A little over eighteen months had passed since the day in June, 1908, when Henry Marvin, General Manager and one of four founding partners in 1895 of the American Biograph and Mutoscope Company, offered David. W. Griffith the job of “director” on a trial basis. A trial which ended well when management and Griffith cemented the relationship with a written contract in August, a little more than eight weeks after completion of his first directorial project for Biograph, “The Adventures of Dollie.” At 713 feet, lasting about 8 minutes, it is slightly longer than an average music video.
In those eighteen months since he accepted Marvin’s offer, Griffith had made just over 200 short films. These one-reel films, the standard length of American films of the period, were 10 to 12 minutes long each, or 900-1000 ft on a reel for the longest, half that or less for shorter “split reels,” brief, sketch comedies for the most part, grouped together on single reels and sold — not rented — to exhibitors.
Toward the close of 1909, Griffith had made two of his best films to date — “The Redman’s View” and “Corner in Wheat,” shot within days of each other in November — in a year of outstanding films. He announced to the Biograph “stock company” of actors and his technicians that he would be taking them (or at least a core group of about 30) to California in January for about two months. Although they would be working, California would seem like a paid vacation after a brutal shooting schedule to close out 1909. Griffith knew first hand that whatever loyalties or sentiment stage actors had toward their craft (the Biograph players were all experienced stage professionals), the stage could not match film in at least two respects: a regular paycheck, and the ability to work outdoors in a variety of settings.
Shooting a film “on location” meant country meadows, flat farmlands and small towns in New Jersey or on Long Island, picturesque woods and streams of upstate New York, the Hudson River palisades, the Atlantic shores of Connecticut or, closer to home, Central Park or the teeming streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. To fill the growing demand from exhibitors for Biograph films meant constant production of several film projects simultaneously. The logistics of filmmaking — scouting and securing locations, devising shooting schedules and then schlepping a crew and equipment by train, ferry, truck, taxi, subway or horse-drawn carriage — were problematic even in good weather. And even more difficult, if not impossible, during the winter months in the northeast. And all of this was apart from the usual artistic concerns of filmmaking in 1909, or now.
Southern California at the turn of the twentieth century was a land of oranges and oil: a subtropical climate ideally suited for citrus, artichokes, avocados, dates and figs — exotic luxuries for 1909 — but also in the generally cooler climate of northern California less exotic crops: hops for flavoring beer, and grapes, especially those varieties suited for wine-making. Even prior to the 20th century, California outpaced the wine production of the remainder of the hemisphere and was second only to the countries that ring the Mediterranean. When an insect infestation, the phylloxera epidemic of the 1870’s, had decimated and nearly wiped out the wine grapes of France, they were rescued by root-stock from California grape vines, roots onto which the French growers grafted the branches of their wine-grape varieties. (And while waiting for those vines to mature and bear fruit, wine-deprived French developed a taste for a green substitute, Absinthe.)
Griffith was certainly no stranger to California. As a member of traveling companies of actors, he sometimes found work there as a laborer picking hops when a traveling theater company folded in the middle of a cross-country tour. Linda Arvidson Griffith recalled with nostalgia a time when she and her future husband took work as laborers at harvest time, when acting jobs were unavailable. She recalled it as pleasant outdoor work, but also that it was necessary to make ends meet and pay for a return trip east. The couple had met in San Francisco in 1905. Linda was a native of the City and she had begun her acting career there. At the time, San Francisco was a city on the very cusp of becoming the most important American metropolis west of Chicago. It was a city primed to become the New York of the Pacific coast, the western port of America: a center of trade, finance and culture. Instead, in April of 1906, San Francisco nearly became an American Pompeii. Linda, in her memoirs two decades later, describes being jostled from her bed in her San Francisco apartment in the early hours of that April morning. The City recovered rapidly, but lost time, population and investment money to Los Angeles which, already having the edge in climate, cheap land, agriculture and minerals (everything but a reliable source of fresh water), was able to leapfrog the City by the Bay, and never looked back.
Southern California was the answer to many of the problems faced by early film makers. Plenty of land available for purchase to build filmmaking facilities, or to rent existing properties as temporary headquarters and film labs. But the real value to the film maker wasn’t near-constant sunshine and warm weather, it was the variety of locations. Incredibly diverse topography: ocean, desert, snow-capped peaks, deep valleys, palm groves, farms, ranches, small towns, shallow salt lakes, cities, and suburbs new with freshly planted rows of palm trees, wide pristine sidewalks and newly paved streets, and lonesome dusty dirt roads leading to vast open landscapes as yet untouched by civilization, and yet nearly all within a day’s drive from any location in the state at any point in time.
This was the California, the southern City of Los Angeles and its environs that awaited the intrepid Biograph stock players and filmmakers in January, 1910. And Mary Pickford, already his most valuable talent, his go-to player, had nearly balked at making the trip after Griffith turned down her request for a raise, with the suggestion that she could be replaced without trouble. And occurring almost at the same time was the firing of actor Owen Moore, her co-worker and secret love (secret to everyone but Griffith who had threatened Moore if he “hurt that girl”). Moore had also asked Griffith for an increase in salary, and Griffith’s response was not “you can be replaced,” as with Pickford, but rather “You’re fired.” Griffith had suspected that Moore, in addition to being a “wastrel,” (an Old English word for “irresponsible alcoholic womanizing douchebag”), had been negotiating terms of employment with another studio. A dangerous thing to let the boss find out, especially since he and Biograph executives had shown no hesitation or mercy six months earlier when the versatile, talented Florence Lawrence and her husband, Biograph actor Harry Solter, were discovered looking for work with a competitor studio: He and Biograph executives immediately fired both with no discussion, no recourse. First with Lawrence and Solter, and now with Moore, and for the remainder of his career, the loyalty of his employees was paramount and personal to Griffith. He would always be hurt both professionally and personally when his employees were looking or left for opportunities elsewhere.
And now, Mary Pickford, with mind and emotions reeling from thoughts of California and separation from Owen Moore, emotions she would almost certainly draw upon in her remarkable performance as “Ramona” (see “postscript” below), began the westward journey in the company of her people: fellow actors. Aside from her relatives and the occasional foster family who took her in as a child actor in a strange city, she had known closely no one but other actors. She had crisscrossed the country in road shows many times already in her young life, as had many of the others, as had D. W. Griffith and wife Linda for years. But this time would be different. Instead of the constant worry about her mother, little sister and brother and when they would get their next meal or paycheck or bed for the night, she could finally sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, knowing that this road will end not in seedy boarding houses for indigent actors, or behind mildewed stage curtains in rat-infested, fire trap playhouses. But rather it will take her to open air and sunshine, with other equally thrilled actors who share the same forgettable pasts and now share futures full of hope. And Mary Pickford — as tired as a 16-going-on-17-year-old girl can be after a decade as primary provider for a fatherless family — with younger brother Jack (old enough now to “watch over” his older sister) and her friends and fellow actors surrounding her and the countryside flying by her window, the train heads west. To California and new worlds awaiting discovery, new lives to be made and legends as yet unwritten.
From January 28 through April 6, 1910, the Biograph company shot 20 one-reel films (including one film that began shooting in New York, and finished in California). The first complete film Griffith made in California, “The Thread of Destiny,” was released March 7. “Ramona,” filmed next to last, was the last of the California films to premier, on May 23, 1910. Selected highlights from a few of them, with explanatory notes, follow: