In her sixty years on earth, Gene Stratton-Porter was many things: a women's club organizer, nature photographer, naturalist, conservationist, best-selling novelist, and a burgeoning film producer who died just as her film studio began to realize her mission of adapting her novels into movies that could further her education and conservation efforts. By 1960, eight of her books had been turned into twenty-one films—silent and sound, black and white and color, from Poverty Row studios to members of the Big Five. This article examines how Stratton-Porter and others translated her regionalism and conservationism to film across a span of forty-three years that saw major revolutions in Hollywood filmmaking. The Hollywood studio system, I argue, appropriated her successful brand of regionalism and her audience of women's club members, while also augmenting her problematically genteel mode of activism.
In her sixty years on earth, Gene Stratton-Porter was many things: a women's club organizer; a nature photographer published in national magazines; a naturalist studying moths and birds in the Limberlost Swamp near her Indiana home; a conservationist working to protect that same swamp from development; a best-selling novelist whose circulation was in the millions; and a burgeoning film producer who died just as her film studio began to realize her mission of adapting her novels into movies that could further her education and conservation efforts. She was also one of at least a dozen US women, mostly white, whose regional novels were adapted into films during the Hollywood studio era.1 These novels were tied intimately to place (usually rural), often centered poor, disabled, or queer characters, and attempted to model beneficial relationships with land and community. Film studios churned out adaptations of them continually throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But why? And how did those adaptations inform American literary regionalism? In the case of Gene Stratton-Porter, I argue, Hollywood appropriated her successful brand of regionalism and her audience of women's club members; in doing so, the film industry also appropriated and augmented a genteel mode of activism incapable of acknowledging the complicity of capitalism, racism, and the ethos of American individualism in environmental degradation.
As a case study, Stratton-Porter's career is uniquely helpful in demonstrating how Hollywood engaged with American literary regionalism. Not only did Stratton-Porter publish numerous regionalist novels, but she also participated in the filming of their adaptations. Unhappy with the way Lasky-Paramount adapted her novel Freckles (1904) to film in 1917, she left Indiana in the early 1920s for Los Angeles, where she opened a film studio that could do justice to her well-loved books. Gene Stratton-Porter Productions only completed two films, Michael O'Halloran (1923) and A Girl of the Limberlost (1924), before Stratton-Porter's unexpected death in a car accident in 1924. But studios, first her own and then others, continued to adapt her work to film. By 1960, eight of her books had been turned into twenty-one films—silent and sound, black and white and color, by both Poverty Row studios and members of the Big Five. This article examines how Stratton-Porter and others translated her regionalism and conservationism to film across a span of forty-three years that saw major revolutions in filmmaking technology and practices. Moving chronologically through a handful of the twenty-one films—fewer than half of which survive—I read broadly and comparatively in order to sketch the US film industry's engagement with the brand of women's club environmentalism Stratton-Porter sold to the nation as a regional writer. It is this environmentalism, I argue, paired with Stratton-Porter's best-seller status, that interested Hollywood in her novels, for both meant that studios could count on significant numbers of women to see their film adaptations.
The women's club movement flourished in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries alongside, though not always in alignment with, the era's feminist movement. Clubs gave women a chance to gather, socialize, study, and campaign for a variety of causes. They were formed by middle- and working-class women, and by white and Black, Protestant, Mormon, and Jewish women, but most remained segregated by these various identity markers.2 Clubwomen, especially white middle-class clubwomen, campaigned for conservation and environmental protection. Dorceta E. Taylor has characterized this period of environmental activism as a reaction to the nineteenth century's “exploitative capitalist paradigm,” noting that “individual enthusiasts … advocated for environmental protection and wise use of resources” within a “romantic environmental paradigm.” She further notes that white middle-class women “were influenced by romanticism, transcendentalism, nativism, frontierism, and pioneer life.”3 Often, these middle-class white women were also members of their local women's club, and indeed, Gene Stratton-Porter founded the Geneva, Indiana, women's club in the mid-1890s. As early environmental activists, clubwomen leveraged sentimental, nostalgia-laden depictions of the natural world to advocate for conservation, protection of wildlife (especially birds), and the founding and maintenance of national parks.
Stratton-Porter wanted her film adaptations to promote her environmental activism as well as her educational and social mission. But the films considered here further their source novels’ systematic erasure of Indigenous peoples while also replacing closely observed natural detail with generalized picturesque outdoor settings. Stratton-Porter's choice to make narrative films—instead of, for example, natural science shorts like those discussed by Caroline Hovanec—tells us how nature functioned for her and what elements of the natural world she thought salable.4 The outdoors was a setting, a stage, and this treatment was only heightened in the films released after her production company folded. Rather than exploring plants, animals, or mold spores via deep or close observation, these films instead frame nature in the tradition of nineteenth-century landscape photographers like Eadweard Muybridge—as “views,” untouched, almost unpeopled. We are not scientists, or even amateur naturalists, when watching these films, but distant observers of romantic dramas playing out on history-less land.5
As is the case with most silent films, neither Lasky-Paramount's 1917 adaptation of Freckles nor any of the seven films produced by Gene Stratton-Porter Productions are known to survive.6 In the face of these absences, I have adopted two strategies: archival research into the films’ media coverage, especially in film periodicals, and brief readings of related surviving films. While these strategies cannot reconstruct the lost film objects, they provide insights with which we might nevertheless build arguments.7 Of the sound-era adaptations, five are in the public domain and available to view freely online, though none have been restored. The final studio adaptation, 20th Century Fox's Freckles (1960), can be seen on Fox's movie channel, albeit altered for television broadcast.8 In the later part of the article, I focus on these available films. By beginning and ending with two versions of Freckles, I demonstrate both the persistence and the problems of Stratton-Porter's environmental rhetoric, which for example succeeded in convincing US clubwomen to plant trees (see fig. 6) but failed to challenge the settler colonial ideology that led to deforestation in the first place.
