by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s really remarkable how many unusual and interesting aspects there are to the history of the Workman and Temple family over the period of 1830 to 1930 that we interpret at the Homestead and in how many varied areas of life their stories encompass. One of the more notable examples is that of Josephine Marie Workman (1882-1977), granddaughter of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste (a native of Taos, New Mexico, with its large Indian pueblo, though it is not known if she had native blood) through their son, Joseph and his wife Josephine Belt (whose mother hailed from the South American nation of Chile), and her very successful career as a silent film star during the first half or so of the 1910s when the industry was growing rapidly.
As has been noted here before, Josephine was a “whistler,” someone who performed in local theaters by whistling popular tunes, at the dawn of the 20th century. After losing her musician husband, Harry Knill, and then their only child, daughter Josephine, she answered an advertisement and began appearing as Princess Mona Darkfeather, specializing in Indian maiden roles, in motion pictures by 1910.
Rather quickly, she rose to the upper echelons of stardom and maintained a prominent presence in movies until not long before she retired in 1917, having appeared in dozens of shorts and one full-length picture for several studios, including Bison, Nestor, Kalem and Universal. She attempted on occasion to break free of the young native American maiden stereotype, including in several pictures in a “Stanley in Africa” series, but as Indian pictures receded in popularity and she reached her mid-thirties, opportunities dried up.
For a time, Mona, as she was generally known, and her director and husband Frank E. Montgomery lived in Seattle and tried a few film ventures there, though with little success. In 1927, she had an uncredited bit part in a film, but, other than a remarkable lawsuit in which she tried to get compensation for her father’s portion of Rancho La Puente that was lost in the mmid-1890s (more on that in a future post), she lived a quiet, unassuming life for sixty years until her death, at age 95, in 1977.
A recent stunning donation of photographs and other items connected to Mona by the Baltazar G. Madrid Estate (he was her long-time landlord) has greatly added to the visual record of her film career, because, previously, we had a few pieces, some donated by her grand-nephew Douglas Neilson and others acquired by the Homestead. One of these latter is the highlighted object for this post, being the 19 June 1914 issue of Moving Picture Stories, a weekly that was published from the early Teens to the end of the Twenties and which, it noted, was “Devoted to Photo-Plays and Players.”
The publication, published in New York and which sold for a nickel and has subscription rates of 65 cents for three months, $1.25 for half a year, and $2.50 annually, has a half-dozen “photoplay stories” with detailed synopses written as stories (hence, the magazine’s title!) and still photos of movies. These films are all but forgotten today and include The Golden Ladder, The Masked Rider, The Isle of Abandoned Hope, The Hand of Horror, The Mask of Affliction and Enmeshed By Fate.
The studios that produced them have also largely disappeared from history, though 101 Bison was quite well known from about 1909 to 1918 and Edison Film Company was owned by the famous inventor, Thomas A. Edison. The Eclair Film Company was established in France, but had an American division for a few years that mainly made westerns near Tucson, Arizona, though The Mask of Affliction, starring English stage actor Alec B. Francis, was about a mine collapse.
Two of the companies whose works were featured in the magazine were former independents who were swallowed up by what became Universal Pictures, including the Powers Film Company, started by Pat Powers in New York (Powers later had a relationship with Walt Disney, selling him a sound recording system used in Disney’s earliest sound cartoons like Steamboat Willie (1928), which introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. The Powers film highlighted here was The Masked Rider with Edna Maison, who was an opera singer prior to moving into film, as a star.
Another Universal acquisition was the Victor Film Company, formed in 1910 by actor, screenwriter and directory Harry Solter and his wife Florence Lawrence, one of the motion picture industry’s earliest stars and among the first to get a screen credit as actors normally did not in those nascent days. The company’s The Golden Ladder starred J. Warren Kerrigan, who was very popular until a casual remark about the First World War which seemed to denigrate those who served as soldiers derailed his career, though he made a comeback in the early twenties before abruptly retiring.
Elsewhere, there is a “Scenario Hints” section with an editor advising on “How to Get Scenario Plots,” these based on what this writer said was akin to “placer mining,” as “there are plenty of nuggets to be unearthed if we will go after them.” This did require an understanding of what others did previously, where the best sources of material were, and the lay of the land. he it came to developing movie ideas, it was advised “make a study of what others have done” and to know “the ground,” while also being a student of “Humanology.”
The newspaper was a great source, including the jokes in the funny pages and another piece of advice derived from a purported habit of Sir Walter Scott “to mingle with all classes wherever he went” and to get people to talk about themselves—something generally not hard to do. The writer added “every one you meet has a story if you believe it, and can get them to confide,” while a scenarioist “may find in some poor waif of humanity . . . a story that rivals anything one can imagine.”
Robert Grau, a theater impresario and manager and author of works on drama and music, contributed a piece on the “Moving Picture Conquest of the Press.” The main point was that the industry was not taken seriously, though he observed that the technology angle led such journals as Scientific American and Popular Mechanics to write about the development of film. Another boon to the industry were articles published in Literary Digest and Grau observed that “while its custom is to merely review the writings of authors in magazines and newspapers, very frequently entire articles on Moving Pictures are reproduced.”
By 1908, newspapers began to change in their coverage and the Cleveland Leader was cited as perhaps the first large urban paper to do so. Within the prior two years, Grau noted that “interest in Photoplays became so pronounced that many of the nation’s newspapers in large and moderate-sized cities started full-page departments” and some devoted more ink to film “than to opera, drama and vaudeville combined.” Smaller sheets relied heavily on syndicated content, though “not until 1914 did any of the dailies start regular film pages.
