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Back Home Again: The World Premiere Restoration of the Once Thought Lost Ramona

July 9, 2015

Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona is a landmark piece of literature in many ways, one of those being that the work is generally acknowledged as the first book set in Southern California. For that reason alone, it's fitting that the film's world premiere restoration in March 2014, almost 86 years to the day of its original debut in 1928, took place in Southern California at the Billy Wilder Theater, home of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.


The Archive assembled an extremely impressive and remarkably diverse group of educators and historians from across the country to highlight the different ways in which the film was groundbreaking for its time, including Phil Brigandi, an authority on the Ramona pageant in Hemet; James D'Arc, author of When Hollywood Came to Town: The History of Moviemaking in Utah; Dydia DeLyser, author of Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California; Linda B. Hall, author of Dolores Del Rio: Beauty in Light and Shade; Joanna Hearne, author of Native Cinema Rising; and film historian and preservationist Hugh Munro Neely, former curator of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education. The diversity of the speakers gave the audience a rare opportunity to view the film with a fully immersive, all-compassing eye; those in attendance were well-versed in multiple aspects of the movie, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, by the end of the evening. 

From left to right: Joanna Hearne, Dydia DeLyser, Linda B. Hall, Phil Brigandi, James D'Arc, and Hugh Munro Neely on stage at the Billy Wilder Theater. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

By the mid-1910s, only 30 years after its publication date, Ramona had already made the transition to the screen two times: D.W. Griffith recorded a short version in 1910 starring Mary Pickford, and six years later a feature directed by Donald Crisp debuted. It was only 12 more years until Helen Hunt Jackson's story appeared in theaters again in Edwin Carewe's 1928 version, and amazingly, a mere eight years later, in 1936, Loretta Young took a stab in the lead role. Since then, the Ramona craze on screen has certainly died down a significant amount.


Though definitely not the version of the story seen by the majority today, Carewe's 1928 adaptation is probably the most well-known of the Ramona tales, and its rediscovery a few years back, in addition to the film's cultural significance, prompted an impressive restoration. Astonishingly, the group on stage didn't believe the film underwent a ton of restorative work, aside from the creation of new title cards that were translated from Czech to English using 1920s style fonts. For an 86 year old film, that's quite the feat!


Besides the physical restoration work, the tale behind the rescue and retrieval of Carewe's Ramona sounds even more spectacular when one hears the story of the film's journey back to California, which entailed multiple border crossings traversed amidst less than favorable political landscapes. I'll get into more detail about all that later.

The Movie

In Southern California, Señora Morena (Vera Lewis) raises orphaned Ramona (Dolores Del Rio) as her adopted daughter alongside her biological son, Felipe (Roland Drew). Over the years, Felipe has fallen in love with Ramona, though she thinks of him solely as a brother.


Señora Morena runs a sheep ranch. When shearing time rolls around, handsome Temecula Indian Alessandro (Warner Baxter) arrives with other men to work on the ranch. It's not long before Ramona and Alessandro fall in love, but Señora Morena throws a wrench in their happiness by telling Ramona she's not allowed to marry below her social standing. However, at the same time, Señora Morena also reveals that Ramona's mother was an Indian, making her half Indian. With this newfound knowledge, Ramona no longer believes Alessandro is beneath her, and they run off together to be married. 

They sure worked fast! Alessandro (Warner Baxter), Ramona (Dolores Del Rio), and baby.

Ramona and Alessandro make their home in the mountains. They soon have a daughter and move their family to a house close to an Indian village. When their child falls sick a doctor is called, but because he refuses to treat Indians, the girl dies.


Soon thereafter, a crowd of white men descend upon the village, terrorizing and killing the Indians and setting fire to a number of homes. Luckily, Ramona and Alessandro flee to the mountains. Their safety is short lived, however, because not long after the massacre Alessandro unknowingly takes a horse and is killed in retaliation. The stress and tragedy of both her losses drives Ramona crazy, and she runs away.


It's not until a while later that Ramona is found, and by Felipe, no less. Her memory is shaky, but the music of her youth brings her back, and she falls right into Felipe's arms.   

Ramona clowning around with Felipe (Roland Drew).

The Journey

Just as Ramona traversed multiple landscapes in the movie, so did the print the restoration was made from. To begin with, a copy of the film existed in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. However, when the Nazis invaded the country, the troops took Ramona and several other films back to Berlin. Luckily, the picture didn't stay long in the war-torn city: after the Soviets freed the capital, Ramona was transported to the Soviet Film Archive outside Moscow, where it would safely remain until that empire fell. Not long after that, a Czech archivist conducting work there uncovered the movie. At that point, the film's journey came very close to full circle: the print was taken to Prague, in the country now referred to as the Czech Republic, where it re-emerged in 2010. One of the evening's speakers, Hugh Munro Neely, learned of this discovery and traveled to Prague along with fellow scholars Joanna Herne and Dydia DeLyser to provide insight and assist with the film's American homecoming. Once in the States, Ramona was delivered to the Library of Congress' preservation team.


