Mutiflix 2020: RUTH OF THE ROCKIES

“Oh, that we could see Ruth of the Rockies in its entirety!”, sighed C.S. Williams in 2014 in his excellent Classic Film Aficionados blog post (Lost but Not Forgotten) on Ruth Roland’s 1920 serial. Well, we can. The serial was not lost, but nobody had thought of looking outside the box. I did not look for it either. The title L’Heritière du rajah aka Ruth of the Rockies was simply there, on the list of projection prints of 1920 works that the Cinémathèque française had provided, as it does every year, so that we could organise our viewing sessions in the archive to prepare the Hundred Years Ago strand. A western serial with a dashing heroine, the legendary Ruth Roland! “Teeming with adventure, thrills and the spirit of the West, Ruth of the Rockies is another great contribution to the serial successes so thoroughly identified with the personality of Ruth Roland […]. Her remarkable aeroplane stunts, great fights in the open country and her dominant girlhood through it all set a new mark in serial acting and production”, reads the 1920 release publicity. This perfect candidate for a 1920 Mutiflix, exceeds its promise by being thoroughly enjoyable. It was only when checking for recent screenings and talking to serial specialist Didier Bertrand that it dawned on me that something very special had been retrieved, once again, by the systematic search for films from 100 years ago. Ruth of the Rockies was restored in 2000, but has apparently never been screened in 20 years. Why? Because programmers are not desperately seeking gigaformats of 15 episodes. The original release of Ruth of the Rockies spanned three months, from 29 August 1920 to 5 December 1920, with a new episode released every week. While silent cinema concerts are multiplying, there are very little opportunities to screen silent serials. The revelatory experience of Volkoff’s La Maison du mystère (1923) in 2002 made us realise that Il Cinema Ritrovato offers a rare opportunity to screen a serial, and we use it every year. Ruth Roland (1892-1937) started her career as a professional stage actress and singer early, playing Little Lord Fauntleroy at the age of four. She was hired by Kalem in 1911, and billed the new ‘Kalem Girl’ after the departure of Gene Gauntier, but left in 1914 for the Balboa Studios where she became a box-office hit as the Queen of Thriller Serials. In 1919 she established her own production company, Ruth Roland Serials, and signed a distribution deal with Pathé to make seven new serials. They all proved very successful. Capable of dramatic acting, breezy and bold, an indomitable, fearless athlete, a crack shot and a skilled horsewoman, Roland was a match for any man, and she never used a stunt-double. Producing, acting and apparently also co-directing – there are pictures online of Roland with megaphone in hand, standing beside the cameraman – seven Pathé Serials from 1919 to 1923 is record stunt in its own right: about 100 episodes or 50 hours of film, completed in five years. Beside Ruth of the Rockies, only a few episodes from The Timber Queen are known to exist, but then has anybody been looking for The Adventures of Ruth, The Avenging Arrow, The White Eagle, The Haunted Valley and Ruth of the Range? After this feat Roland went back to vaudeville (she didn’t need the money, according to IMDb, as over the years she had amassed a fortune investing in property), and made only occasional appearances on film. She died in 1937, of cancer. In 1979, her personal film collection was discovered in a cement vault on one of her former properties and donated to the UCLA Film & Television Archive, but details about the contents and conservation status of the collection are not available.

Mariann Lewinsky

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