by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon we had a very interesting presentation by noted film scholar Cari Beauchamp on the little-known aspect of prominent women in the early film industry. Cari, who had great photos to illustrate her talk, spoke of a number of women, such as Anita Loos and Adele Rogers St. John, who wrote and/or directed in the silent era, but the majority of her lecture was about Frances Marion (1888-1973), whose screenwriting work included the Academy Award-winning The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931), but who also wrote Rudolph Valentino’s final film, Son of the Sheik (1926), Stella Dallas (1925) and a spate of Mary Pickford’s highly popular films like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Poor Little Rich Girl, both issued in 1917.
Hearing Cari talk about Marion and the other women, whose roles in the pre-talkies era were much larger and more prominent than at any other time, led me to fish out today’s Los Angeles Times “Calendar” section and its big headline asking why it is so hard for woman and directors of color to get opportunities to make films today. During the Q & A after Cari’s presentation, that seemed a good time to bring out the headline and reference it in relation to her topic.
It also seemed apropos to bring up the story of Josephine Marie Workman (1882-1977), who was a near contemporary of Marion. The granddaughter of William and Nicolasa Workman, who built the Workman House at the Homestead, and youngest child of their son, Joseph and his wife, Josephine Belt, Josephine was raised in Boyle Heights (developed by her cousin, William Henry Workman). In the 1900 census, she was living with her mother in downtown and her occupation is shown as “whistler.” It has been speculated that her job may have been to stand outside a nickelodeon or theater to call attention to passersby about the offerings inside.
In any case, Josephine answered a newspaper ad in 1909 advertising for someone with dark features to test for a part in a movie–this is the year, in fact, that film-making really began in Los Angeles. Soon, as she was being cast consistently for certain parts (that is, typecast), she adopted the stage name Princess Mona Darkfeather.
For about eight years, until 1917, Josephine, as Princess Mona, appeared in some seventy one-reel movies and a sole feature length for Universal at the end of her career. Promoted as an authentic Indian, Princess Mona became a star and, in concert with husband, director Frank Montgomery (born Frank Akley), had her own production company and brand. Her career appears to have peaked about 1913 and 1914.
Of course, Josephine Workman, like many “Indian actors” of her day, was not Indian, though she claimed in interviews to have been from an aristocratic Spanish family in Los Angeles. Her ancestry was, naturally, more complicated. Her grandfather William Workman was British, her grandmother Nicolasa Urioste was from Taos, New Mexico, although she almost certainly had a significant proportion of Pueblo Indian blood. Another grandfather, George Belt, was from Maryland, and his wife Viviana Asorca was from Chile, where the probability of Indian ancestry was strong.
Princess Mona’s persona remained until Josephine was in her mid-30s. Whether ageism dictated that the days of playing princess maidens were beyond her or not, Josephine retired and was essentially forgotten. I learned about her from a single article written in the late 1980s in a magazine for silent film fans, but the information on her background was limited. Intrigued, I poked around a little in that ancient pre-Internet age and found that she was, indeed, the granddaughter of the Workmans from our site and a little more besides.
Then, in 1995, Doug Neilson showed up at the museum, interested in what we knew about his family, including his great-aunt the silent film star he had met a couple of times. One story that he related was being at her house as a child and seeing, under her bed, memorabilia from her film career. Yet, his family lost contact with the aging Princess and, when she died in her mid-90s, he had no idea what happened to her and her possessions, including the film-related material.
A few weeks ago, colleagues and I put together a “mini exhibit” in the auditorium of the Homestead Gallery that was based on five Workman and Temple family members offering statements on artifacts that they had donated to the museum and why these objects meant so much to them personally. Doug’s statement is striking:
Princess Mona Darkfeather, my great-aunt, became something of a genealogical obsession with me. Her story was rather sad. She had risen to the heights of silent film stardom only to be, in the end [near her death], taken from her home by a court-appointed guardian and ultimately buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten. When attempting to reconstruct her life, I compiled a small collection of photos and artifacts related to her. This photo [attached to this post] is my personal favorite. Out of all of the photos I collection this is the only one where she is not dressed as a Native American princess. Mona never really overcame typecasting as a Native American, and we don’t know why she didn’t continue in the movies past 1917, but this photo provides, I think, a desire to expand the roles she was being offered. To me, this photo represents the hopes and dreams of a future that never materialized for her, and is the way I now mainly remember her.
Much of what Doug wrote could apply to many other women in the film industry, and other industries, and Cari’s presentation touched on highly personal connection with the topic of how women faced so many challenges in the early film industry at the time Josephine/Princess Mona was in her heyday.
Cari told fascinating stories in a solid historical context and we hope that our little display of family artifacts does much the same thing–especially from the vantage point of deeply-held personal feelings that tie objects to history. Here at the Homestead we are continuing to work to find ways that link artifacts to stories as part of our evolving interpretation of the history of greater Los Angeles and today certainly brought that point home.