by Scott Simmon
A hidden history of California filmmaking
California has a wilder, more diverse movie heritage than we’d know from Hollywood blockbusters or even from the dustier aisles of video stores. A core sample of this buried history is back on view through the most recent of the DVD anthologies that I put together for the National Film Preservation Foundation. Treasures 5: The West, which was published last September, brings together forty silent and early sound films—narrative shorts and features, documentaries, promotional films, newsreels, and travelogues—showcasing the American West as it was recorded and imagined from 1898 to 1938. It’s the fifth volume in the foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives series, through which nonprofit and public archives join to make their hidden holdings available on DVD.
Typical of what’s newly unearthed is The Sergeant (1910), lost for a century until a single print turned up in New Zealand, of all places, and was returned to the United States in 2010. About 90 percent of American films from before 1930 are now lost, but because they were originally distributed worldwide, such finds abroad are not uncommon. The Sergeant is the first surviving narrative film shot in Yosemite—and a spectacular hybrid it turns out to be, telling its story within something of a travelogue. The intertitles relate both the story and the shooting location. One title reads “IN LOOKING FOR THEIR HORSES THEY LOSE THEIR WAY. ILLILLOUTTE FALLS” (the characters are lost but viewers aren’t). At release, Variety raved, “Worth the price of several admissions. If one doesn’t care a rap about the plot, he can find ample entertainment in viewing the picturesque natural scenery.” An army sergeant, stationed in Yosemite Valley, is in love with his commander’s daughter. (The army’s Fourth Cavalry was Yosemite’s police force when the film was made—before the creation of the National Park Service—although the army’s presence may be a little anticipatory for a story set in the 1880s.) An “Indian renegade” steals the couple’s horses while they are exploring Cascade Creek. The sergeant is busted down to private and must prove himself heroic before the one-reeler’s fifteen-minute running time ends. The film’s lead and writer, Hobart Bosworth, is a former Broadway Shakespearean who had come west to recover from tuberculosis. The climate must have done the trick, to judge from his stunt swim down the frigid Merced River. As Bosworth put it archly in 1915 about his demanding location work in early one-reelers, “I feel a particular personal interest in California because I have fallen down most of it, either from the top of a cliff or from a horse.”
You might assume that the first California Westerns more or less resembled Hollywood’s later patterns—if the films saved by archives didn’t tell a wider story. In the first half of the 1910s, Northern California rivaled the south as a production center, and probably the most surprising long-lost film in Treasures 5 is the inaugural feature from the San Francisco–based California Motion Picture Corporation. Salomy Jane (1914) is a seven-reel (ca. 90-minute) film whose visual beauty and directorial sophistication upend assumptions of what a first feature by an untried company ought to look like. Feature-length films were still novel back then, and the company’s Northern California boosters had not the slightest experience making movies. But national reviewers recognized something extraordinary, with admiration split between the film’s photographic splendor and its dramatic arc. For The New York Dramatic Mirror, “Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty of Salomy Jane.” That the film is forgotten is due primarily to the destruction of all of the company’s original negatives in a 1931 fire at its abandoned Marin County studio. A single print of Salomy Jane, found in Australia in 1996, is the source of preservation by the Library of Congress.
The full onscreen title promotes the locations: Salomy Jane, A Story of the Days of ’49, Produced in the Famous California Redwoods. In expanding Bret Harte’s 1898 story “Salomy Jane’s Kiss” for the stage in 1907, Paul Armstrong borrowed characters from other Harte writings and invented vengeance subplots. Although titled for its lead, Salomy Jane is a community story, set in the summer of 1852 in Hangtown (the gold-mining settlement more welcomingly renamed Placerville in 1854). In the title role is twenty-four-year-old Beatriz Michelena, promoted on the musical stage as the “California Prima Donna” and America’s first Hispanic movie star.
The California Motion Picture Corporation had high ambitions and built a glass-enclosed studio, as impressive as any at the time, in San Rafael (a few miles from where Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch now sprawls). In 1914, the company launched its Golden Gate Weekly newsreel (none of whose issues are known to survive) and then shot Salomy Jane in locations along the Bay Area coast—standing in for the Sierra foothills—as far north as the Russian River and south to Santa Cruz. Closer to the studio was the Lagunitas Creek location for the final kiss under an arching tree. In just two years the new corporation would be defunct—a victim of the growing stranglehold on distribution by vertically integrated production companies with theater chains—but Salomy Jane survives to give vivid witness to the flourishing of the Northern California film industry in the years just before the conglomeration of Hollywood.