Stratton-Porter's works have never regained the widespread popularity they enjoyed during her lifetime, but in recent years they have received some attention from literary scholars. Her most famous novels—Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), The Harvester (1911), and Laddie (1913)—have been read in relation to canonical US heavyweights of the nineteenth century, especially Louisa May Alcott and Sarah Orne Jewett, as well as the early twentieth-century Canadian writer L. M. Montgomery.9 The novels have been examined as representatives of “domestic Transcendentalism,” critiqued as overly sentimental and politically regressive, and explored through the lens of consumerism and the “gospel of wealth.”10 Besides the novels, a few scholars have written about Stratton-Porter's work as a naturalist, nature photographer, and conservation activist; these readings focus on the sentimentality of her conservationist aesthetics and her (sometimes problematic) idealization of nature.11
But Stratton-Porter's film adaptations have not yet been treated, nor her relationship to American literary regionalism. Though she was not anthologized in Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse's American Women Regionalists 1850–1910 (1995) and is not discussed in recent critical works on regionalism, her work fits into the genre reformulation currently under way in literary studies.12 Her region is the US Midwest, specifically eastern Indiana (though a later novel is set in Southern California). Her settings are rural and closely observed, usually clustered around the Limberlost Swamp, where she lived and honed her skills as a naturalist and photographer, and which she fought to save from commercial development in the late 1910s. Her concerns are local, and her themes are often nostalgic, reflecting David Mazel's observation that regionalism “celebrates rural simplicity and authenticity in the face of the wholesale dislocations—both geographical and psychological—incurred by modernity,” which likewise led to the contemporaneous development of ecology.13 And Stratton-Porter's writing is interested in the “cultural healing” that Fetterley and Pryse locate in American women's regionalism—her novels offer the same kinds of “unconventional, noncanonical, and counterhegemonic stories of female (and male) development across the life cycle.”14 Her protagonists are abused and abandoned children (Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, Michael O'Halloran ), some of whom have, or care for those who have, physical disabilities (Freckles's amputated hand, Michael O'Halloran's “crippled” friend, Jamie in The Keeper of the Bees ) or gender identity issues (Scout in The Keeper of the Bees). Their interactions with the natural world succor and sustain them both emotionally and financially, and their attunement to nature enables each to achieve personal fulfillment and narrative closure. Frustratingly, though, such moments of (white) cultural healing are bound up in the purposeful erasure of Indigenous peoples from the lands and landscapes Stratton-Porter sought to memorialize and conserve. Her novels advance a myth of her region as a pastoral paradise inhabited in the long-distant past by an Indigenous population whose disappearance has only made the natural world more picturesque. In turn, this picturesque quality, Stratton-Porter argued, made the land worth conserving.15
As both an author and a filmmaker, Stratton-Porter was interested in, and successful at, selling this regional myth to a national audience. Indeed, her decision to open her own film production company in 1922, after almost two decades as a best-selling novelist, demonstrates her canny appraisal of the shifting national market for regional tales.16 And as Christian Knoeller points out, Stratton-Porter did not publish her “clarion call to environmental advocacy,” the magazine essay “All Together, Heave,” until 1922.17 The first film adaptation from her own studio was released a year later; Stratton-Porter thus came into her work as a national environmental advocate and as a film producer simultaneously.18 Furthermore, she entered a film industry already happily adapting the works of US women regionalists. Though literature scholars have suggested 1900 or 1910 as ending points for a particular thread of women's regional literature, the continuous film adaptations of Stratton-Porter's novels demonstrate that the supposedly short-lived literary genre in fact spanned multiple mediums and continued to be marketed to national audiences well into the mid-twentieth century.19 As the film industry grew, regional stories transitioned from magazine pages to movie screens.
