Updated: Mar 22, 2021
by Shannon Wray
Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon
Mill Creek Canyon in the San Bernardino Mountains was a movie-making location almost from the inception of Hollywood film-making. The Count of Monte Cristo, begun in Chicago in 1908, was the first narrative film completed in Southern California and the birth of the brand-new industry. D.W. Griffith's 17-minute In Old California made in 1910 was the first movie made entirely in the Golden State, and the first studio was Nestor Films, which opened in 1911. Tinseltown was just getting a foothold when a film production crew came to set up camp in the canyon for the first time.
The 1917 Movie Poster for The Eyes of the World.
The film was The Eyes of the World and the year was 1916. The story was based on the novel by author Harold Bell Wright who had come to Redlands, California, in 1907. The San Bernardino Mountains called to Wright, and he spent much time camping in Mill Creek Canyon during the year that he and his family lived in the area.
The Eyes of the World was Wright’s fifth novel, a morality play that he set in Redlands and Mill Creek Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. The narrator of the story is Conrad LaGrange, a jaded novelist who only finds peace in the natural world. LaGrange befriends a young painter, Aaron King, Jr. who has come to make his fortune painting portraits and gaining wealthy patrons in “Fairlands,” among the elite Eastern millionaires who winter there. After renting a house in the orange groves together, LaGrange tries to guide King away from the social excesses of the wealthy Taine family and their friends to paint only for art’s sake.
Sybil Andres, an innocent, orphaned girl raised in “Clear Creek Canyon” in the
The 1914 Book Cover of the Novel
nearby mountains, lives on the other side of their garden with a reclusive, disfigured woman. Sybil possesses a rare gift as a violinist and compelling beauty that captivates Aaron King. After LaGrange and King introduce Sybil to the fashionable, wealthy people whose portraits King paints, James Rutlidge, one of the wealthy men known for his sensual appetites, becomes obsessed with her. He kidnaps Sybil and hides her in “Clear Creek Canyon.” She is guarded there by an escaped convict that Rutlidge is blackmailing. With the help of ranger Brian Oakley, King must save her from “a fate worse than death.”
During an era when a notable author could reasonably expect book sales in the range of 15,000 copies, and a bestselling author might sell 60,000 copies, Harold Bell Wright sold 8 million copies of his first eight novels. The Eyes of the World, alone, sold nearly 2 million copies, and its readership was estimated to have been 5 million. In fact, he was America’s first millionaire author and the first American writer to sell more than 1 million copies of his books. Wright’s fame attracted the attention of two men who were pioneering big narrative films based on literature, William H. Clune and Donald Crisp.
The Clune Film Producing Company Studios at Melrose Avenue and Bronson Street in Hollywood.
The Clune Film Producing Company
William H. “Billy” Clune came west with the railroad then hit it big in real estate in Southern California. Having made his fortune, Clune invested in Vaudeville and the brand-new motion picture industry. In 1907, he created a film exchange that distributed the earliest moving pictures from Edison and Biograph, among other companies. Soon, Clune began to build movie palaces throughout Southern California to exhibit moving pictures. In 1915, he became serious about producing movies when he purchased Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ Famous Players studio at Melrose and Bronson in Hollywood from Adolph Zukor for $250,000. He called his new studio, the Clune Film Producing Company.
William H. "Billy" Clune
Clune also invested in D.W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation. The amount of his investment isn’t widely known, but the film’s $100,000 budget brought in an estimated $18 million at the box office. The Birth of a Nation also yielded an enduring partnership with actor/director/producer Donald Crisp. Crisp had played Ulysses S. Grant in Griffith's landmark production and impressed Clune with his ideas about direction during the filming.
Donald Crisp was born George William Crisp into a working-class family of eight in London, but he attended Eton and Oxford, earning a degree in literature. After serving in the Boer War and being wounded, he crossed the Atlantic to New York in 1906, where he found work as a singer with the Grand Opera. During that period, he changed his name to Donald. George M. Cohan hired him as his stage manager, and he played leading roles in theater as well as in Biograph and Famous Players Lasky's pictures filmed in New York.
Right: Donald Crisp, 1916
Below: Scene from Ramona
In 1915, Billy Clune hired Crisp to direct Ramona, the first of his motion pictures. Based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel about the travails of a half-Irish and half Native American girl, Ramona was also the inspiration for Hemet, California’s annual Ramona pageants. Clune and Crisp’s collaboration was a tremendous success. It played for ten weeks to more than 200,000 moviegoers just in Los Angeles and sold out houses in New York, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.
