Prior to the screening of “Ramona,” a 1928 silent film starring Dolores Del Rio, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra led the large crowd at the Castro Theater in a rendition of the song “Ramona.” The tango-influenced number put everyone in the mood for the story that takes place on a Mexican ranch about a lovely woman named Ramona (del Rio) who falls in love the Indian ranch-hand Alessandro (Warner Baxter). Her love defies the matron of the ranch while the movie explores the themes of racial intolerance, blind hatred and timeless romance. The movie even includes a remarkable scene of senseless violence that reminded me how compelling silent movies can be.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) presented Ramona as its early evening feature on Friday, May 30. It’s a spot reserved at the festival for high-impact productions, and Ramona fits the bill perfectly. It shows the beautiful and talented del Rio at the height of her enchanting powers, as she plays a woman cast out by her adopted mother for the sin of loving an Indian. Vera Lewis plays Señora Morena, a proud Mexican woman who dotes on her son and heir Felipe (Roland Drew), but hardly shows any love at all for Ramona. Felipe has no problem loving his half-sister; in fact, he obviously lusts for her and wants to give her the world. Things change quickly when Alessandro arrives on the scene. He’s a sheep shearer with an adventurous and confident streak. Everyone loves him until he falls madly for Ramona.
Baxter’s Alessandro doesn’t look much like a native Mexican. He acts more like a lighter version of Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, the movie has much in common with “The Half Breed,” the 1916 movie starring Fairbanks and directed by Allan Dwan. In both movies, a misunderstood and abused native proves his merit by protecting the woman he loves. In Ramona, Señora Morena banishes Ramona and Alessandro from the ranch and they gain complete self-sufficiency on the open range. This happens despite Ramona’s superior breeding in the luxury of the ranch house.
In a vicious scene I found hard to take, a marauding band of racists attack a defenseless Indian village. Director Edwin Carewe plays the scene out at high speed and with extreme violence. Things get very bad for the loving couple as they fight persecution on all sides, but thankfully, Felipe never gives up on his love for his sister. By the end, Ramona has pushed her bad experiences so far behind her that develops a kind of amnesia that can only be cured by the loving spirit of Mexican culture. By the end, we can only wonder at Ramona’s happiness had a single act of intolerance by Señora Morena not sabotaged it.