Literary adaptations, including but not limited to adaptations of regionalist texts, were already well-trodden territory by the time production began on Freckles in early 1917 with Jesse L. Lasky producing. Director Marshall Neilan was known for making adaptations for Famous Players-Lasky (which controlled Lasky-Paramount at the time), and scenarist Marion Fairfax had already written adaptations of Bret Harte's regional story “Tennessee's Pardner” (1869) and Ruth Sawyer's The Primrose Ring (1915). Louise Huff and Jack Pickford had just co-starred in Seventeen (1916), an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel of the same name. For Freckles, the two were set to play romantic leads once again: Pickford as the film's eponymous one-handed orphan who finds a job as a lumber guard in eastern Indiana's Limberlost Swamp, and Huff as the “swamp angel” who rescues him from the lumber poacher Black Jack (fig. 1). Film magazine Motography reported in January 1917 that Huff had left New York specifically to make Freckles. Pickford followed in February. But they were not traveling to Indiana. They were headed for Southern California.20
The periodical record for Freckles demonstrates that, even in 1917, regional film adaptations were getting tangled up in Hollywood notions of authenticity and Americanness. The novel, like so many of Stratton-Porter's, is set in the real Limberlost and features detailed descriptions of the swamp's flora and fauna. But Motography noted that the story's “western atmosphere … demands a typical California setting.”21 A later issue elaborated that the novel's engagement with nature makes it perfect adaptation fodder: “Freckles is regarded by producers as being a type of story which is particularly adaptable to motion picture purposes because of the fact that nearly the entire action transpires in exterior settings.”22 Some earlier adaptations prided themselves on filming in the “real” locations of their source texts: D. W. Griffith's Ramona (1910), adapted from Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel, opens with a title card proclaiming, “This production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.” Gene Gauntier and Sidney Olcott's The Colleen Bawn (1911) draws continual attention to the “real” and “authentic” filming locations, going so far as to announce in the intertitles, “Showing the exact location, including the real Colleen Bawn rock and cave.” But by 1917, with studios beginning to settle into Hollywood, authenticity in adaptation was less important than a picturesque outdoor setting. Freckles demonstrates Jennifer Peterson's assertion that “for films set in the wilderness, exact coordinates were less important than the location's ability to signify nature's grandeur.”23 For film producers in 1917, California was a fine stand-in for Indiana, and for the motion picture press, the two were indistinguishable.
Freckles was well reviewed, especially praised for being “staged in the most beautiful settings.”24 Exhibitors as well reported that the film did “big business,” but at least one was less than pleased with the adaptation itself: “A splendid picture,” an exhibitor from Juliaetta, Idaho, wrote, “but it doesn't follow the story closely. I don't know why they add to it in part and leave out important items of the story.”25 Stratton-Porter agreed, and she deferred further adaptations of her work for several years. Jeannette Porter Meehan's 1928 biography of her mother elaborates on this first frustrating adaptation:
She had allowed a well-known company to do one of her early books. They had invited her to approve the adaptation and continuity and make suggestions; all of which she did. But when they made the picture, they ignored all of her ideas and suggestions. Consequently, the result was very unsatisfactory and disappointing to Mother, and she declared that no more pictures would be made until she was ready to make them herself.26
Ince, a silent film director who billed his work as “Clean Pictures for Clean People,” had opened a studio in Culver City, which he both used for his own productions and rented out to other filmmakers. Stratton-Porter formed her company, Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, and signed a profit-sharing deal with Ince Corp. for the screen rights to her novel Michael O'Halloran, with “exclusive options on five other novels, pending the satisfactory completion of the filming of the first.”29 Unlike with Lasky-Paramount, Stratton-Porter ensured that she was creatively involved throughout the entire process. She handpicked James Leo Meehan to write and direct, and she supervised the production directly: “During the actual ‘shooting’ she was on the set every morning from nine o'clock until the running of the daily ‘rushes’ about six-thirty in the evening.”30 The film magazines consistently emphasized Stratton-Porter's personal involvement with the film, both in advertisements and copy (fig. 2).31