On December 7, 1915, Lloyd Brown, manager of the Clune Film Producing Company, and two other men were in Redlands, California, scouting locations for the film adaptation of The Eyes of the World. Their presence generated considerable excitement, and the Colton Daily Courier reported, “As the scene of ‘The Eyes of the World’ is supposed to be about Redlands and Mill Creek Canyon, the appearance of the completed film will no doubt attract much interest in the vicinity.” Meanwhile, Clune and Crisp visited Harold Bell Wright, where he was camping and writing near Tucson, Arizona. In an unprecedented move, Clune hired Wright to adapt his novel as a screenplay. The canny producer also secured the film rights to all of Harold Bell Wright's books.
Clune noted his exacting care with pre-production, “Months are spent in the preparation of scenario and the planning of sets and properties, and other months are devoted to the actual work of production.” It was an era when most studios churned out features in a matter of days or weeks, but Clune had different ideas about making a quality film. "Most companies," said Mr. Clune, "were dividing their energies among a number of different subjects. We decided that concentration, constant study, attention to the smallest details, and teamwork were necessary to a finished product. We also believed that the stock company [a group of resident actors who played in multiple pictures] idea was all wrong for large features, and decided to pick our actors for each subject that we undertook from the entire national field, in order to secure perfect types and the highest acting ability for each part. Experience with this system has confirmed us in our views. “
The cast was a mix of seasoned theater actors and newcomers. Despite Clune's comments about not using stock players, several cast members appeared in Ramona before working on The Eyes of the World.
Monroe Salisbury – As Conrad LaGrange, the jaded novelist and mentor to the young lovers.
Salisbury's given name was Orange Salisbury Cash, but he changed it to Monroe when he began acting on the stage in 1898 as a romantic leading man. At the height of his theater career, he starred in five Broadway plays. He went to Hollywood in 1914 to play in Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man and quickly won further roles with the director, such as the The Virginian. The following year, he worked with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in The Lamb and Double Trouble. But it was Clune's Ramona that made him a star.
Jack Livingston – As Aaron King, Junior the young artist who shares a house with LaGrange, falls in love with Sybil Andres, and must fight to the death to save her.
Livingston was a busy working actor, a stock player at Triangle Pictures. He frequently played romantic leads or intellectuals but made his name later as a Western star in action roles. The same year that The Eyes of the World premiered, he starred in at least six other films and frequently worked with Jane Novak.
Jane Novak – As Sybil Andres, the beautiful young violinist and love interest.
Miss Novak's aunt, Anne Schaefer, was a popular actress in the new moving picture industry. In 1913, Miss Schaefer invited Jane, her 17-year-old niece, to Hollywood where she acted in a movie on her first day in Los Angeles. Jane possessed the old-fashioned girl appeal that was right for innocent ingenue roles like that of Sybil Andres. Far from being just a pretty face, Miss Novak was the first actor besides Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to earn $1,500 per week, and she oversaw her own production company. Briefly, she was engaged to Western star William S. Hart and played opposite leading men like Wallace Beery, Tom Mix, and Alan Hale.
Kathleen Kirkham – As Mrs. Taine, a scheming socialite who wants to make Aaron King, the young artist, her new darling and discovery in exchange for wealth and fame.
Miss Kirkham was a stage actress who began her life in the theater as a child. Before The Eyes of the World, she'd worked with Monroe Salisbury and Cecil B. DeMille in The Squaw Man and The Virginian. Considered to be the best-dressed actress in Hollywood for many years, she was perfect for the society dame roles she frequently played. The Eyes of the World gave her star power and helped her launch her own production company.
Jack McDonald – As Edward Taine, the wealthy, debauched invalid husband of the scheming socialite.
McDonald was a native Californian from San Francisco whose first film role was in 1912 at the very beginning of Southern California film production. As a character actor, he had an enduring career. He acted in the original versions of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Last of the Mohicans, and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, among many other movies.
Beatrice Burnham – As Louise Taine, the daughter who must marry well and attempts to attach herself to James Rutlidge.
Miss Burnham’s first film role was a small part in Clune’s Ramona. Her career lasted only a few years, and her best-known film was in 1925, The Riders of the Purple Sage. It was also her last.
Edward Peil – As James Rutlidge, Jr., the wealthy sensualist social climber who kidnaps Sybil.
Peil studied drama at Notre Dame University and first acted in legitimate theater before working in his first film, Charley's Aunt, in 1906. He started his motion picture career playing leading roles or antagonists, but had a very long life in cinema as a character actor, making 370 movies. Peil played the lead in the first five-reel moving picture, acted in the first film to use artificial light at night on location with arcs operated by the flywheel on an automobile, the first three-reel color film and one of the first Technicolor™ films, The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Arthur Tavares – As John Willard, the escaped convict who holds Sybil Andres hostage for Rutlidge.
Tavares' swarthy looks earned him a handful of roles that involved dastardly daring in the 1910s, including Clune's first two epics. When "Talkies" happened, he overdubbed Spanish dialog in American exports then turned to film editing, working on 1931's Dracula and 1935's Charing Cross Road, among many others.
