Updated: Dec 22, 2020
by Shannon Wray
Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon
During the early silent film era, Seven Oaks, a small mountain resort enclave along the Santa Ana River in the San Bernardino Mountains was the scene of several movies, two by the same film-makers. The first was The Savage, made in the summer of 1917, and the second was The Girl Who Ran Wild made in the summer of 1922. The five-year window between productions offers a unique insight into the early days of Hollywood and Southern California locations as well as a fascinating husband and wife film-making team.
Seven Oaks, California, 1900, courtesy USC, Charles E. Young Research Library
Charles Matthew Lewis arrived in the United States in 1870, wanting to escape the foul weather of his British homeland and went first to St. Louis, Missouri, then to Minnesota where he learned how truly unpleasant weather can be. After reading an article about the climate in Southern California, he left Denver with a train of twenty wagons heading to Salt Lake City and on to San Bernardino in 1874. The wagon train arrived in California in October, and Lewis outfitted for prospecting then made his way to Holcomb Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains to try his hand at gold mining. The following year, he went on a fishing trip with a guide into the Upper Santa Ana River area, and when they entered a tree-shaded glen along the river, Lewis is said to have exclaimed, “We go no farther! It is like my old home!” Lewis was 37 and ready to put down roots, so he staked his claim and homesteaded the lovely little river valley.
Between 1876 and 1880, Lewis raised sheep, taking them to winter in the valley below the mountains that would later become Redlands, California. In 1883, when the trail to Bear Valley became more heavily traveled during the building of the Big Bear Dam, Lewis opened his homestead to travelers and expanded it into a rustic resort. Hospitality came naturally to him as he had worked in the hotel business in London and Dublin as a younger man. No one who passed his home went hungry or wanted for a place to stay.
In 1893, a journalist writing for the Redlands Citrograph newspaper offered a tantalizing glimpse of Lewis and Seven Oaks, which then had about a dozen cabins and tent houses situated in a beautiful meadow by the river. “Seven Oaks, though located in a timber region where live oaks abound was so named by its owner in honor of his birthplace in [Kent] England, rather than from any adaptation to its surroundings. Here for sixteen years Matthew Lewis, a small, active and wiry Englishman, has lived the life of a mountain bachelor. During that time his place has been popularly known as ‘Louie’s place,’ creating the impression that he was a Frenchman which is not the case. It is one of the most enchanting spots ever conceived for a secluded mountain residence, and fills one with the exhilarating sense of its natural healthfulness.”
In 1901, William H. Glass, who had been the fifth district San Bernardino County Supervisor at the tender age of 24 and served two terms, bought the property from Matthew Lewis with the proviso that half the land would remain the old pioneer's home for his lifetime. Glass also purchased a contiguous 640-acre section of land that encompassed Barton Flats and Captain Lester Jenks' property. After 43 years in Seven Oaks, Charles Matthew Lewis passed away on June 26, 1917, a little less than two months before a film crew arrived to make the film The Savage.
Rupert Julian, 1917 Elsie Jane Wilson, 1920
An often overlooked aspect of American cinema in the 1910s is that there were several married couples, such as Ida May Park and Joseph DeGrasse, and Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, who wrote, directed, and produced films together. Some took turns in these roles as they cranked out five-reelers as a team. Actor/director Rupert Julian and his wife Elsie Jane Wilson, also an actor, writer, and director, were among them.
Rupert Julian, was born in Whangaroa, New Zealand, in 1879, the son of a wealthy rancher. In his own words in Moving Picture Weekly, Julian described his wild path to becoming a filmmaker. “After failing at all 'honest work,' you know, I tried the stage. I had been various other things before entering pictures— a sailor before the mast, for example; a tea salesman, the engineer of a donkey engine, a gold prospector in the wilds of Australia, as well as an officer of the British army, and a prisoner of the Boers. When I determined to try the stage, it nearly broke my mother's heart.” However, he won the heart of Elsie Jane Wilson in 1905 while touring Australia with a theater company. Elsie was born in Sydney in 1885 and had been performing in the theater since she was two years old. The pair married in 1906 and continued to tour Australia and New Zealand until 1911 when they moved to New York. Rupert found work in a national touring company of Julius Caesar co-starring with Tyrone Power Sr. then, the Julians decided to work in the new motion picture industry on the West Coast, arriving in 1914. Both Rupert and Elsie acted in dozens of short films, he in 15 just in the first three months after they arrived in Los Angeles. Both contracted with the Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, where they began to work with ensemble casts and crews, writing, directing, and often producing. One of their first collaborations was a two-reeler entitled The Human Cactus, written by Elsie, produced by Rupert, directed by Elsie, and starring both.