The magazines also emphasized Stratton-Porter's reputation as “the famous Bird Woman of the Limberlost country in Indiana,” suggesting that the twin attractions to her work were its “clean, wholesome, inspiring fiction and Nature Studies.”32 Although Michael O'Halloran, about an orphaned newspaper seller who devotes himself to caring for a disabled orphan girl, is set in the fictional Multiopolis, that urban center is still contained within Indiana, and it is infused with the deep descriptions of nature for which Stratton-Porter is known. Early in the novel, Douglas Bruce stops at a florist's window to admire “the exquisite loveliness of a milk-white birch basket filled with bog moss of silvery green, in which were set maidenhair and three yellow lady slippers, until beside it was placed another woven of osiers blood red, moss carpeted and bearing five pink moccasin flowers, faintly lined with red lavender; between them rosemary and white ladies’ tresses.”33 These lavishly-described flower baskets are complicated commodities, indicative of the larger pattern of Indigenous erasure within Stratton-Porter's work. They have been brought to the consumer market by a “squaw,” a local Native American woman, whom the narrator describes as “coming down to Multiopolis to teach people what the wood Gods had put into their hearts about flower magic.” But Douglas Bruce, who buys one of the baskets, and Leslie Winton, to whom he gives it, prefer to imagine themselves in a flowering swamp landscape free of the Native artist who created the product. Douglas is disappointed that he cannot “truthfully report an artist's Indian of the Minnehaha type,” and instead must acknowledge that the baskets were made by “a particularly greasy squaw” frequently seen around town.34 For Leslie, this imagining is an active act of exclusion as well as judgment:
“I can see [the swamp] as perfectly as I ever did,” she said. “But I eliminate the squaw; possibly because I didn't see her. And however exquisite the basket is, she broke the law when she peeled a birch tree. I'll wager she brought this to Lowry, carefully covered. And I'm not sure but there should have been a law she broke when she uprooted these orchids. Much as I love them, I doubt if I can keep them alive, and bring them to bloom next season. I'll try, but I don't possess flower magic in the highest degree.” … “Yes, I eliminate the squaw,” she said. “These golden slippers are the swamp to me, but I see you kneeling to lift them. I am so glad I'm the woman they made you see.”35
Stratton-Porter was happy enough with Michael O'Halloran to continue with her film adaptation plans. Gene Stratton-Porter Productions rented studio space from Thomas Ince again in September 1923, paying $10,000 to make one or two more movies on the lot. The resulting film, A Girl of the Limberlost, was distributed by FBO (Film Booking Offices of America) in April 1924.36 Again, James Leo Meehan directed; again, Stratton-Porter was on the lot every day to supervise production.37 At the same time she was working on her penultimate novel, The Keeper of the Bees, set in Los Angeles, and thinking about the future film adaptation even as she wrote. She planned for Meehan to write the screenplay as soon as she finished the book; the resulting film was to be released simultaneously with the novel's serialization in McCall's in the spring of 1925.38
The 1924 film A Girl of the Limberlost, about a teen who sells her moth collection to finance her education, received a huge marketing push that once again traded on Stratton-Porter's best-seller status, the “wholesomeness” of her stories, and her authentic midwestern identity via her connection to Indiana. Advertising copy told exhibitors that the film was “an example of how entertaining pictures could be made and be censorproof” (fig. 3).39 Another ad reprinted a letter from the “Indianapolis Indorsers of Photoplays” declaring the film “an exquisite gem” (fig. 4).40 This advertising campaign suggests another element of Hollywood's engagement with regionalism: the regional aspects of film distribution, booking, and censorship in the silent era. Because film distribution was not nationally synchronous—rather, film prints traveled around the country as if on tour, reaching different regions at different times—distributors relied on one region or city selling others on a film's worth. Trade magazines aimed at exhibitors encouraged them to write in and tell “what the picture did for me”—that is, how well or poorly it sold, and they reported on happenings in markets large and small. Such word-of-mouth networks had the power to make or break a film's distribution in all but first-run markets, and distributors chose the locations of premieres carefully for this reason. And because censorship happened on a state-by-state basis, distributors were incentivized to release films that would pass censor boards in the most conservative states. In other words, the endorsement of Indiana carried weight that the endorsement of California did not, and Gene Stratton-Porter Productions and FBO put this regional “authenticity” to work in selling their films.
Some advertisements for Gene Stratton-Porter Productions' next film, The Keeper of the Bees (1925), sought to link it to the previous year's successful A Girl of the Limberlost, but others emphasized that it was “a California story for Californians … filled to the brim with golden California sunshine and the glory of the out-of-doors” (fig. 5).41 Indeed, the stories are strikingly different in a way that potentially illuminates the direction in which American literary regionalism was moving, and that certainly suggests how Stratton-Porter's relocation to Hollywood was changing her writing. A Girl of the Limberlost, in both novel and film form, is set in Indiana in the first decade of the twentieth century, but the action of The Keeper of the Bees happens in Los Angeles in the wake of the Great War. If modernity is the unspoken futurity driving the nostalgia in the former, it is the unavoidable precondition for the latter, the story of a veteran, Jamie, who mistakenly believes he only has six months to live. Overhearing this information (which actually pertains to another veteran), Jamie escapes the VA hospital where he has been recovering from the war and finds his way to the house of an elderly beekeeper, who soon dies. With the help of a neighbor girl who dresses and passes as a boy, Jamie masters beekeeping, finds romance with a mysterious woman, and comes to terms with both his expected death and his unexpected survival.