Lurline Lyons – As Myra Willard, the disfigured woman who lives with Sybil Andres.
Miss Lyons only acted in five films, two of which were Ramona and The Eyes of the World. She was a cousin of author Jack London's wife, Charmian Kittredge, and was very close to the London’s, spending considerable time at their ranch home and sharing their travels.
Fred Burns – As Brian Oakley, the forest ranger in Clear Creek Canyon.
Burns was the classic tall, rugged outdoors-man, and he came by it honestly. Born in Montana, he was the foreman of Buffalo Bill Cody's ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and broke mustangs for Cody's Wild West Show. In 1912, he came to Hollywood to work in movies and before The Eyes of the World had appeared in 46 films, mostly shorts.
Mill Creek Ranger Jack Allen and his horse Sallie T.
During the year that Harold Bell Wright lived in Redlands and spent time in Mill Creek Canyon, he befriended Mill Creek forest ranger Jack Allen. Many said that Wright based his character Brian Oakley, the character Fred Burns played, on Allen. Somewhat comically, however, Fred Burns and Jack Allen couldn’t have been more opposite physical types. Allen was a short, slight Englishman. Wright also supposedly modeled Brian Oakley's extremely smart horse on Sallie T, Jack Allen's beloved saddle mare.
Ah Wing – As Yee Kee, LaGrange and King’s Chinese cook.
Ah Wing appeared in eight films, and The Eyes of the World was his first. Born in China in 1851, his roles reflected the somewhat stereotypical notions of the time, although Wright wrote a fulsome part for the Yee Kee character that had excellent grace notes of comic relief.
Ah Wing seated left front in a later film entitled, A Tale of Two Worlds with Wallace Beery, center.
The Eyes of the World cast and crew arriving in Redlands, California, 1916
By February 1916, a buzz about filming The Eyes of the World in Redlands and Mill Creek Canyon had already begun in Redlands and the surrounding towns. Wright was deep into adapting his novel for the screen while Donald Crisp and Billy Clune were feverishly finishing the post-production work on Ramona and preparing for its premiere in May.
The beginning of production took place at the Clune Studios on Melrose, shooting interiors in June and July after Ramona had been launched. During the first week of August, the cast and crew set off to shoot exteriors on location. The Moving Picture World, 1916 reported, "Here the final scenes of the story will be taken on locations far from the traveled highways and reached only by stage and mule back. Truckloads of camp equipment and foodstuffs made up a part of the caravan, for the company expects to be gone three weeks or more. Negative reels taken on these locations are being sent daily on burro back to a waiting automobile at the nearest point on the road and whisked to the studio in this city [Los Angeles] for development. On the following day, these films are shown to the company in an improvised projection-room in the camp and discussed and studied by all hands. Every member of the Clune forces – and this extends even to workers who are not actually cast – is expected to be familiar with the last details of the work in hand. 'The Eyes of the World' is in about 75 percent stage of completion. After the filming, extreme care will be devoted to the cutting, upon which factor Lloyd Brown general manager of productions for Clune and Donald Crisp, the director, lay great stress.” Harold Bell Wright spent time with the cast and crew in Mill Creek Canyon, overseeing the script.
D. Rhea Igo, who had just built a general store at the crossroads of the new road to Bear Valley and Mill Creek Road, claimed to have been helping with locations in the canyon during the filming. He allowed the Clune company to build a set cabin for the movie on his property. Wright was quite comfortable camping with the crew near the sycamore grove that he made famous in the novel in what is now Mountain Home Village.
On August 30, 1916, the company relocated to Skyland Heights near present-day Crestline. "The principal section that will be filmed at Skyland is the final scene, the big thrill of the whole play – the struggle of King and Rutledge [sic] on the cliff. This is expected to be the greatest ‘fight scene’ ever filmed. It takes place on the very edge of a crag about a thousand feet above the next alighting place, and Jack Livingston and [Edward] Peil, who will stage this scene, have already attended to their life insurance and asked the prayers of their friends for the repose of their souls.”
Jack Livingston as Aaron King and Edward Peil as James Rutlidge fight to the death in the climactic scene from The Eyes of the World.
Jane Novak as Sybil Andres watches the fight on the cliffs.
Left to Right: Fred Burns as ranger Brian Oakley, Jack Livingston as Aaron King, Jane Novak as Sybil Andres comforting her victorious lover, and Arthur Tavares as John Willard, the escaped convict.
After completing this hair-raising scene, the company wrapped, and Brown and Crisp spent two months at the studio on Melrose editing and scoring the film. Notably, it had "a musical score of great beauty arranged and composed by J.C. Nurnberger, former co-worker with Johann Strauss, the 'Waltz King.'" Plans for staging the presentation of the film were very elaborate, and a 30-piece orchestra played the score live at each screening.
