San Juan Capistrano: 1910

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San Juan Capistrano: 1910

A familiar scene for many of us looking towards the Mission and the scene of an almost riot by the locals when seeing the first film being made in OC by the then not-so-famous D.W.Griffith.


In San Juan Capistrano it was 1910 and the rural locals, mostly Spanish Americans and Indians, barely knew what movies were no less how they made them.

D.W. Griffith, the later famous director, was to film The Two Brothers but were delayed due to rain and all the crew stayed at a hotel about 3 buildings down from the mission (in the picture above on the right hand side).

While in the lobby waiting for the rain to stop they were all entertained by an Indian funeral procession passing by their windows on the way to services in the mission.

Since most of the films in the day didn’t have scripts (no dialogue) D.W. would make the movie up as they went and in this case he decided to incorporate the touching procession into the film. So the next day the sun burst through the clouds and the cast burst forth from the hotel in Spanish costumes. The first scene involved the religious parade, with a number of actors dressed in ecclesiastical vestments loaned by the priest. It all looked realistic – too realistic for the local’s tastes.

A large crowd of Spanish-Americans had gathered to watch the ‘movie peecha’ actors, and as the scene opened the crowd began to grow sullen, resenting what must have seemed a mockery of the previous day’s funeral. The resentment built as the parade moved toward the mission. The crowd suddenly broke and rushed the actors, aiming their fury particularly at the elderly character actor, who, in his role as the priest, was carrying a cross.

At this onslaught the actors broke and ran for the safety of the hotel. From the windows they could see the local parish priest attempting without success, to calm the angry crowed.

The mob advanced on the hotel, until finally the hotel proprietor came out on the balcony and spoke to the mob in Spanish. He apologized for the actors, explaining that they had not been mocking the funeral procession. After much shouting back and forth, an agreement was reached. The crowd would be mollified if the ‘cowboys’ in the company would put on an exhibition of riding and roping. The ‘cowboys’ were invited to begin by riding a bronco selected by the mob.

Fortunately, Griffith had hired some real cowboys to double in the riding shots; and he sent the leader of the real cowboys, who was an experienced rodeo performer, to ride the selected horse. The ride was successful, and the other cowboys put on an informal exhibition of riding and roping tricks. The crowd’s hostility was converted into enthusiasm, and Griffith was able to resume the filming.

But they couldn’t find 16 year old Mary Pickford, later a darling of Laguna having cut the ribbon for the opening of the Coast Hwy in town, and she was discovered in a shaded nook of the old mission courtyard making real love, instead of reel love.

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Sean McCracken

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