San Rafael also had been home to the Essanay company’s more makeshift studio for an earlier one-reeler in the DVD anthology: Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress, shot in 1911 by the movies’ first Western star, Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It’s among the fifty films Anderson directed during an eight-month stay in Marin County. As it opens, a stagecoach arrives in Essanay’s usual frontier town, “Snakeville,” played this time by downtown Fairfax. The historical era isn’t specified, but the film didn’t need inventive art direction; in 1911 Fairfax still had a stagecoach line running to Bolinas on the coast.
The Western film is associated with its cowboys—and the first true cowboy star, Tom Mix, is represented in the anthology by Legal Advice (1916), which he directed at his rough studio in Newhall in the Santa Clarita Valley—but the first Westerns were also populated with surprising numbers of fighting heroines, Mexican Americans, even Asian Americans. For a few brief years at the start of California moviemaking, Native Americans were regularly hired to play Indian roles: A Lakota Sioux tribe transplanted from South Dakota to the “Inceville” studio above Santa Monica is at the center of the moving cross-cultural tragedy Last of the Line (1914). Real-life sheriffs and outlaws reenacted history that they had made themselves. Former bank- and train-robber Al Jennings—after the commutation of his life sentence—was producer and star of the autobiographical The Lady of the Dugout (1918), in which the Mojave Desert stands in for Oklahoma, and Tehachapi plays a Texas town. The film’s director, W.S. Van Dyke, shows a feel for arid Western lands that perhaps ran in the family. His uncle, the Rutgers art historian John C. Van Dyke, had staked out an aesthetic defense in The Desert (1901).
Indeed, the first California Westerns document California’s deserts before their transformations. Representative in the DVD is the Museum of Modern Art’s new restoration of D.W. Griffith’s Over Silent Paths: A Story of the American Desert (1910), surprising now for its determined heroine who avenges her father’s murder, but praised in reviews of the time mainly for its locations in the “far-off California desert, wild and rugged and splendidly photographed.” Its story of gold greed could have been made as a forty-niner tale, but it is both filmed and set in the contemporary San Fernando Valley, mainly on land soon to be incorporated into Los Angeles. It was, after all, a different valley landscape back then, so vacant and cactus-filled that “the desert wanderer” in the film loses his bearings in post-crime panic. Mileage can be glimpsed on a road sign as the miner’s daughter pulls into frontier San Fernando in her covered wagon: “BURBANK, 10.2.” Before 1910, Westerns had been made almost exclusively on the East Coast, giving them a lush and woodsy look. But that year several motion picture companies began filming in California, including Griffith’s Manhattan-based Biograph Company. Over Silent Paths was shot with typical speed over two days in April 1910, with abandoned Mission San Fernando as backdrop. The previous week Griffith had taken a relatively leisurely four days with Ramona: A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian, an adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel of 1840s California (and available in the NFPF’s earlier Treasures III DVD set).
What made the San Fernando Valley bloom—and ended its days as a desert movie location—is given unintentionally revealing form in Romance of Water (1931), available here thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2010 restoration. In the guise of an educational film, it was sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to tell its side of the most contentious battle in the West’s water wars—around the creation of the aqueduct and reservoirs to transport water from Owens Valley 250 miles north. The film builds its argument without mention of the two essential stories behind it: the violent resistance to the aqueduct from Owens Valley farmers and the catastrophic 1928 collapse of the department’s San Francisquito Canyon dam. “CORPSES FLUNG IN MUDDY CHAOS BY TIDE OF DOOM,” read a typical headline about the perhaps 450 killed (although with so many bodies washed out to sea an accurate count proved impossible). The film substitutes “romance” for all this, as aqueduct water winds its “peaceful way” down Owens Valley and “safely” into Los Angeles. The narrator’s soothing voice informs us, “Formerly these waters were wasted in the saline bed of Owens Lake. Now the enterprise of man has harnessed the river … for the benefit of the thriving metropolis far to the south.”
