restoration of "Ramona." Nevertheless, the Ventura County locations seen in the film remain stunning, and "Ramona" has survived in multiple excellent print sources, including a duplicate negative that Mary Pickford herself once owned. It is one of only a handful of Biograph films that has survived with all of its original titles intact, although these tend to anticipate the action rather than to support it. As a 1910 film, the visual language of "Ramona" is considerably advanced; it isn't at all stagy or static, and its locations contribute greatly to the dramatic flexibility of the tale told, even if the acting and condensation of the story seems somewhat limited. "Ramona" is a milestone in the history of early American films, and while it might not even be the best movie that D. W. Griffith made in 1910, it was one of the most popular in its own time and deserves recognition among his most significant Biographs.
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Early version of Hellen Hunt Jackson's novel, which tells the story of Ramona (Mary Pickford), a Spanish woman who goes to stay with relatives in California where she is expected to marry a Spanish man. Ramona eventually falls in love with an Indian (Henry B. Walthall), which sets off racism in the white community. Here's another message picture from Griffith who uses the full title to include "The Story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian". Griffith often stood up and made these type of pictures to protect the rich or minorities and this film fits into that same mode. Walthall is terrific as the Indian and delivers a very strong performance but Pickford comes off pretty bad with some of her over the top acting. Mae Marsh, Mack Sennett and Jack Pickford also have small parts. There's some nice scenery and some strong photography by G.W. Bitzer but in the end the film drags in too many places to be a total success. There's a terrific shot of the white men burning down the Indian village with Griffith filming it from on top of a mountain. This story has been told in countless films with the most popular being the Fox version from 1936, which features Loretta Young and Don Amche.
This film was an adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson's 'Ramona'. Griffith gravitated towards this project because his previous film, 'The Two Brothers', came to a halt because of three days of rain. He felt like a caged lion being trapped inside his hotel room, and decided to get to work on his next project: this one.
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