Tag Archives: d.w. griffith

July Stories

(Before July 2011 passes into the history books, I want to highlight some of the “Deadwrite’s Dailies” type of anniversaries that take place over the last half of the month.)

Ginger Rogers – b. 7/16/1911

Happy 100th birthday to the late, dancing great Ginger Rogers. Born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, she was said to be able to dance before she could walk. She teamed up for the first of nearly a dozen films with Fred Astaire in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. In death they’re still partnered: both are buried in Oakwood Memorial Cemetery in Chatsworth.

Ty Cobb – d. July 17, 1961

Hell got a bit more crowded 50 years ago this month when Ty Cobb died. Cobb – one of America’s greatest baseballers and most rabid haters – was also the game’s first millionaire. He tried to use some of his fortune to rehabilitate his reputation before his death, but it just didn’t take.

Bobby Fuller d. July 18,1966

23-year-old musical sensation Bobby Fuller (I Fought the Law) was found dead in his car in Los Angeles 45 years ago on this date. His death was ruled a suicide, but questions remain. some have speculated that Fuller was murdered by the LAPD and possibly even by Charles Manson.

Lizzie Borden b. July 19, 1860

We all know the gruesome rhyme about hatchet-wielding Lizzie Borden’s naughty night when she delivered 40 whacks to her father and 41 to her mother. (In truth, the number was 11 and 19, respectively.) Lizzie may not actually have been the “whacker.” Some have speculated that she took the fall for a younger sister. Another theory claims that Lizzie did the deed, but was unaware of it as she was in a PMS-induced “fugue.” BTW, the house where the killings took place in Fall River, Massachusetts is now a bed-and-breakfast.

(An additional shout out to our pals Martin Sheen and Melissa Fitzgerald, who were in Washington on the 19th to rally in support of Drug Courts, which focuses on rehabilitation rather than incarceration for drug-addicted offenders.)

Bruce Lee d. July 20, 1973

32-year-old martial arts movie master Bruce Lee died suddenly on this date in 1973, just six days before the release of Enter the Dragon, a worldwide box office hit. His son Brandon would follow him into films and a premature death when he was killed on the set of The Crow nearly twenty years later.

Basil Rathbone d. July 21, 1967

Most famous for his series of Sherlock Holmes films in the 30s and 40s, Basil Rathbone served as a British intelligence officer in WWI and later put his proficiency in fencing to work in swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood.

John Dillinger d. July 22, 1934

Depression-era bad guy John Dillinger was gunned down by G-men on this date in 1934 outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Famous for his numerous breakouts, he once got out of the Crown Point (Indiana) jail with a wooden gun that was smuggled in by his attorney. Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, near the grave of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who also died on July 22nd, eighteen years previously.

U.S. Grant/D.W. Griffith/Vic Morrow d. July 23

Savior of the Union and two-time president Ulysses S. Grant died on this date in 1885, having finished his memoirs just a few days earlier. Film pioneer D.W. Griffith passed away on this date in 1948, and screen actor Vic Morrow was tragically killed on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie on this date in 1982.

Peter Sellers d. July 24, 1980

Eccentric funny guy Peter Sellers died on this date in 1980 at the age of 54. July 24th also marks the 65th anniversary of the creation of the popular comic team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1946. Ten years to the day later, they would split up.

Harry Warner d. July 25, 1958

One-quarter of the four brothers who founded the media empire where Kimi and I are currently employed, Harry Warner was for decades the president of Warner Bros. until losing control of the company to his brother Jack. The inter-familial shenanigans caused Harry to have a stroke, which eventually killed him on this date in 1958.

Robert Todd Lincoln d. July 26, 1926

Son of President Abraham Lincoln, Robert had the misfortune of having a father assassinated and then being nearby when two other American presidents were murdered. He lived long enough be present at the dedication of the Lincoln Monument – a tribute to his dad.

