by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been mentioned in several posts on this blog, Josephine Marie Workman, the youngest child of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste’s son Joseph and his wife Josephine Belt, was a highly successful actress, under the name of “Princess Mona Darkfeather” in early motion pictures.
She seems to have made her debut in 1909 when the first films were made in the Los Angeles area and was at the peak of her popularity in 1913 and 1914, with her own production company and with husband Frank Montgomery as her director. Darkfeather made many films during that period and was frequently given media attention in newspapers and film magazines across the country.
While she was often promoted as a “real Indian,” many media references often openly admitted that she was from a “Spanish” family in Los Angeles, though she did have some Native American ancestry through her father’s mother (and possibly South American indigenous ancestry through her mother’s mother, a native of Chile).
Her career slowed markedly after that and, after completing her only known feature-length picture (the dozens before that were shorter-length productions generally running about 15 minutes) in 1917, she stopped working in film, though she did move to the Pacific Northwest with Montgomery and did some live appearances on theater tours in that region.
In the early Twenties, though Montgomery returned to Los Angeles and worked increasingly as a crew member, Mona, as she was generally still known, receded into the background. Angela Aleiss, a film historian who teaches at California State University, Long Beach and who is the author of the forthcoming book, Hollywood’s Native Americans: Stories of Identity and Resistance has been corresponding with me for some time now, but alerted me several weeks ago to an online database of movie industry publications that yielded some new material about Darkfeather, including one major surprising find.
First, however, are some of the other interesting items that were located in a search on Lantern, a platform of the Media History Digital Library, which is an open access database of periodicals in the public domain. The earliest citations of Darkfeather reviewed so far are from 1913 and include pages from the Kalem Kalendar, a publication issued by the Kalem Company, for which Darkfeather did much of her early work in the industry.
For example, the January 1913 issue has a full-page synopsis of “A Dream of the Wild,” a film starring Darkfeather, frequent co-star Art Ortega (who also played Indian roles) and Charles Bartlett. The publication’s “News Items of the Kalem Companies,” stated that “Mona Darkfeather is at her best in portraying Indian roles” adding that this was “due to her knowledge of the customs and usages of her own race. It noted that the film’s plot included the renunciation by Darkfeather’s character of a romance with Bartlett’s character “because of racial differences,” and it observed that “the charming actress has never been seen to better advantage.”
The accompanying photo of Indians in a shootout with whites doesn’t show Darkfeather’s character, Mountain Dew, but, by the end of the year, she is featured in three Kalem productions.
Two of these are with Ortega, including “An Indian Maid’s Strategy,” released on 24 November and in which she plays “Wanda, a Hopi maid,” while Ortega is Koti, her love interest. Bartlett also appears as an army officer. In a separate “News Items of the Kalem Companies” feature, it is pointed out that:
Princess Mona Darkfeather is the newest addition to the KALEM forces. This clever little actress will be seen in a new production, which gives her a splendid opportunity to show her ability in Indian roles. Miss Darkfeather, who really is an Indian princess, portrays the role of “Wanda,” the Hopi maid in the new western feature, “AN INDIAN MAID’S STRATEGY.”
The other picture with Ortega was “Her Indian Brother,” released on 27 December and Ortega had top billing as “Big Heart” and Darkfeather again played his romantic partner, “Fleetfoot.” A description of the film involves a conniving white man who elopes with Big Heart’s sister, who dies of neglect. The white man then runs into Fleetfoot and pursues her to the point of purchasing her from her drunken father. Big Heart rescues Fleetfoot, but they are pursued by the white man, who is tricked by Big Heart and killed, thereby avenging the loss of his sister.
Notably, the third film, “Against Desperate Odds,” which was released on 15 November was a very rare example in which Darkfeather does not play an Indian role. Rather, she is Ruth, the wife of Bob, a sheriff played by Bartlett. A former suitor of Ruth, a rancher named Wade, played by Rex Downs, learns that Mexican horse thieves stole some of his animals and then has one of his cowboys steal a trick Indian pony Bob had given Ruth (Darkfeather was widely known for her horse-riding skills and the tricks that her horse, Comanche, could perform) to make the sheriff look bad. Ruth sees the thief, follows him, sees him robbed in turn by Mexican horse thieves, and then confronts them at gunpoint to retrieve her prized animal. Though she is captured by the thieves as she rides toward home, her husband, who is searching for the robbers, engages in a gun battle and secures Wade’s animals, leading the rancher to seek forgiveness.
A 1914 issue of Motion Picture World in its “Chats with the Players” feature included an article on Darkfeather with a fine full-length photo. In the piece, it was stated that the actress “is known all over the civilized world, and yet she has never worked outside of Los Angeles.” In addition, “she is recognized as one of the best Motion Picture Indians appearing on the screen, and yet she never set foot on the legitimate stage.” Labeling her “a curiosity,” the writer did proclaim that Darkfeather, though “the Moving Picture public associates her with Indian characters,” would soon “be as familiar in Western and society roles.”
When interviewed at Kalem, Darkfeather stated,
Contrary to the general belief, I am not an Indian. My parents are Spanish, descendants of an aristocratic family. I was born in Los Angeles and educated there. I was supposed to be destined for the operatic stage and went thru a long course of voice cultivation; but the Moving Pictures attracted me, and I joined the original Bison company at Santa Monica, under my present director, and I suppose I made good at the outset, for I have been with Mr. Montgomery ever since.
Darkfeather went on to say that she got on well with Indians who worked for Bison “and soon learned their languages and customs.” She said she went and lived among several tribes and “I was created a Princess by Chief Rising Sun of the Arapahoe tribe after a two years’ sojourn among them.” Naturally much of this biographical information was for pure publicity, though there was some truth to her place of birth and her working for Bison from 1909.