Stratton-Porter died between the release of these two films, on December 6, 1924, when her automobile collided with a streetcar.42 But The Keeper of the Bees was serialized in McCall's and released on film just as she had planned. It featured Clara Bow (arguably the most famous actor to appear in a Stratton-Porter production), and a forty-five-second trailer for it survives. This trailer bills the film as “the finest out-of-door love story Gene Stratton-Porter ever wrote,” but it shows only one scene, in which Alice Louise (Bow) attempts to jump to her death from an apartment window. Still, small-town exhibitors worked the nature connection to sell tickets. For example, the managers of the Strand Theatre in Canton, Ohio
secured from the A. I. Root Bee Company, of Medina, Ohio, the largest apiary in the world, two cases of live bees, consisting of eight thousand of the insects. These cases of bees were placed in the lobby of the theatre one week before the opening of the picture and attracted enormous crowds. The bees were held over for a second week, during the run of the film, and the managers attribute the capacity business not only to the excellence of the production and the drawing power of Gene Stratton-Porter's name, but to the unique bee display in the lobby, which aroused curiosity and interest in the passersby.43
Women's clubs also helped organize nationwide memorials after Stratton-Porter's death, working to plant trees in her honor in New York and Rhode Island—two places about which Stratton-Porter never wrote. Such campaigns, coordinated by the Gene Stratton-Porter Memorial Committee, suggest how useful this particular strand of women's club environmentalism could be to the marketing of films. FBO took out two-page advertisements in trade publications like Exhibitors Herald and Motion Picture News proclaiming the “Colossal Exploitation” from which exhibitors could benefit (fig. 6). Ad copy promised, “You can reap your share of the harvest,” mixing metaphors in their drive to link women's environmental activism to the intertwined print and screen networks of the culture industry.44
Stratton-Porter's daughter, Jeannette, and son-in-law, James Leo Meehan (the two had married in June 1923), continued making pictures under her production company banner until 1928. For only one of these, “a section of Hollywood … moved to Indiana”: The Harvester (1927) used exteriors filmed on location at Stratton-Porter's Wildflower Woods cabin in Rome City.45 The Meehans finished this cycle of adaptations with a new version of Freckles in 1928, revisiting the novel that inspired the creation of Gene Stratton-Porter Productions. They divorced soon after. Jeannette continued serving as her mother's literary executor, while James went on to direct several more adaptations by other women writers.46 Many of the scripts for these projects were written by Dorothy Yost, who had written the adaptations for The Harvester and Freckles, and who went on to script two films in the next cycle of Stratton-Porter adaptations: Laddie (1935) and Freckles (1935), both made by RKO.
Studios took a break from adapting Stratton-Porter's novels from 1929 to mid-1934, a five-year period roughly corresponding to what we now call the pre-Code era, which began with the widespread adoption of synchronized sound by Hollywood studios and ended with the establishment of the Production Code Administration (PCA) to oversee strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. While early sound technologies forced most productions back into closed studios (now called soundstages) to enable better control over the live sound recording process, by 1934 filmmakers were creeping back outdoors—and searching for wholesome scripts that would pass the PCA's certification process. Stratton-Porter's novels were ideal candidates. From late 1934 to 1948, twelve film adaptations were made from seven novels for four different studios. These studios—Monogram Pictures, RKO, Republic Pictures, and Columbia—represented the full spectrum of studio types, from majors to minors, in the golden age of vertically integrated Hollywood film production. But despite the wide range of studio budgets and clout, all twelve films were sold as appealing to audiences of women and children, Stratton-Porter's assumed fan base, who wanted clean and wholesome pictures with beautiful outdoor photography.
At least seven of these films are known to survive, and five are available to view online via the Internet Archive.47 But none of them have been restored, and the low-resolution digitization of less-than-pristine prints vary in quality. Four of these readily available films are adapted from Stratton-Porter nature novels, all of which had been previously adapted by her own company.48 None of them are lavish productions. Indeed, as actress Diana Cary recounts in her memoir The Hollywood Posse (1975), Monogram's A Girl of the Limberlost (1934) was made at a breakneck pace:
On a feature-length version of The Girl of Limberlost [sic] in which I played a role, no actor was ever idle nor did a camera ever get cold. We were shooting at five-thirty in the morning, and while one scene was being filmed another crew was setting up for the next. Actors rushed from one set-up to another without rest, and with barely time for rehearsal. … Lunch was bolted down between takes. We sprinted through that feature-length juvenile masterpiece in five days flat, something of a record even in my book.49
Despite the difference in studio quality, Monogram's Romance of the Limberlost (1938) and RKO's Laddie (1940) both treat their exterior settings as barely more than a stage on which their respective melodramas play out (fig. 8). These films, made at the tail end of the Great Depression and after the recession of 1937, examine issues of white socioeconomic class differences via their rural Indiana settings—and yet manage to not be about nature at all. Romance of the Limberlost, loosely inspired by A Girl of the Limberlost, tells the story of Laurie, a nature-loving orphan being raised by her abusive aunt. They are “swampers,” poor white denizens of the Limberlost swamp. Laurie falls in love with an ambitious young man who dreams of being a lawyer, but her aunt forces her to marry a wealthy older drunkard in hopes of alleviating their poverty. When the drunk accidentally shoots himself to death in the presence of a teenage swamper, the ensuing murder trial reveals long-held secrets, eventually healing the relationship between Laurie and her aunt. In the end, Laurie's butterfly collection (fig. 9) and her relationship with the female naturalist who purchases these specimens from her (elements retained from the source novel) matter very little. In Laddie, the cross-class romance is between Laddie, a farmer's son, and Pamela, the daughter of a well-off Englishman who has just bought land next door. In both of these films, rural identity and closeness to nature are markers of honorable white poverty figured as “simplicity.”