Bob Hope d. July 27, 2003

Comedian Bob Hope triumphed in every medium available to him – film, television, radio, theater – and had an amazing run at longevity as well, living past 100. July 27th also marks the 15th anniversary of the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Jackie O b. July 28, 1929

Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was born on this date in 1929. July 28th is also the anniversary of the founding of the city of Miami in 1896 when it was incorporated with a population of 300 – roughly the same average attendance figure for Florida Marlins games.

Cass Elliot d. July 29, 1974

Yes, singer “Mama” Cass Elliot died on this date in 1974. And no, it wasn’t because she choked on a ham sandwich (it was a heart attack). Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore in 1941, Cass was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 along with the rest of The Mamas and the Papas.

Claudette Colbert d. July 30, 1996

Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the passing of French-born actress Claudette Colbert. After a 60-plus year career, which included a Best Actress Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night, Colbert passed away at the age of 92 at her retirement home on the island of Barbados.

Andrew Johnson d. July 31, 1875

Andrew Johnson was the first man to ascend to the presidency because of an assassin’s bullet, and the first to be impeached. He was also the first man (presumably) to be sworn in as Vice-President while falling-down drunk.

(See you in August!)

 

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The First Movie Star

Florence Lawrence, "The Biograph Girl," in 1905.

On this day in 1938, Florence Lawrence, the actress credited as the world’s first movie star, died by her own hand in a West Hollywood apartment.

Florence Annie Bridgwood was born in Canada in 1886. Her mother was a vaudevillian actress who used the name Lotta Lawrence on stage. Young Florence took on her mother’s professional surname after the death of her father when she was four.

Florence joined her mother on stage at an early age and the two eventually migrated to New York City when she was 20. It was there in 1906 that Lawrence got her first film role for Thomas Edison, being paid five-dollars a day for a two week shoot.

Florence, who rode horses as a girl, was able to garner steady work due to her beauty and equestrian skills. In 1908 she was offered a sizable raise (to $25 a week) to join Biograph Studios to work with director D.W. Griffith. She appeared in most of the 60 films that Griffith made for Biograph that year.

Lawrence became popular with fans, but no one knew her name as the studios feared (rightly, as it turned out) that if actors had their names listed in the credits, they would be able to demand greater salaries. During her time with Griffith, Lawrence was listed simply as “The Biograph Girl.”

By this time, Lawrence was married to actor Harry Solter. When the pair tried to move to Essanay Studios for higher pay, they were both fired from Biograph.

Carl Laemmle, the head of the IMP Film Company (and future founder of Universal Studios) hired Lawrence for a film. To promote the movie, Laemmle “disproved” a rumor (which he had created) that “The Biograph Girl” had been killed in a street car accident. He introduced Lawrence to the public by name in advertisements and public appearances. Soon the name Florence Lawrence was known to all at a time when no actors were known by name to the public. This single act created the “studio system” and proved producers fears correct when other actors then demanded their own names on the marquee, with higher salaries.

Lawrence left Laemmle in 1910 to form a separate studio called the Victor Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She made five hundred dollars a week as the company’s leading lady with Solter acting as director. The couple sold the studio in 1913 and “retired” to a 50-acre estate in New Jersey.

The retirement didn’t last long. In 1914, Lawrence was again in front of the cameras in a film for Universal called Pawns of Destiny when she was seriously burned in a studio fire. It took months for her to recover from her injuries which seriously depleted her finances as Universal refused to cover her medical bills. She never regained her star status.

Lawrence divorced Soltis a short time later and tried to regain her footing in films before suffering a relapse brought on by her injuries in 1916 that left her paralyzed for many months. Her health returned sufficiently for her to appear in bit parts, but her remaining fortunes were wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929.

Completely forgotten by the industry she helped create, the 52-year-old killed herself on this date in 1938 by swallowing ant paste.

Her humiliation continued after death when she was interred in an unmarked plot in what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall honored the forgotten star when he paid for a memorial. It reads, “The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.”

