Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Life on the Circle Ranch in California (1912)


There’s always a danger, when watching documentaries, of imagining that we are seeing unmediated reality, rather than a filmmaker’s attempt to simulate it. All the more true when the documentary comes from a remote period or is about an exotic subject, but this movie shows certain tell-tale signs of staging and of playing to an audience’s expectations. For example, did cowboys in 1912 actually wear gunbelts while going about their daily chores, or was that an expected convention? The film purports to show two days in the life of a Western cattle ranch, and there’s no denying that the horses and cows, as well as the skills with which they are handled, are real. Most of the movie takes place on the “open range,” and a dawn shot of a campfire and a coffee pot establish the ruggedness of our heroes early on. The production company was connected with the ranch, and I suspect that the cameraman had little other experience. There is a lack of imagination in the framing, and the focal length of the camera seems to be over-estimated, resulting in several blurry backgrounds where there should be majestic backdrops. Still, for horse-lovers and cowboy historians, there will be some material of interest here.

Director: John B. O’Brien

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not been able to locate this movie online. If you know where it can be seen, please comment below.

Over Silent Paths (1910)

Over Silent Paths

This was one of the movies D.W. Griffith made on his first journey to California for Biograph, and it makes good use of the desert outside LA for a bleak setting. An old miner and his daughter (Marion Leonard, also in “A Burglar’s Mistake” and “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”) are preparing to pack up and return to civilization, when a Mexican-looking “desert wanderer” (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Usurer” and “The Sunbeam”) stumbles into the camp. She’s off getting water, so the villain kills the old man and takes his gold. She buries him and vows revenge. Soon, he’s stumbling around lost and desperate for water, when the girl rides up in her covered wagon. She revives him, not knowing who he is, and soon they are in town and beginning a courtship. When he proposes to her, of course, he shows her all the money he has, in a purse she recognizes as her father’s! She overcomes her emotions and grabs his gun, bringing him in to the sheriff and apparently getting a reward to boot, but the only reward she cares about is the opportunity to go to a lonely grave and say, “I did it, dad.” A fairly typical example of the shorts Griffith was turning out like sausage at the time, boosted by Marion’s performance and the desert backgrounds.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Marion Leonard, Dell Henderson, Arthur V. Johnson, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free slightly edited: here (first scene missing)