The Rex company became part of Universal Pictures in 1912 during a merger of several motion picture studios under the Universal umbrella. In 1916, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, created three brands to market Universal’s films. Red Feather was for low budget shorter pictures, Bluebird Photo Plays better-quality five-reel features, and Jewel the longer, premier features with only a handful produced each year. Bluebird Photo Plays became the brand of many of the hard-working husband and wife teams and Rupert Julian was one of its preferred directors and stars. Julian favored literary works, adaptations of stage plays, or novels for the films he directed.
The Savage was a departure from the more literary tone of Julian's films, however, and an original story by Elliott J. Clawson, who was a long-time member of the Julians' merry band of film-making talents. The Savage was, as one wit termed the genre, a “Mountiesploitation” movie with Seven Oaks posing as Quebec, Canada. Monroe Salisbury’s role as described in Moving Picture Weekly in 1917 was "Julio Sandoval, a half-breed in the Canadian woods, [who] holds his position as leader of the Indians, half-breeds and white traders through quickness on the trigger, and a cunning which he inherited from his mother, a full-blooded Indian." As the scenario played out, many years before, Julio had rescued 8-year-old Marie Louise, the daughter of one of the men at the fort. As the picture opens, Marie Louise returns from finishing school a beautiful young woman who is engaged to Captain McKeever of the Northwest Mounted Police. When Julio sees Marie Louise, played by Ruth Clifford, his passion for his French-Canadian sweetheart, Lizette, played by Colleen Moore, cools. Lizette tries to make Julio jealous by taking up with Joe Bedotte, the leader of the whiskey runners in the mountains who continually evade the police. When Captain McKeever goes after Bedotte, the whiskey gang overwhelms and captures the Mountie. "The next day, Julio Sandoval's passion for Marie overcomes him, and he takes her willy nilly to his cabin way up in the mountains. Here takes place a tremendous struggle between his innate chivalry and his desire, and before the contest is decided, mountain fever overtakes Julio.” Marie Louise stays with Julio to nurse him and he, in turn, helps her to rescue Captain McKeever, though “the savage” Julio loses his life in the process.
RUTH CLIFFORD as Marie Louise
MONROE SALISBURY as Julio Sandoval
COLLEEN MOORE as Lizette
ALLAN SEARS as Captain McKeever
W.H. BAINBRIDGE as Michael Montague, Marie Louise’s father
ARTHUR TAVARES as Joe Bedotte
GEORGE FRANKLIN as Baptiste
DUKE R. LEE as Pierre
In mid-July 1917, Rupert Julian signed Monroe Salisbury to an exclusive deal for Bluebird Photo Plays and his productions. Salisbury was just coming off of two major hits in the lengthy features Ramona and The Eyes of the World. His popularity was very high.
On July 21, 1917, Julian and his production manager went on a trip to scout locations for his upcoming films, The Desire of the Moth, a curiously named Western, and for The Savage. They toured from Mill Creek Canyon to Big Bear and considered areas around Mt. Whitney but selected Seven Oaks for The Savage.
After wrapping The Desire of the Moth at the beginning of August, the Julians traveled with a cast and crew of 50 to Seven Oaks the week of August 12, 1917, to set up for production of The Savage. Seventeen-year-old Ruth Clifford had the starring roles in all but two of Rupert Julian’s films that year, beginning with A Kentucky Cinderella, and many of the stock players and crew had been together working on the previous five Julian films. Sixteen-year-old Colleen Moore was a relative newcomer to motion pictures and was the lone outsider in the group. D.W. Griffith had signed her to Fine Art Pictures as a favor to Moore's aunt, actress Elizabeth Kelly. Griffith went to Europe and, with her contract in limbo, Colleen was going from studio to studio looking for work and picked up the role of Lizette. Both of the character actors, W.H. Bainbridge, and Arthur Tavares, had worked with Monroe Salisbury in The Eyes of the World, and Tavares was familiar with the mountains as his role in that film had been mainly shot in the San Bernardinos.
As production got underway, Motion Picture World reported on The Savage under the headline, “Seven-Year-Old Tot Dares Icy Water for Film Scene.” Although the young actress’s role in the film isn’t identified in the article, the scene was likely the flashback to Marie Louise’s rescue as a little girl. “Little Elizabeth Janes, who is playing an important part in Rupert Julian’s latest Bluebird Photoplay, ‘The Savage,’ proved recently that, though she is only seven years old, she has all the pluck required of a real grown-up motion picture star. Julian’s company, headed by Ruth Clifford and Monroe Salisbury, were staging scenes for the photoplay at Seven Oaks, up in the mountains. In one of the scenes, Elizabeth had to plunge into the icy-cold waters of a mountain stream. The day was extremely warm, and the shock to little Elizabeth when she went into the chilly water flowing down from the snow-capped peak was severe. When she emerged the muscles of her limbs and body were drawn into knots that required an hour’s massaging to relax. However, the scene was not satisfactory and she had to do it again, and then a third time before the scene finally was declared perfect. But Elizabeth never flinched – she’s game all the way through.”
As evidenced by the article, the Santa Ana River was a big attraction for the film-makers as it continues to be for visitors. Motion Picture Weekly noted, "There is a scene in which the heroine wades in the brook, which presents one of the most entrancing sylvan glimpses that
has ever been photographed. Ruth [Clifford] looks like a nymph of the glade come
back to earth from classic times."
Although the film's directing credit officially went to Rupert Julian, according to Mark Garrett Cooper, Ruth Clifford later recalled during an interview that Elsie Jane Wilson directed her in the film. It may be telling that Elsie had acting roles in most of the prior films that year, but did not act in The Savage. She may have been too busy directing. The truth about who directed may be that both members of the husband and wife team took turns directing different parts of the movie, as they often did. The sheer volume of moving pictures made in such short periods of time leaves us very few behind-the-scenes details about productions during that era.
The cast and crew were in Seven Oaks for two weeks shooting exteriors before returning to Universal City to complete the interiors for The Savage, which released on November 19, 1917. The ads for the film shouted, “Some of the most beautiful and picturesque vistas of mountain and forest ever shown upon the screen will frame the thrilling story of love and adventure to be disclosed in Bluebird photoplays.” The ads also touted the wonders of Seven Oaks.
Universal's marketing strategy for the film was very interesting. In Motion Picture Weekly, it was suggested that theater owners try the following strategy. "Engage two men to ride
around town or in the vicinity of your theatre on horseback. Attire them in trappers' costumes, giving one the appearance of a half-breed (a little brown make-up on the face and a long-haired black wig will do the trick), and the other that of a deputy (a star-shaped shield will produce the effect). The half-breed, his hands bound with a lasso should trail behind or be led by the deputy, who can hand out heralds containing the following
copy: This man is THE SAVAGE See him on the screen at the (name of theatre) on (day and
date) in the remarkable Bluebird Photoplay THE SAVAGE. If you do not care to engage two
men required for this ballyhoo, we have the following suggestion to offer. Hire one man to ride around town or in the vicinity of your theatre in the deputy's make-up above described
and distribute handbills reading as follows:
For any information leading to
the whereabouts of
of Cheval Blanc, Canada.
Last seen with Julio Sandoval,
alias "The Savage."
For further information see the
It would be interesting to know how many theater owners employed this strategy! In any case, The Savage was a big success for Universal.
Coming Soon - CINEMATIC SEVEN OAKS - Part II: The Girl Who Ran Wild another film produced in Seven Oaks, California by Rupert Julian.
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.