While the films’ refusal to show nonwhite characters obscures issues of racial identity, the quality of the surviving film prints hinders our ability to engage with Stratton-Porter's brand of white clubwomen's environmentalism. In both A Girl of the Limberlost and Romance of the Limberlost, it is difficult to tell how detailed the moths, butterflies, and “relics” are. The blurriness of the Monogram copies held in the Internet Archive further obfuscates the films’ representations of both nature and Native American craft. We know some approximations of these objects were filmed, but we can't see how detailed their depictions are, because detail is precisely what has been lost from the surviving digitized film prints (see fig. 9). I do not mean to suggest here that pristine restorations of these films would reveal authentic, detailed, closely observed depictions of nature and Indigenous culture. Rather, the films’ haphazard preservation in the twenty-first century echoes the industrial-creative process by which certain details dropped out of the record and then, as a result, out of the cultural imagination—and, indeed, foreshadows what we can now see, at a distance of more than half a century, as the gradual fading from view of Stratton-Porter's authorial presence itself.
The studio system was at the beginning of its end in 1948—the year of the final Monogram adaptation (Michael O'Halloran)—as a result of two legal decisions made against the studios. The first was Olivia de Havilland's successful lawsuit against Warner Bros. that, in 1944, made exploitative star contracts unenforceable; the second was the 1948 federal antitrust lawsuit against eight Hollywood film studios that put an end to their vertically integrated distribution model. Twelve years later, 20th Century Fox produced one last Stratton-Porter adaptation for wide theatrical release.50Freckles (1960) returns to the text that launched Stratton-Porter's film career, and its underwhelming box office performance marked the end of that same career. Viewed in retrospect, this Freckles was the apotheosis of the studio system's engagement with her nature novels, set in a universally-American California devoid of Indigenous peoples but marked with varieties of whiteness meant to indirectly suggest racial difference. At the same time, the film twists the author's conservationist message into a cynical ploy of the villain, suggesting a turn away from the sentimental environmental activism of the women's clubs typified in Stratton-Porter's 1922 essay “All Together, Heave.”
Fox's Freckles was meant to be a lavish nature epic, filmed on location in the San Bernardino National Forest in CinemaScope and De Luxe Color. Its basic plot remains the same as in previous versions: Freckles, the one-handed orphan, is hired by a lumber company boss to guard the Limberlost. While there, he battles lumber poachers and falls in love with the niece of a female naturalist studying birds in the field. The lumber boss, MacLean, and his laborer Duncan are figured as Scotch Irish, but in this version, the poacher who plagues their business is not “Black Jack” but Barbeau, portrayed by Italian American actor Steve Peck. His tan skin sets him apart visually from the rest of the cast, while his anti-capitalist environmental philosophy suggests an alignment with the Indigenous population who have been removed completely from the film's land. Attempting to win Freckles to his side, Barbeau explains that his group of poachers “take the lumber to live.” He characterizes MacLean as the real villain, asking Freckles to imagine clear-cut land “blackened for miles, nothing growing. … MacLean is the biggest thief of us all.” Duncan, however, tells Freckles not to believe Barbeau's story; it's just a ruse to justify his poaching. In the end, after a confrontation between Barbeau and Freckles that injures them both, Barbeau dies “like an animal in the woods.” MacLean comforts Freckles that he isn't responsible: “The Limberlost killed him. He didn't have to die; it was his own choice.”
Though shot in color, the film's cinematography presents the forest with the same visual rhetoric as the mammoth-plate photographs of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, or the stereoscopic views of the same forest by Eadweard Muybridge, both created almost one hundred years earlier (figs. 10, 11). The visual style firmly connects this final Stratton-Porter adaptation with the genteel consumption of nature as a commodity popularized in the previous century. Rebecca Solnit writes, “A great national symbol of nature, Yosemite was known largely through the devices of culture,” and the same can be said about the Limberlost—though the latter had long since been destroyed by development and oil drilling, and as such existed, even in 1917, only in fiction.51
By 1960, Gene Stratton-Porter's sway over audiences had waned almost entirely. As an exhibitor in Malta, Montana, wrote, Freckles was a “good program, but folks did not turn out like we expected. Asked a few women how they liked Gene Stratton-Porter stories. All but the very old, like yours truly, said they had never heard of her.”52 Once enormously popular, Stratton-Porter's work did not pass from one generation to the next. Nor did her sentimental, nostalgic style of environmental advocacy remain effective; like the film industry, the dominant mode of environmentalism changed vastly in the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, recovering Stratton-Porter's novels and film adaptations today, alongside those of the many other women regionalists whose fictions were made into films, helps us understand the promise and the problems of American literary regionalism and how the Hollywood studio system leveraged this genre for its own ends.
I am grateful to the Georgia Tech students in my spring 2019 class “Technologies of Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era,” whose research on women writers and film adaptations provided me with a wealth of material to comb through and cite. Special thanks to Animesh Agriwal, Jessica Ball, Harper Cline, Carson Coursey, Kristen Farmer, Sawyer Flanagan, Jianing Fu, Izabela Hadula, and Ayush Munot for their work on Gene Stratton-Porter specifically.
Examples include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Grace Miller White, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alice Hegan Rice, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. We should also include writers like Edna Ferber and Gertrude Atherton, whose work both in and outside of the regional tradition was adapted to film; writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, whose work influenced films but was not directly adapted; and writers and filmmakers like Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Murray Gibson, who created their own regional films outside of the Hollywood studio system.