Clune's Auditorium Theater at Fifth and Olive Streets in Los Angeles.
The Eyes of the World opened “out of town” at the Cabrillo Theatre in San Diego and the Wyatt Theater in Redlands on November 9th and the Opera House in San Bernardino on November 16, 1916, for a three-day run. The Clune Company used it as an opportunity to fine-tune the picture before its big premiere in Hollywood at the 3,000-seat Clune Auditorium on January 2, 1917. G. P. Von Harleman described the staging. “The opening stage embellishments are a marvel of scenic beauty and mechanical ingenuity. The curtain goes up on a heroic-size woman's face, filling the proscenium. Slowly the eyelids raise, and a great pair of eyes look out over the audience with wonderful lifelikeness. Then during the clever manipulation of the lights, the two parts which make up the face separate and resolve themselves into the face of a great owl. With a series of gauze curtains and the lights this dissolves into two hemispheres, and in turn, this view disappears to reveal in its place a magnificent California mountain scene. This is a cyclorama painted by Jack Holden, who did the 'Ramona' scenery, containing over 11,000 square feet of canvas. It is said to be the largest cyclorama drop ever put up in a theater west of New York."
Six thousand people attended the premiere that day at two screenings, breaking previous attendance records at the Clune Auditorium. Reviewers for the Los Angeles newspapers tried to outdo one another in superlatives to describe the extraordinary film and the experience of witnessing it. Managers of theaters across the country booked train tickets to Los Angeles to see the movie and to try to secure the rights to exhibit it. But one of the fascinating side notes was that "The forest rangers in the employ of the United States government on the reservations in Southern California are to be the guests of W.H. Clune at a performance of The Eyes of the World at the Auditorium Theater, this week [February 10, 1917]. The most exciting part of the story revolves around these mountain guardians for Uncle Sam, and Mr. Clune believes that the wonderful horsemanship and other stirring episodes in which the rangers figure will be of special interest to them." Mill Creek Canyon's resident ranger, Jack Allen, was surely among them. Harold Bell Wright was not able to attend the Los Angeles premiere and, even in March, two months later had not seen it. According to The Moving Picture World on March 3, 1917, “At last accounts he was still in a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, recovering from a stubborn illness. Mr. Wright’s condition is not alarming, and it is stated that he is remaining under his physician’s advice in the hospital in order to obtain complete rest from business and literary matters, which might tempt him into activity if he left before the restoration of his strength.” Wright, who had grown up in abject poverty, suffered from lung complaints for most of his life. He was later honored at a special screening.
Donald Crisp continued to direct and act for a few years before turning exclusively to acting with character roles in Mutiny on the Bounty, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Life of Emile Zola, The Dawn Patrol and as Elizabeth Taylor's father in National Velvet. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar™ for his role as the Welsh patriarch Mr. Morgan in the film How Green Was my Valley in 1941.
Donald Crisp in his Academy Award™-winning role
Some actors in the cast of The Eyes of the World, like Jack Livingston, Lurline Lyons, Kathleen Kirkham, Beatrice Burnham, and Arthur Tavares, didn't really make the transition to "talkies" and as a result remained caught forever in the black and white world of silent pictures. However, others such as Jane Novak, Edward Peil, and Fred Burns had long careers as character actors, particularly in Westerns. Monroe Salisbury, who played Conrad LaGrange, made only eight films after 1917, and the last scenes of his life played out in the Inland Empire. Salisbury purchased a citrus ranch in Hemet, California while on location with Ramona and lived there periodically for the rest of his life. On July 2, 1935, he was committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino. He died there at the age of 59 as the result of a skull fracture sustained in a fall.
D. Rhea Igo's roadside attraction billboard in Mill Creek Canyon
For many years, the cabin built for The Eyes of the World in Mill Creek Canyon on D. Rhea Igo’s property was a roadside attraction with Igo claiming it as the place where Harold Bell Wright had written his famous novel. In truth, Wright wrote the book at Tecolote, his ranch in the Imperial Valley.
The Clune Motion Picture Company only made a handful of films. W.H. Clune retired from the movie business in 1924, selling off all of his theaters and leasing the studio complex to the Tec-Art Company. He died of a stroke three years later at his apartment at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where he'd made many movie deals. His studio on Melrose Avenue is now Raleigh Studios and believed to be the oldest surviving studios in Hollywood.
The Eyes of the World was made into a motion picture again in 1930 from another adaptation by Harold Bell Wright starring Una Merkel as Sybil Andres and John Holland as Aaron King. It was filmed on location in the Santa Ynez Valley, far from Mill Creek.
As to the original 1917 film, according to the American Silent Feature Film Survival Database, no prints of the film have ever been found in archives.
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.