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Charles Lummis Meets the Movie People

El Alisal (cropped for header)
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As malaria-stricken Harvard dropout Charles Fletcher Lummis walked to Los Angeles from Ohio for “the exhilarant joy of living outside the sorry fences of society”[1] – and for a job at the Times’ city desk that awaited him on the other side – the film industry lagged far behind. In 1885, Thomas Alva Edison was working on alternating current systems in street lighting; Louis B. Mayer was a one-year-old baby boy in Minsk named Lazar Meir; the town of Hollywood wouldn’t itself be platted for another two years.

KCET's Artbound is revisiting early Los Angeles to explore one of its key and most controversial figures: Charles Fletcher Lummis. As a writer and editor, an avid collector and preservationist, an Indian rights activist and founder of L.A.’s first museum, Lummis’ brilliant and idiosyncratic personality captured the ethos of an era and a region. Watch Artbound's season eight debut episode, "Charles Lummis: Reimagining the American West," premiering Tuesday, May 10 at 9 p.m.

But over the course of his lifetime, Lummis would watch California grow from the Promised Land at the finish line of his cross-country tramp into the seat of the Hollywood film empire. It was, paradoxically, the image of California that Lummis promoted – a sanitized and picturesque folkloric version of old California and its Spanish missions, sustained by an easy footnoting of the state’s history of violence, land seizure, and ethnic cleansing of indigenous people – that would lead to the mass society and industrialized landscape the film industry inhabited, and which Lummis could not stand.[2]

In the nascent years of Hollywood, Lummis was asked to advise several different studios and directors on the appearance of old California and of the cultures of indigenous people of the Southwest, of whom he was considered both an expert and a champion – despite a career talking up Southern California as “the new Eden of the Saxon home-seeker.”[3]

He consulted on the set of “The Penitentes,” a 1915 silent film (now lost) produced through D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Film Company,[4] for which a “Mexican village” was erected by “Mexican workmen” in Chatsworth Park, as Motion Picture News reported at the time of the film’s production. “The village will represent one built by a band of religious workers who sought to worship as they pleased, and for this reason formed their own colony.”[5] A later review noted:

In atmosphere this production is more than usually convincing. Jack Conway, the director, has provided settings which adhere closely to the landscape of life of the Mexican haciendas, and the costuming is artistic, in that it follows the nondescript style generally ascribed to the peons of rural Mexico.


The Penitentes
Lummis consulted on the set of the 1915 film "The Penitentes." The film is now lost, but these stills appeared in vol. 12, no. 22 of Motion Picture News.

It makes sense that Lummis was recruited as an advisor on this kind of film: he was an expert on indigenous and regional Southwestern history and culture, and one of the first advocates for the preservation of the cultural and material history of Southern California.

But advising on film productions didn’t agree with Lummis. His advice was solicited on a production of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona”, after which Lummis complained to his friend Amado Chaves in 1917:

The play of Ramona was miserably done, against my advice. They consulted me, and then did everything exactly as I told them not to…The Movie People are on the average the most conscienceless pirates I have ever met – and as you know I know the frontier, you can understand that I am saying something pretty strong. I have experience with them in quite a number of cases – including Ramona and the Penitentes and various other things – some of which they summoned me to advise them about at their studios, and some of which they staged here at my home. And of all the pirates I ever encountered, they take the loot.


Perhaps the problem was Lummis’ temperament, suggests historian Lawrence Culver.

“He could have seen film as a medium through which to share his view of regional history and cultures with a larger audience than his books or magazines could ever reach,” Culver writes in “The Frontier of Leisure.” “Film, however, was a fundamentally collaborative medium, something the highly individualistic Lummis could never tolerate.”[8]

"Ramona" advertisement
An advertisment for a 1916 adaptation of "Ramona," on which Lummis consulted.
"Ramona" stage play
An early-20th-century stage production of "Ramona" [n.d.]. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

In the 1920s, a researcher from Universal Pictures asked Lummis to consult on a picture that would “vindicate the American Indian.” Biographer Mark Thompson recounts the details:

She wanted Lummis to drop by the studio for lunch to talk about it. He was one of a select handful of experts, including Collis P. Huntington, with whom the studio wanted to consult, she wrote. Lummis responded promptly. “Of course a picture could be made showing the American Indian in his true light, and it could be made a very great thing—if done right. But I don’t know of any film company that would think of doing it right,” he remarked, citing several “idiocies” and “absurdities” that had made it onto the silver screen. Her plan to contact Huntington, he added, was “rather late—he died many years ago.”


Despite his inability to play well on set, writes Thompson, Lummis often invited members of the Hollywood elite, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Will Rogers, and Harold Lloyd and to participate in the salons at his home that he called “noises”; he also allowed films to shoot at El Alisal, using the Arroyo home he built by hand as a film set. 

Lummis dedicated his life to preserving his version of the Southwest, and he perceived motion pictures as perpetuating a different mode of existence. But ultimately the film industry did realize his booster agenda, depicting what Culver terms the “frontier of leisure” through film, showcasing “mountains, coasts, and deserts of Southern California, as well as the streetscapes of Los Angeles, lined with palm and orange trees and filled with pleasant bungalows. Motion pictures told the world – as no single booster ever could – that Southern California might be a wonderful place for recreation – or for residence.”[10]

Lummis with Charlie M. Russell, Nancy Russell, and Harold Lloyd
Lummis with artist Charlie M. Russell, his wife Nancy Russell, and actor Harold Lloyd, ca. 1928. Courtesy of the Braun Research Library, Southwest Museum of the American Indian/Autry National Center.

Further Reading

Culver, Lawrence. The Frontier of Leisure. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lummis, Charles Fletcher. A Tramp Across the Continent. C. Scribner’s Sons: 1892.

Simmons, Marc. Two Southwesterners: Charles Lummis and Amado Chaves. Cerrillos: San Marcos Press, 1968.

Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Thompson, Mark. American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest. New York: Arcade Pub, 2001.

[1] Lummis, 1.

[2] Starr, 85.

[3] Starr, 89.


[5] Motion Picture News, Jul-Aug 1915, Vol 12. No. 13, p. 68.

[6] Motion Picture News, Nov 1915-Jan 1916, Vol. 12, No. 22, p. 86.

[7] Simmons, 58-59.

[8] Culver, 50.

[9] Thompson

[10] Culver, 50.

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