After showing the interviewer her prized collection of native materials, she explained that she liked to play roles other than Indian on occasion and was described as “decidedly versatile,” being a talented musician and alto vocalist. The piece concluded with a lengthy description of the relationship of Darkfeather and her remarkable horse, Comanche.
In late 1915, Darkfeather was with the Centaur Film Company and worked in a series of shorts that also allowed her to play non-Indian roles. The 11 December 1915 edition of Motion Picture News includes a photo of her with fellow cast members in “Stanley in Darkest Africa,” part of a series based on Henry M. Stanley’s adventures in central Africa in the late 19th century. Darkfeather played Ada Payne, the girlfriend of one of the main characters in the film.
Another interesting items found in the Lantern search was a short biography in the 21 October 1916 edition of Motion Picture News. It stated that she was born in 1889 (she was actually born several years prior) and that she was educated in Los Angeles and began her film career at Bison in 1909. She was listed as having worked for five studios, including Selig, Universal, Kalem, and Horsley (Centaur), with four films from the last listed, including the Stanley series and three westerns, including “Spanish Madonna.” She was listed as the wife of Frank Montgomery and as being 5’1″, 135 pounds, black hair and eyes and an “excellent horsewoman.”
By this time, Darkfeather was in her mid-thirties and playing Indian maidens was becoming more of a stretch as time went on, while the popularity of the films in which she became famous waned. A March 1917 edition of Motion Picture News listed Darkfeather as appearing in a production by a Universal Pictures subsidiary, Big U, called “Hidden Danger,” but she was nearing the end of her career.
After her brief residence in Washington state with Montgomery and her live theater tours and then her return home, some of her earlier films were repackaged and distributed under a “states rights” basis. In this system, movies were sold to a theater or a franchise at local level at a price along the lines of, say, ten cents a foot of film.
So, in 1919, the C.B. Price Company of New York advertised in Film Daily that “State Right buyers are closing fast for the fifteen one-reel Indian dramas starring Mona “Darkfeather” and urged exhibitors “better get busy now if you want to get in on this money making series.” The ad featured a line drawing of the actress wielding a bow in an Indian settlement next to tall mountains.
Notices in Moving Picture World from the first part of 1920, including one from March that included a photo of the actress as part of a promotion of fifteen of her films, one of which, “The New Medicine Man,” has survived. The Price firm stated that “the dearth of single-reel subjects in the state right field makes these zip! bang! westerns full of the sort of action that makes your blood tingle; the biggest buy on the open market today” and urged those with open territories for showing films like these to book the set of fifteen “for real money.”
There was reference in another issue of that publication during that time about a series of Darkfeather-starring films based on the Hiawatha poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whose stained glass portrait is in a door with Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Milton in La Casa Nueva’s Library). These were booked by the Broadway Theater in New York and were marketed by Price to teachers and their students.
A September 1919 article in the Oregon Daily Journal reported that
Mona Darkfeather, the Indian star who has considerable vogue several years ago, is coming back to the screen in a series of one-reel Indian productions. C.B. Price of C.B. Price company has 15 one reel Indian pictures to be exploited under the brand name of “Pricefilm” and to be sold on a state right basis. The time is ripe, Mr. Price believes, for the return of Indian pictures, since the market for a number of years has had nothing in the way of Indian dramas. “Hiawatha,” embellished with art titles, is one of the first of the Indian pictures Miss Darkfeather had made.
The following spring, several newspapers printed a short item that Darkfeather a “real Indian star of the screen” was “being filmed in a screen version of ‘Hiawatha,” though the fifteen packaged films by Price were all earlier productions and nothing further has been located about the Hiawatha production.
Then came the big surprise that Angela noticed. The 26 February 1927 issue of Exhibitors Herald included a photograph, though no accompanying text, showing director George Melford, camera operator Charles C. Clarke and actor John Bowers with Darkfeather, who wore her long hair in dual braids and was clad in a long-sleeves blouse and a skirt, standing in front of what looks like a stage on a studio lot. A caption noted that name of the film “Rocking Moon” and the name of the P.D.C. company.
That movie, produced by Metropolitan Pictures, was released in January 1926 by Producers Distributing Corporation, which existed from 1924-1927 and had Cecil B. deMille as main stockholder and director. The company acquired the Culver City studio of Thomas Ince (who died in 1924 after falling ill aboard a yacht owned by media titan William Randolph Hearst and whose Beverly Hills mansion was designed by Roy Seldon Price, the architect who completed La Casa Nueva at the Homestead).
The picture, which is lost as most silent films are, included five weeks of shooting in Sitka, Alaska and had a native dance scene. It appears that Darkfeather, then in her mid-forties, had an uncredited role as an Alaskan native woman, but that’s all that is known. Whatever her role, past accounts suggesting that the actress ended her film career in 1917 has to be modified given this photo.
So, thanks to Angela for spotting this great little tidbit and for alerting the Homestead to the many citations and additional useful information found on Lantern! We close with another excellent find, a poem about Darkfeather from a 1913 issue of Motion Picture Story and its “Popular Plays and Players” feature:
My darling Princess Mona,
My heart is in whirl;
I love to watch your acting,
You pretty little girl.
Why, Marlowe is forgotten,
And you have won the day;
You’re great—and with the Movies
I hope you’ll always stay.
You’re better than Maud Adams,
And Leslie Carter, too;
They cannot hold a candle
To any one like you.
But when I pay a nickel
To see your smiling face,
You kiss the picture hero,
And let him take my place!
And if Belasco chances
To hear you’re all the rage,
He’ll make you a big offer
To go upon the stage.