California was also fodder for the newsreel stories, travelogues promoting rail and auto tours, town portraits, and product advertisements included in Treasures 5—and the passing years have only made these nonfiction types more revealing. In The “Promised Land” Barred to “Hoboes,” Hearst Metrotone News reports on the 1936 crackdown on immigration from other states. Life on the Circle Ranch in California (1912), probably the earliest surviving full-reel documentary about ranching in America, trumpets on its title card its location: Santa Monica (not where one might think now to look for cattle). The early “Prizmacolor” Sunshine Gatherers (1921) opens with a pastoral history of California, with the arrival of Father Serra “from Spain’s romantic shores” and his missionaries teaching Indians the “first principles of horticulture.” The ironies are compounded by ads touting Sunshine Gatherers as “the Story of America’s Garden of Eden.” The only initial hint that the film is an elaborate advertising pitch is the red shield shape enclosing the title; the association with the Del Monte brand of fruits and vegetables would have been more than subliminal.
Colorful art labels on citrus crates shipped east long had pushed an association of California with sunshine, beauty, and health. Now California’s sunshine would be packaged for the nation year-round. Print ads trumpeted that Del Monte fruits were “Canned in the Sunny Orchards, where They Grow,” a claim carried over to the film’s smiling young female cannery workers bathed by sunlight from picture windows opening onto orchards. The film’s director, George E. Stone, ran his own studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the reenactment of Serra’s arrival was staged.
In a sense, the years have turned even fiction films into travelogues. The indisputable comic masterpiece of the DVD set is Mantrap (1926), which transports a beguiling Clara Bow into Canada’s “Great Outdoors,” played by Lake Arrowhead and the San Bernardino Mountains. In Mexican Filibusters: An Incident in the Recent Uprising (1911), El Paso is impersonated by Glendale. The Better Man (1912) was shot when Santa Monica beachfront could play a deserted frontier: The gambler rides up to an oceanfront saloon, he’s thrown off a sandstone cliff by the Mexican outlaw, and the needed doctor lives in a beach hut.
In the true travelogues, California is already teeming with visitors. What strikes one now when viewing the 1916 promotional film Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry is just how many people—and motor vehicles—are already jammed into the park. David Curry (1860–1917), the larger-than-life manager of Yosemite’s Camp Curry, welcomes the arrival of a motor bus loaded with happy campers. In the year of the film, Tioga Pass Road from the east was opened to cars, and the new National Park Service issued its first “automobile guide.” An apparently endless line of enthusiastic hikers can be seen making rapid climbs up Half Dome and 13,000-foot Mount Lyell, the park’s highest peak.
Also from 1916 is Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky, which captures the opening of the lake to automobile tourism. The first shots throw us into heavy snowfall at Truckee but we’re then magically transported from any evocation of the Donner Party up to a sunny Emerald Bay. The single-word intertitle “Contentment” sets the reel’s tone, notwithstanding something new to the lake: motorists. Tourists could drive from the Truckee River outflow to South Shore along the new twenty-five-mile “Automobile Boulevard” that is seen rising impressively above Meeks Bay—and one gets the sense that the filmmakers have rounded up all the cars they could find to create their shot of the traffic-filled boulevard. The film may borrow its title from the lake’s first guidebook, George Wharton James’s 1915 The Lake of the Sky, which admires the heroic construction of the road “blasted through fiercely solid and hostile rock” and provides gentle encouragement to the auto adventurer: “Naturally it is not as easy to negotiate as a San Francisco boulevard, but with the wheel in the hands of a careful chauffeur there is perfect safety.”
The automobile opened remote California regions to unprecedented numbers of visitors in the 1910s, but the way most people first discovered the state was at the movies. By and large, these early films and the others in Treasures 5: The West have been hidden for decades in archives and known only to the more determined of researchers. To help recover the stories behind the films, twenty-three Western historians, film scholars, and archivists were tapped to put things into context through audio commentaries, available on the DVD as an alternative sound track for each film. The complexity of the West—as a concept, a landscape, a borderland, a tourist destination, a burgeoning economy, and an arena for clashing cultures—is on view again through these long-forgotten movies.
A full list of the forty titles, and the commentators, can be found at the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website: www.filmpreservation.org.