An interesting bit of trivia: Flo-Lo, who was once married to an automobile salesman, is also credited with inventing the first turn signal for cars, which she called an “auto signaling arm.” She never patented the device, which made fortunes for others.


“Ramona Days,” Part Two

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.

Hugh Munro Neely.

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.”    

 

Henry B. Walthall and Mary Pickford in "Ramona."

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.

The same location 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. 


“Ramona Days,” Part One

As author Dydia DeLyser states in the introduction to her book Ramona Memories, “The most important woman in the history of southern California never lived. Nor has she yet died.”

Ramona was the name of the woman, and she was the subject of an enormously popular 1884 fictional novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. Ramona is 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.

Hunt intended the novel to be something of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans, dramatizing the harsh oppression of California’s mission Indians at the hands of white Californians. It gave birth to the “Ramona myth,” in which Ramona, who was a fictional character, took on a life of her own.

Hunt used real locations for the basis of her story, and soon thousands of readers began arriving in California from back East hoping to see where Ramona “lived.” Various California cities cashed in on the travel boom claiming to be Ramona’s birthplace, home, marriage location, and even grave site.

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. Camulos is a 40-acre National Historic Landmark situated within an 1800-acre working ranch. According to its website, it is “the only Mexican land grant rancho in California that is open to the public and still preserved in its original rural environment.” It was originally part of the huge 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco Mexican land grant awarded to Antonio Del Valle in 1839. The house was built in 1853 by Antonio’s son Ygnacio and got its name from a Tataviam Indian settlement on the site called Kamulus.

“When the book came out, it was so popular that many ranchos vied for the title of “home of Ramona,” says Camulos docent Maria Christopher. “In reality, Helen Hunt Jackson had visited several ranchos but never identified the inspiration for the home of Ramona. A few years after the book came out, Charles Lummis published a book of photos based on his knowledge of California ranchos, illustrating how Camulos fit the description in the book. Also, in an appendix to one of the early editions, a journalist documented his visit to Rancho Camulos, identifying it as the true home of Ramona.”

The rancho quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and for years the Southern Pacific railroad made stops at Camulos’s own train station to accommodate all the tourists wishing to visit Ramona’s house. This did not sit well with the Del Valle’s who complained about tourists who took souvenirs, trampled the gardens, and entered the home uninvited – often asking to see a torn altar cloth that Ramona mended – forgetting that the young senorita had never actually lived.

The phenomenon continued long after Hunt’s death in 1885. The novel spawned “The Ramona Pageant” in Hemet in 1923, which is still held annually outdoors in April and May. A few years later, showman Robert E. Callahan penned a sequel to Ramona and founded one of California’s first theme parks in Culver City, known as Ramona Village. After going bankrupt, the park stood for many years on Sierra Highway near Canyon Country under the name “Callahan’s Wild West.” Many of the items from the park are now found at Heritage Junction in Newhall, including “Ramona’s Chapel,” a replica of the one found at Rancho Camulos.

The Ramona Myth was still powerful enough in 1910 for legendary director D.W. Griffith to make a movie based on the book starring “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. The film, which was shot at Camulos and in surrounding canyons, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.


Silent Film Funnymen in the SCV

Newhall's Beale's Cut, seen in Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances."

Last month I wrote about our efforts to place a historic plaque at the filming site of the final scene of Modern Times (1936) next February on the 75th anniversary of the film’s release. I’ll keep you in the loop on our progress. In the meantime, I wanted to write a bit about some of the other Santa Clarita Valley sites used by Chaplin, as well as his friend and rival Buster Keaton.

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In 1921, stone-faced silent comedian Buster Keaton made a film called The Paleface. In one scene where Buster is being chased by Indians, he crosses a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall.

Beale’s Cut, located near the intersection of the Golden State (5) and Antelope Valley (14) Freeways, was at one time a 90-foot deep man-made slit carved though a mountain. It greatly aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until being bypassed in 1910 by the newly constructed Newhall Tunnel, which was subsequently replaced by Sierra Highway in 1938.

Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 while filming Seven Chances. In this film, Buster plays a man who has to be married by seven o’clock or lose his fortune. He fails to find a bride by taking “seven chances” at proposing directly, and in desperation, places an ad in the paper to find a wife. A mob of women in wedding dresses pursue Buster throughout the remainder of the film, briefly chasing him through the cut.

(Beale’s Cut has been used as a movie location many times in the past, most notably in Stagecoach (1939), starring John Wayne, and in a lost Tom Mix film called Three Jumps Ahead (1923), where he appears to jump the expanse on a horse!)

Charlie Chaplin in "The Pilgrim" outside of the Saugus Train Station.

In 1923, Charlie Chaplin – playing an escaped prisoner disguised as a preacher – filmed part of The Pilgrim a few miles up the road from Beale’s Cut at the Saugus Train Station. At that time, the station was located on Railroad Street across from the present site of the Saugus Café. Since then it has been relocated three miles south to the Heritage Junction Historical Park in Newhall. This park sits next to the William S. Hart Regional Park, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star.

Ironically, Hart was the subject of a western parody that Keaton filmed in 1922 called The Frozen North. Buster was angry at Hart for publicly condemning his friend Fatty Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s well-publicized scandal, which was brought on by the death of an actress at a party. In The Frozen North, Keaton pokes fun at the tough, melodramatic character that Hart most-often portrayed in his films. Hart apparently didn’t find the portrayal funny, and refused to speak to Keaton for two years.

(The station was also seen in Suddenly (1954), starring Frank Sinatra, and The Grifters (1989), starring John Cusack, Annette Benning, and Angelica Huston.)

The Saugus Train Station today.

While not involving Chaplin directly, part of the film Chaplin (1991), starring Robert Downey, Jr., was filmed in nearby Fillmore; and Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, two of Chaplin’s United Artists partners, made the silent film Ramona at nearby Rancho Camulos in 1910.

The magicians are no longer with us – Keaton died in 1966, and Chaplin in 1977 – but at Beale’s Cut and the Saugus Train Station, we can still stand where some of their magic was made.


“Modern Times,” Part 1

The entrance to The Jim Henson Company lot at La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood. The lot was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1918, which explains the statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as the "Little Tramp" over the entrance.

In 1935, Charlie Chaplin – the most famous of the silent clowns – came to the Santa Clarita Valley to shoot the final two scenes of the silent era.

Chaplin was over twenty years into his enormously successful film career at the time, having first arrived in Hollywood from his native England in 1914 to make films for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. By the end of that year he had completed 35 films and his character, the Little Tramp, was the world’s most recognizable star.

Chaplin, as the Little Tramp, peeking out the door next to the entrance.

He left Keystone the following year and continued to make dozens of Little Tramp shorts for other producers for the next few years. These films were so successful that by the end of the decade he was able to build his own studio on La Brea in Hollywood, and to partner in the creation of United Artists with his friends Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.

Chaplin was in essence a pantomime artist and feared that if people heard the voice of the Little Tramp that the character’s magic would be lost forever. As the star, director, producer, writer, editor, and composer of his films, as well as the studio owner, he was the only man in Hollywood with the power and resources to buck the talkie trend. But he knew that the time had come to evolve. By 1935, he finally admitted to himself that talking pictures, which debuted in 1927, were here to stay, and were not the novelty that he had hoped would eventually wear off with the world’s audiences.

Chaplin's footprints and autograph in the steps outside of the "Chaplin door."

He decided to end his silent career with a film called Modern Times. It would be his biggest gamble to date, coming eight years into the talkie era. It would prove to be one of his greatest triumphs, but no one knew that on August 20, 1935, when he came to the SCV to film.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the filming date for the penultimate scene, which was shot on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce. Ten days later Chaplin returned to the same lonely road to film what would be the final scene of not only Modern Times, but of the entire silent era. I will write about that on August 30.

To be continued …