CINEMATIC SEVEN OAKS- Part II: The Girl Who Ran Wild
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
by Shannon Wray
Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon
Following on the big success of The Savage, filmed in Seven Oaks, California, and starring Ruth Clifford and Monroe Salisbury, husband and wife film directors Rupert Julian and Elsie Jane Wilson were at the top of Universal Pictures' Bluebird Photo Plays roster.
Before The Savage was even released in November 1917, Elsie Jane Wilson's career as a director was expanding into longer features. According to the Los Angeles Times, between 1915 and 1920, Miss Wilson directed more than 30 feature films for Universal as well as many shorts. She became one of the studio’s top-ranked filmmakers. It was an ascendant time for women in film, and Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was very unusual in his support for women producers, directors, and writers.
Rupert Julian also thrived, writing, directing, and starring in a film that would make him an international celebrity. The world was in the grip of war and Julian bore a striking resemblance to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm. The 1918 film The Kaiser: Beast of Berlin, was Julian's contribution to the war effort by using his prodigious talents for propaganda. The Beast of Berlin made $1 million at the box office and Julian into one of the most bankable men in Hollywood.
The following June in 1919, Rupert Julian announced that he was leaving Universal and forming his own company. Hollywood was changing. The open-handed creativity of collaborative ensembles gave way to the power of a few studios and studio heads. These men purchased and amalgamated small companies, transforming them into giants with a tight grip on the funds to make and distribute films. At the same time that Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith wrested creative and financial control of their work from their studios by forming United Artists, many other actors, directors, and writers in the new industry found themselves at odds with the studios. By late 1920, Rupert Julian and Elsie Jane Wilson, two film professionals at the top of their game, mysteriously retired and went abroad.
THE GIRL WHO RAN WILD
On July 11, 1922, the Los Angeles Evening Express reported, “Keen interest attends the return to Universal City of Rupert Julian, the man who made ‘The Best of Berlin’ and other big money-makers who is now acting in the capacity of director behind Gladys Walton’s current effort. When the script of Bret Harte’s classic, ‘M’liss,’ retitled ‘The Girl Who Ran Wild,’ was presented to him for reading, he came out of his temporary retirement with an enthusiastic, ‘Aye!’”
The Girl Who Ran Wild was a remake of M’liss, which had already been made into films in 1915 and 1918 respectively, starring Babara Tennant then Mary Pickford. It's the story of a girl left alone in a cabin in the California Redwoods when her father dies. Melissa Smith, played by Gladys Walton, is known as the county "wildcat," an untamed girl with snarled hair and an absence of manners who actually tries to hold up a stagecoach on her own. The new schoolmaster in the area, played by Vernon Steele, takes the feral girl in hand and teaches her how to become a more civilized young lady. Although Melissa initially resists the teacher’s tutelage, she falls in love with him. When the village belle sets her cap for the teacher, Melissa applies herself to learning how to win her mentor’s heart.
THE CAST and CREW
GLADYS WALTON as Melissa Smith
MARC B. ROBBINS as Melissa's father, "Bummer" Smith
VERNON STEELE as the schoolmaster
JOSEPH J. DOWLING as Calaveras John
WILLIAM BURGESS as Johnny Cake
AL HART as the preacher
NELSON MC DOWELL as Deacon McSnagley
LLOYD WHITLOCK as Jack Velvet
LUCILE RICKSEN as Clytie, the village belle
Rupert Julian and Elsie Jane Wilson in the foreground with the cast and crew of The Girl Who Ran Wild.
Both Rupert Julian and Gladys Walton reportedly were glad to have a new start. Miss Walton, who had been an unknown teenager in Portland, Oregon little more than two years prior, had already begun to be typecast in light comedies. The Los Angeles Times reported that The Girl Who Ran Wild "will be the first heavy role which the hitherto flapperish Gladys has ever portrayed. She declares herself delighted at the opportunity to do some real drama.” Rupert Julian chose to return to Seven Oaks to use the small resort area as the redwoods in Calaveras County. The cast and crew arrived on June 26, 1922, to settle in for several weeks of production.
The following day, while shooting an action scene, things went terribly wrong. According to the San Bernardino County Sun, "Several scenes had been shot when, just before noon, the director. . .Rupert Julian ordered a scene in which the main action was a swiftly oncoming stagecoach. The scene was being shot near the Glass sawmill, on Barton Flats. The driver started the horses at a rapid pace, rushing down toward the camera. When just opposite the instrument, the swaying coach is said to have hit a rut in the road with such force that the body of the old vehicle was half lifted from the running gear. The horses, terrified, plunged ahead, threw the three men and the driver to the ground." Members of the crew swiftly loaded the injured men into production automobiles. They drove the middle control road over Mountain Home Canyon to Kate Harvey's control in Mill Creek Canyon, where they were met by emergency vehicles and taken to the Redlands hospital. It was at first thought that the actors had sustained internal injuries. Gladys Walton was riding in the coach at the time of the accident, but she was the only cast member who was uninjured in the coach. Wilfrid North and Joseph Belmont, neither of whom are credited in the film as actors and both of them also directors, may have been directing the scene as the second unit. North suffered several broken ribs and Belmont a badly broken leg. The inauspicious start to filming didn't stop production, however, and the cast and crew continued to work in Seven Oaks until the middle of August.
The Girl Who Ran Wild made few waves when it released on October 9, 1922. However, the film did get Rupert Julian back on the directing horse, so to speak. The following year, Irving Thalberg fired Erich von Stroheim from the movie Merry Go Round and replaced the famed Austrian director with Rupert Julian. Julian’s handling of the problematic situation and lavish film gave him the opportunity to later direct The Phantom of the Opera for the screen for the first time. He would go on to a three-picture deal with Cecil B. DeMille, but by the time the sound era was upon Hollywood, around 1926, Julian’s career was winding down. He made his last film, The Cat Creeps, in 1930 and officially retired in 1936. Rupert Julian succumbed to a stroke in 1943.
Elsie Jane Wilson returned to directing with Universal in 1923 after she and her husband returned from Europe. Increasingly, she was put in charge of productions thought of as women’s pictures and given the series of Baby Peggy movies to write and direct with Julian producing. After this series of films, her career faltered, as many women directors' working lives did when sound pictures became the trend. Studio heads considered the addition of sound too difficult for women to direct due to the technicalities. By 1930, Ms. Wilson's directing days were over, and she and her husband retired to their lavish Hollywood Hills estate, Krotona Court, which was built in 1912 as a center for the Theosophical Society. After Rupert's death, Elsie moved a short distance away and lived in relative seclusion until 1965 when she passed away on January 16th.
Gladys Walton, the young star of The Girl Who Ran Wild, worked very hard during her time at Universal, so hard that she burned out and left motion pictures by 1928. However, she paved the way for Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow with her “Glad Gladys” wild young flapper persona. It is rumored that she had a ten-year affair with mobster Al Capone and spent considerable time with him at his hideout at Two Bunch Palms in the Coachella Valley.
Curiously, Rupert Julian’s early silent films for Bluebird Photo Plays inspired the first generation of Japanese filmmakers and created a foundation for Japanese cinema that lasted for decades. Filmmaker, Teinosuke Kinugasa is said by Enic-Cine to have “studied Rupert Julian’s films thoroughly down to the minutest details.”
Both The Savage and The Girl Who Ran Wild are now lost. Mary Pickford's version of M'liss, however, survives and is available to view here.
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.