In the “News About Studio and Film Workers” page, there are twenty items, including the large number of people required for such epics as Quo Vadis? and Julius Caesar, where 3,500 and 20,000 persons were needed for some scenes. At the end of May, the Victor Studio in New Jersey was hit by a thunderstorm during filming and caused some major damage, including from lightning strikes—small wonder Los Angeles and Hollywood became so desirable for filmmaking!
The last news item was about Frank Montgomery, “the director of the Indian Photoplays which feature Mona Darkfeather at the Kalem Company” and his idea of having a contest “for the best songs with music with an Indian theme.” He offered $75 for the first prize and $25 for the runner-up, though the creators were to understand that “the prize songs are to be the sole property of” the director “and to be copyrighted and published by him with the writers’ names.” Rejected tunes were to be sent back if return postage was included and an address in “East Hollywood” was provided, there is now a non-descript apartment building of later vintage there today at the site near Franklin and Western just south of Griffith Park.
As for the feature about Darkfeather, it came in the “Lives of the Players” section, and began with the assertion that “one of the most interesting personalities on the Moving Picture stage to-day is Mona Darkfeather (Mrs. Frank Montgomery)” who met the unnamed writer at the Kalem Studio. Described as “a sturdy woman” with “very dark eyes, black hair and dark complexion, the actor purportedly had the “chief ambition . . . to go on making good with the public in her extraordinary characterization of Indian girls.”
When queried about her personality, Darkfeather was quoted as saying, after looking at the writer with “her grave, deep-thinking eyes” that “perhaps my strongest personal characteristic is love for home life, and my insatiate desire to help people when I can,” adding “I am also exceedingly fond of children,” though she made no mention of her own late daughter. Elsewhere she stated she had “a great many children correspondents, and a large number of kiddie friends.” As to the comment that “many people have imagined that you are a real Indian,” she replied,
Oh, that is on account of my makeup, and the characters I have invariably assumed. I was born in Los Angeles, of an old aristocratic Spanish family [her grandfathers, however, were English and American], and was educated there. But I have been associated with Indians, ad studies their customs nearly all my life.
The writer continued that it was known that she was close to natives “and was absolutely idolized by many of the Indians,” to which she stated that the journalist “should see my collection of Indian dresses, bead work, jewelry and trophies” declaring that “it is magnificent, and is my most treasured possession.” She added she stayed the prior summer with the Blackfoot Indians and that its chief, Big Thunder, gave her a silver wrought bracelet.
While some of her interviews include the statement that she was given her title of “Princess” from this chief, when asked here, Mona replied, “Why, I sojourned with the Arapahoes for two years, and the appellation was conferred upon me by Chief Rising Sun.” As for her film sidekick, her horse Comanche, she said “he was presented to me by an Indian friend” and, when asked about speaking the language of the Blackfoot, she answered affirmative and claimed “I speak several Indian languages fluently.” Naturally, it is almost certain that these were stories concocted by or for her as part of her press persona.
Mona had, the writer stated, “an alto voice of great range and rare beauty” and she responded by saying that she and sang and played (what exactly was not stated) music a good deal. She was also accounted to be “a daring horsewoman, and her mounts are famous in the picture world.” The admiring interviewer went on to laud the actor “as entirely without jealousy or selfishness, and is a great favorite on account of her frank, honest manner.” When asked whether she “followed any of the religious rites of the Indians,” she simply stated, “Oh, no, like nearly all Spaniards, I am strict Roman Catholic.”
Another question concerned her views of the difference between the “legitimate stage” and movies and Mona, noting that she had “never played before the footlights” and, therefore, was “very slightly acquainted with ordinary theaters,” opined that “the Moving Picture studios are infinitely superior,” basing this on her movie work “and comparing it with the business life as I have heard it from others.” With regard to the idea of a board of censorship to regulate film content, she offered that producers “are sufficiently intelligent . . . to produce Photoplays which require no censorship,” so a board “is superfluous.”
The interviewer commented that Montgomery “must also have a correct conception of the Indian characteristics and habits” so that his films were made “in such a well-balanced manner.” Darkfeather answered that “Indians . . . understand him and his ways very well” and that her spouse “understands his people that they work like a well-ordered machine,” while his “knowledge of the redmen . . . is of course equal to my own” and came “from his long association with them, and his close study of their lives.” Working with native Americans, she concluded, “requires a very peculiar training, which we both possess.”
The final question from the rather scattershot interview was whether she had “unusual incidents or experiences” while making movies and, with a smile, Mona claimed, “I have had several very narrow escaped from death from various causes,” but having made it thus far, she ended by telling her interlocutor that she intended “to remain active in the picture business for many years to come,” though she almost certainly could not think there were only three left in her career.
The piece ended thusly:
The call of her director brought an end to one of the pleasantest interviews it has ever been my good fortune to enjoy, and as she bade me a gracious farewell, I left the studio with an exceedingly kindly feeling to Princess Mona Darkfeather.
The question of cultural appropriation is a major concern these days and Josephine Workman/Mona Montgomery’s on-screen persona as an Indian maiden, even allowing for her characterization of herself as being from “an old aristocratic Spanish family,” was a far cry from what would be acceptable and allowable now.
It is possible that, through her paternal grandmother, born and raised in Taos and who had Josephine’s father baptized in the Indian Pueblo church and her maternal grandmother, being from Chile, the actor had some indigenous ancestry. Her stories of years spent with Indian tribes, of speaking several languages and other claims, however, smack of product churned from the studio publicity machines.