25 Mar 2014
- Written by Bob Gelfand
GELFAND’S WORLD-Take the most beautiful woman in the world, add the quintessential California story, make the movie, and then lose the movie forever. At least that's what the world believed had happened to the 1928 film Ramona until Hugh Munro Neely, the Indiana Jones of our title, brought it back. What we have here is a story about the creation of art, Hollywood's sloppiness about preserving its own creations, and heroic efforts by a few individuals to recover them. This story has a happy ending. Ramona, recovered and restored, will be shown this Saturday night, March 29, 2014, in Westwood. This will be exactly 86 years and a day after it was first shown in downtown Los Angeles at the UA Theater.
The era extending from 1895 through 1929 was a time of extraordinary creativity, as the world's newest major art form was invented and then developed. During the first half dozen years or so, films were little more than pictures of scenery, trips along streets and railways, and curiously enough, chase scenes. It took a while for film directors to learn how to make enduring stories on film.
America became a leader in film production in the 20th century, and film moved to California -- at least a lot of it -- and suddenly this arid little backwater became a world capitol of culture.
During the period in filmmaking that we now refer to as the silent era, there were hundreds of thousands of films made. Unfortunately, nine out of ten are now lost. Some were lost in great warehouse fires, because the original film stock, cellulose nitrate, is flammable. Under the wrong conditions, it can be downright explosive. Others were simply dissolved chemically to reclaim the silver that went into them. It was an early version of recycling that we now regret bitterly. Others were probably just lost -- at the end of a few hundred showings, films were fairly badly worn down, and the movie theater at the end of the line might just discard its reels.
And there was one other place that old movies ended up. Think of it like this: Film was an international industry. If you wanted to send a film overseas, there was little difficulty in replacing written titles in English with translations into other languages. An American movie shipped to Paris, Berlin, or even Moscow went with a typed list of titles that could be printed onto celluloid in the target city, and then spliced into the film for screening. Nearly a century later, film historians are looking for lost American films in eastern European film archives and as far off as New Zealand. Apparently, in some countries, films were not tossed out, but simply tossed onto a shelf in a back room and left there. World wars, occupying armies, and governmental upheavals missed destroying at least some of these places.
And that's where we come to the beginning of our modern saga of the film Ramona.
Ramona, the story, began as a novel written by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1884. It involves an orphan girl of mixed parentage -- Scot and Native American. The story is by parts happy and tragic. The book had tremendous sales. Then came the invention of the movies, and none other than D.W. Griffith, directing none other than Mary Pickford, made the original 1910 filmed version of Ramona.
There were other versions made within a few years, largely forgotten.
Then, in 1928, another in a long line of Hollywood directors decided to make his own Ramona, and this time chose Dolores Del Rio as the lead. Del Rio is variously described by people at the time as the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, or the most beautiful woman in film, and this at a time when actresses like Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich were in the public eye. Ramona premiered in Los Angeles and then ran nationally.
And then Ramona the film was lost and largely forgotten. Three quarters of a century went by without the Dolores Del Rio version of Ramona.
In 2008, Hugh Munro Neely was investigating some Mary Pickford material in Ventura County when he met historian Dydia DeLyser. DeLyser is author of the book Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California. She points out that the Ramona story, as much as anything else, spurred early tourism here. Travelers looked for the places that were featured in the book, bought souvenirs, and sometimes came back to stay. It was our own version of the people who saw the movie Roman Holiday and decided they had to see Rome.
DeLyser and Neely discussed the lost film Ramona, and Hugh agreed to look into the possibility that some film archive might have a print. The historical record was iffy, with conflicting records. The Czech Film Archive emailed Hugh that they did indeed have a copy of the American film, albeit with the titles in Czech.
Hugh and Dydia viewed the film at the archive in the city of Prague. Hugh tells us that the film was in reasonable shape, with the usual scratches and dust that you would expect to see on a movie that has been in the can for 80 years. Actually, we are quite lucky, because film can deteriorate over the years. But this one lasted pretty well.
Interestingly, another American, Joanna Hearne, had also been looking for Ramona and had come to Prague to view it only a few months earlier. The 1928 Ramona was now on the American radar. But that is typically just the start of what can be a long and expensive process. Old film is usually somewhat shrunken, and it can shrink in one section of film but not somewhere else. This is a problem because running irregular film through a projector can actually tear it along the sprocket holes. Copying the old film onto new stock while correcting for distortions due to shrinkage can be a laborious and expensive process. It requires care, skilled technicians, and time. Luckily, new computerized systems can take a lot of the drudgery out of the process. Dust spots and scratches can be repaired, leading to a recovered work of art that is as near-new as possible. But all of this requires some person or institution to cover the costs and undertake the work.
So Hugh Munro Neely went after sponsorship, which took a while. Luckily for us, the Library of Congress film section agreed to receive the film and do the restoration.
One other issue came up along the way. With a film medium as flammable as cellulose nitrate, there are safety concerns in terms of shipping. The film reels have to go in specially made containers if they are to go by air. Hugh already was familiar with this issue, as he had done his Indiana Jones act previously when he found and brought back the Colleen Moore film Her Wild Oat. It too was an American film that had previously been thought to be lost forever.
The 20th century is famous for a lot of wonderful art, including cubism and expressionism in painting, as well as a whole evolution in music of all kinds. But we have been underappreciative of the role of film in culture and art. The role of the movies in shaping the work of Picasso and Shostakovich has been speculated, while the effects of film on the development of jazz and big band music is understood. But the everyday level of artistic competence in studio films of the early 20th century took a little too long to be properly appreciated.
Film is a worthy art in its own right, and we should be doing our best to preserve our artistic heritage in film. Those of us in Los Angeles have a particularly strong reason to fight for film preservation.
Saturday night's performance will be one victory for southern California's artistic heritage. By the way, it will come with a special treat. The Mont Alto orchestra, which specializes in accompanying classic films, will do the musical accompaniment. Some of what they will play comes from a search of the Harvard Music Library, where original hand written notes from the music performed at the 1928 world premier were found. It will also be a chance to meet and converse with Dydia DeLyser, Joanna Hearne, and Hugh Munro Neely about the importance of the Ramona myth in California history as well as the search and recovery process for long lost films.
You are advised to arrive early, because most of the seats have already been sold.
Ramona information including ticket information:
Vol 12 Issue 25
Pub: Mar 25, 2014