What made the debut of this beautiful new print even more special was the live score performed by the wonderful Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Astonishingly (to me at least), the music performed that evening was assembled from 40 different compositions, all of which would have been available back in 1928.

Side note: Though a silent film, Ramona also became associated with a popular song of the same name sung by star Dolores Del Rio. "Ramona" was written and recorded for this version of the story and debuted before the picture came out, making it a great promotional tool leading up to the movie's release. 

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra warming up before the screening. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

California Born, Utah Raised

Despite standing as such an important California-centric story adapted from the first book on the state, Ramona was not actually filmed in California, though ironically, Linda B. Hall notes in her book Dolores Del Río: Beauty in Light and Shade that it easily could have been. Instead, the movie was shot on location in Utah, which was a relatively un-filmed state up until the mid-1920s, as James D'Arc discussed.


Originally, director Carewe, a Native American of Chickasaw descent from Oklahoma who was known for being assertive, planned on filming in Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon National Park. However, trouble ensued when the crew arrived and found a team from First National there instead. Carewe asked the director of the other picture, Albert Rogell, to leave, which resulted in a mini showdown and a call to the Sheriff; apparently, some in Rogell's company were "armed to resist" (82). Carewe finally relented and moved his cast and crew to Zion City and later to Black Mountain.

Director Edwin Carewe.

Dolores Del Rio

Carewe chose United Artists to work with because he felt he would have the most creative freedom under them, and he did, but he also exerted considerable control over his star, Dolores Del Rio. Del Rio first met the director while she was living in Mexico City with her husband, Jaime. The Del Rios were part of the upper class in Mexico, so they were able to travel to California to work in the film industry, which Carewe encouraged them to do. Consequently, Del Rio ended up working on most of the films Carewe made between 1925 and 1929.


Though of Mexican heritage, Del Rio had the rare distinction of being able to play a variety of ethnicities and races throughout her career with very little negative press regarding her Mexican background. As highlighted in the UCLA program notes for the screening, Del Rio refused to be recognized as Spanish, though sometimes characters she played, such as Ramona, were partly or fully identified as such, and proudly defended her Mexican heritage. Hall noted that her radiant beauty and high social standing in Mexico and the US, in addition to very careful handling by her publicist, allowed her to operate above any racial scrutiny. Thus, she did not come up against any charges of miscegenation in her romantic pairings, which was very much looked down upon in Production Code era Hollywood. 

Del Rio, simply sparkling.

The Risk and Reception

Ramona stood in complete opposition to films that showed Native Americans in unfavorable ways; on the contrary, the whites were the ones exposed in a negative light in this story. Apparently, this reversal was not as radical as one would think, because a lot of positive work came out of the American Indian Movement between 1924-1934.


Ironically, though I mentioned above that Del Rio was generally accepted as white in Hollywood, casting her as mixed race in Ramona - half Native American, half European (Spanish) - actually represented a risk; the move could have easily re-opened discussion of the star's Mexican heritage, and charges of miscegenation could have been brought up. Though Carewe seemed to stress the psychological treatment and racial prejudice of the characters and story over Ramona's individual background, Hall felt that the director had ulterior motives and was actually using his star as a "highly sympathetic model" to persuade audiences to change their attitudes towards Native Americans and perhaps even break barriers for them, just like Del Rio had been doing for Mexicans (98).


Luckily, potential hazards never manifested. Though the film certainly dealt with tricky subjects, Ramona tended to be perceived by the public and reviewers as more of a "tribute to California" and a great American romance (84). The movie received mostly favorable notices and raked in over one million dollars at the box office, quite a large amount at the time. 

What looks like a Spanish poster for the film, emphasizing the location and Del Rio.

The world premiere restoration screening proved extremely popular and excellently received as well; in fact, the house was sold out, and I just barely made it in. Who would have guessed that a once-thought lost movie would attract such a crowd? (I've since learned that in LA I should have assumed as much!)



As far as I'm aware, Ramona is not available on DVD or streaming, but with this new restoration in the bag, hopefully it will be released in the near future. After all, the movie has years worth of screenings to catch up on since it laid undiscovered for so long!

(Side note: Ramona has been making the film festival rounds recently, and I know of one screening next month at Capitolfest in New York).

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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