See Anne Ruggles Gere, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women's Clubs, 1880–1920 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
Dorceta E. Taylor, Race, Class, Gender, and American Environmentalism, Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-534 (Portland, OR: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 2002), 3, 6.
Caroline Hovanec, “Another Nature Speaks to the Camera: Natural History and Film Theory,” Modernism/modernity 26, no. 2 (2019): 243–65.
This is another way of getting at the concept of terra nullius or “no one's land” discussed by Daniel Heath Justice as crucial to the US program of Indigenous disenfranchisement, genocide, and historical erasure. Daniel Heath Justice, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Indigenous Studies Series (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018), 10.
The seven Gene Stratton-Porter Productions films are: Michael O'Halloran (1923), A Girl of the Limberlost (1924), The Keeper of the Bees (1925), Laddie (1926), The Magic Garden (1927), The Harvester (1927), and Freckles (1928). All seven were directed by Stratton-Porter's son-in-law, James Leo Meehan, and were distributed by the Film Booking Offices of America (FBO).
Per Jane Gaines's Pink-Slipped, I am wary of putting too much stock in the film object itself as a container of historical or objective truth. Not only, as Gaines writes, is the film itself such a “tiny piece relative to the rest of the past,” but the “ideology of historical loss … predicated on an idea of an intact earlier time” is troublingly close to the most conservative and racist strains of American literary regionalist thought, as I discuss later in this article. Jane Gaines, Pink-Slipped: What Happened to the Women in the Silent Film Industries?, Women and Film History International (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 75, 77.
For more on the survival of these adaptations, including how prints made their way onto the private collectors’ market, see Eric Grayson, “Limberlost Found: Indiana's Literary Legacy in Hollywood,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 19, no. 1 (2007): 42–47.
Jane Goldstein, “A Daughter's Place: The Intertextuality of Gene Stratton-Porter's Laddie and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women,” Canadian Children's Literature, nos. 111/112 (2003): 50–55; Barbara Ryan, “The ‘Girl Business’ + the Bachelor of Nature: Romancing Thoreau,” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 25, nos. 1/2 (2002): 185–98; Janis Dawson, “Literary Relations: Anne Shirley and Her American Cousins,” Children's Literature in Education 33, no. 1 (2002): 29–51.
Anne K. Phillips, “Of Epiphanies and Poets: Gene Stratton-Porter's Domestic Transcendentalism,” Children's Literature Association Quarterly, no. 4 (1994): 153; Lawrence Jay, “Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Gene Stratton-Porter's Freckles,” Papers on Language and Literature 36, no. 2 (2000): 139–57; Peter Stoneley, Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, 1860–1940 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Amy S. Green, “Two Women Naturalists and the Search for Autonomy: Anna Botsford Comstock and the Producer Ethic; Gene Stratton-Porter and the Gospel of Wealth,” Women's Studies Quarterly 29, nos. 1/2 (2001): 145–54.
Kevin Armitage, “On Gene Stratton Porter's Conservation Aesthetic,” Environmental History 14, no. 1 (2009): 138–45; Christian Knoeller, “Envisioning Restoration: Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924),” in Reimagining Environmental History: Ecological Memory in the Wake of Landscape Change (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2017), 42–71; Christopher Baas, “Gene Stratton-Porter's Million Dollar View: The Role of Literature in Restoring a Garden That Should Never Have Been Built,” Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 35, no. 3 (2015): 1–11.
Briefly, American literary regionalism was long treated as the naive, overly sentimental output of commercial writers, mostly women, little worth studying. Many literary scholars have begun to rethink and reformulate the genre, finding it instead a complex body of literature that speaks to both local and national concerns. See Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, eds., American Women Regionalists 1850–1910, a Norton Anthology (New York: Norton, 1995); Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Stephanie Foote, Regional Fictions: Culture and Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001); John Duvall, “Regionalism in American Modernism,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, ed. Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 242–60; Charles L. Crow, ed., A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2008).
David Mazel, “Regionalism and Ecology,” in A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America, 130.
Fetterley and Pryse, Writing Out of Place, 30.
Gene Stratton-Porter, “All Together, Heave,” Izaak Walton League Monthly 1, no. 4 (December 1922): cover.
Naming her company Gene Stratton-Porter Productions suggests that she was cognizant of, maybe even inspired by, the late 1910s and early 1920s trend of female stars opening production studios under their names. See Karen Ward Mahar, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), chapters 2 and 6.
Knoeller, “Envisioning Restoration,” 44; Stratton-Porter, “All Together, Heave,” cover.
Like many other clubwomen of her era, Stratton-Porter also dabbled in espousing popular ideas about eugenics (in the guise of better “breeding”) at this time. Gene Stratton-Porter, “Our Thanks,” McCall's, November 1924, 2.
