It takes a special kind of crazy to make a man wake up early on a Sunday morning to climb hills in a remote canyon in search of hundred-year-old filming locations, but that’s what I did over the weekend. I happen to share this particular form of insanity with Hugh Munro Neely, the curator of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education in Los Angeles. That’s how the two of us found ourselves climbing a mountain near Piru, California, where just over 100 years ago, legendary director D.W. Griffith came to film budding superstar Mary Pickford in a silent one-reeler called Ramona.
Ramona was based on the enormously popular 1884 novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. It’s a story about a privileged young senorita who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro. Though largely forgotten today, Ramona was one of the nineteenth century’s best loved novels.
Director D.W. Griffith, one of early cinema’s true titans, was a big fan of Ramona and had even acted out the part of Alessandro on stage. By 1910, he had been directing movies for two years and was five years away from making his controversial silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford, who was born in Canada, was well on her way to becoming “America’s Sweetheart,” with nearly 70 films under her belt. Griffith secured the Ramona filming rights for only $100, and boiled the 350-page novel down to a 17-minute one-reeler.
Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos, which lies two miles east of Piru on Highway 126, was believed to be the setting for Ramona’s home, and for many years the rancho even marketed fruits grown there under the “Home of Ramona” label.
Camulos became so associated with the Ramona story that Griffith decided to make what was then a rare decision by filming on location at the rancho. In May, 1910 he did exterior shooting over a few days in the hills surrounding Piru and at Camulos. In fact, Camulos is noted for being the first location to ever be given a screen credit when the following banner appeared at the beginning of the film: “The production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.”
I met Hugh on Saturday at Camulos, where he was presenting the film in the schoolhouse to guests of the annual “Ramona Days” festival which was taking place at the rancho. Hugh was in charge of the film’s recent remastering, which he completed in time for its 100th anniversary this past May. That same month I wrote an article for The Signal in Valencia where I matched up scenes from the film with current sites to show how much had changed in a century. The thing I was surprised to discover was that many of the sites looked remarkably similar today.
Hugh had some doubts about some of the canyon sites I identified in my article as filming locations (rightly so, as it turns out). He wanted to get a look at the sites for himself, and that’s how we ended up rising early on Sunday to straddle fences and climb mountains like a pair of bipedal mountain goats. I had to head out early, but Hugh was able to find five sites and possibly a couple more.
It may sound insane, but when you are able to match up a site like this …
… it makes it all worthwhile for a a couple of movie crazy guys like me and Hugh.