Foote, Regional Fictions, 3. Foote's Regional Fictions pins the genre to the years 1870 to 1900, while Fetterley and Pryse's anthology spans 1850 to 1910. Scholars tend to treat the masculine-coded New Deal regionalism of the 1930s separately from women's nineteenth-century literary regionalism, and the contemporary regionalism of multiethnic literatures in the United States separately from both. The limitations and confusions of literary periodization in the discipline of English are probably becoming clear to my readers. My aim here is to suggest that what we currently know as women's nineteenth-century literary regionalism in fact persisted well into the twentieth century, as Stratton-Porter's film adaptations demonstrate.
“Plans for Mary Pickford,” Motography, May 26, 1917, 1101; “Famous Players Star to Lasky,” Motography, January 13, 1917, 90; “Jack Pickford Has Gone West,” Motography, February 3, 1917, 245.
“Jack Pickford Has Gone West,” 245.
“Plans for Mary Pickford,” 1101.
Jennifer Peterson, “The Silent Screen, 1895–1927,” in Hollywood on Location: An Industry History, ed. Joshua Gleich and Lawrence Webb (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), unpaginated digital version accessed.
George N. Shorey, “Freckles,” Motion Picture News, June 2, 1917, 3460.
Pleasant Hour Theater, Motography, January 5, 1918, 7; J. F. Hickenbottom, Motography, March 23, 1918, 549.
Jeannette Porter Meehan, Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter (London: Hutchinson, 1928), 240.
Judith Reick Long, Gene Stratton-Porter: Novelist and Naturalist (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1990), 224. See also Meehan, Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter, 240.
Long's biography explains that the gap in Stratton-Porter's career from 1919 to 1921 was a result of both her cross-country move and her need to support her daughter through a difficult divorce. Long, Gene Stratton-Porter, 224–25.
Long, Gene Stratton-Porter, 227. See also Brian Taves, Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 231–32.
Meehan, Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter, 242.
“Pictorial Section,” Exhibitors Herald, December 2, 1922, 41; “Porter Film to Get Big Publicity Tieup,” Exhibitors Herald, April 28, 1923, 38; “Critics Highly Praise Hodkinson Production,” Moving Picture World, July 14, 1923, 168; Motion Picture News Booking Guide, October 1923, 37.
Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, Exhibitors Trade Review, October 14, 1922, 9.
Gene Stratton-Porter, Michael O'Halloran (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1915), 4.
Stratton-Porter, Michael O'Halloran, 35.
Stratton-Porter, Michael O'Halloran, 28.
Taves, Thomas Ince, 247–48.
Long, Gene Stratton-Porter, 243.
Long, Gene Stratton-Porter, 249.
“Listen to Me a Minute, Mr. Exhibitor,” Film Daily, May 8, 1924, 8.
“We Think It Is an Exquisite Gem,” Exhibitors Herald, June 21, 1924, 67.
Advertisement, Exhibitors Herald, October 3, 1925, 89.
Long, Gene Stratton-Porter, 250.
“Calla Strikes a Natural in ‘Keeper of the Bees,’” Exhibitors Trade Review, November 7, 1925, 33.
“Colossal Exploitation,” Motion Picture News, October 9, 1926, 5–6.
“Meehan Keeps FBO Company in Indiana Location,” Exhibitors Herald, June 18, 1927, 21; “FBO's ‘Harvester’ Company at Studios,” Exhibitors Herald, July 16, 1927, 44. The interiors were filmed in Hollywood.
Barbara Ryan, “‘A Real Basis from Which to Judge’: Fan Mail to Gene Stratton-Porter,” in Reading Acts: U.S. Readers’ Interactions with Literature, 1800–1950, ed. Barbara Ryan and Amy M. Thomas (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002), 175. In 1928 Jeannette Porter Meehan released Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter, a biography of her mother that quoted heavily from primary documents. In 1929 she published Freckles Comes Home, a sequel to her mother's Freckles. This sequel was itself adapted to film in 1942, but the resulting film has little to do with Freckles as a novel nor any of its film versions. For this reason, I have excluded it from my discussion here.
The five films available online are A Girl of the Limberlost (1934), The Keeper of the Bees (1935), Romance of the Limberlost (1938), Her First Romance (1940), and Laddie (1940). All five can also be found on YouTube. Prints of Freckles (1935) and Michael O'Halloran (1948) are held in private collections and have been publicly screened at Cinefest (though the latter is missing a reel). Keeper of the Bees (1947) may also be held in a private collection, but this is unconfirmed. See “The Lost Films of Gene Stratton-Porter - NitrateVille.Com,” accessed May 28, 2019, https://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=24948; “The Keeper of the Bees (1935) - NitrateVille.Com,” accessed May 28, 2019, https://nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=12955&p=93497&hilit=girl+of+the+limberlost#p93497.
Her First Romance (1940) is the only adaptation of Her Father's Daughter (1921), Stratton-Porter's anti-Japanese screed disguised as a college novel. Both are worth examining but are beyond the scope of this article.
Diana Cary, The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975), 158.
Made-for-TV movie adaptations of A Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles were released in the early 1990s, and a low-budget independent adaptation of At the Foot of the Rainbow (1907) was made in 2017.
Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Penguin, 2003), 44–45.
“The Exhibitor Has His Say about Pictures,” Box Office, February 20, 1961, 10.