Welcome back to our new series, where we take a look back at the highest-grossing films of each year. The last time out we reviewed the 1916 classic, Stuart Paton’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This time we return to our old friend Mary Pickford and in one of only two of her collaborations with Cecil B DeMille in A Romance of the Redwoods.
A Romance of the Redwoods is an odd film in that it’s entire existence was due to Mary Pickford and Adolph Zukor having an almighty spat due to the possibility that Poor Little Rich Girl. (where 24-year-old Pickford plays a 10-year-old. For those unaware she would constantly play a child on screen, read more about her in our piece here) Anyway, Zukor had surmised from a preview screened to the studio that the film would be a dud and that Pickford’s creative control had gotten out of hand, thus she was sent to film two films with the great Cecil B Demille. Pickford, of course, protested this as she had become accustomed to choosing her own projects and to be forced into projects were an affront to her. Despite this, they worked amicably and all seemed to go well. Old Studio Hollywood was an interesting time…
Jenny Lawrence (Pickford) is a young woman who is forced to go West (apt considering the real-life consequences of having to go to Hollywood to film the picture) and live with her uncle after her mother’s death. Unbeknownst to Jenny, her uncle has been murdered by Indians and the outlaw “Black” Brown (Elliot Dexter) has assumed his identity. What happens when she finds out his identity and will he be able to get away with his banditry?
Having (rather shamefully) never really watched or remember watching a Cecil B DeMille film before I did not know quite what to expect here and to although the title highlighted to a romance. I never truly assumed it would be between the two due to Brown being Jenny’s “Uncle”. The early 20th Century was a different time and this matters not,
Mary Pickford rarely got to play roles such as this and it is a shame as she truly seemed to thrive on being an older character closer to her own age. This was obviously before her time when she would be THE star of Hollywood, so the pressure was off her a little in comparison to her later years as an actress. With Jenny she doesn’t play the clueless woman, she knows Brown is not her uncle but plays along for her own safety. Even when she begins to fall for him, she makes sure that her safety is paramount and uses her smartness to navigate herself and Brown out of a very tricky situation.
This tale has been played out in one way or another for many years, even at this point in cinema and stage. Can the innocent woman help turn the bad guy straight through love? But to make both of them happy he just needs to carry out one last job. Hell, it is even utilised in the present day. An easy movie to sell to audiences looking for a romance film to watch. Time hasn’t changed at all! What helps A Romance of the Redwoods is the chemistry between Pickford and Dexter. They work very well off one another and when they do begin to fall in love with one another DeMille tries to play innocent with the audience by having each sleeping in the barn alone and then pointedly when feelings are shared the barn isn’t seen again. Very savvy DeMille.
What helps A Romance of the Redwoods stand out apart from the strong performances is obviously the direction and cinematography of De Mille. There is a lot of confidence with the direction, allowing a lot of space for the characters to roam around in instead of keeping everything stationary. He also allows the actors to emote more without the use of text cards. You barely need them in comparison to other films where they are a necessity. He allows us time with the characters and importantly time to allow us to believe that Brown can change his ways. Some other films of the era would try to rush this part to get through to the main story. This is an important reason as to why DeMille was as important as a director. The pacing of the story is as close to perfection as it could get.
However, like most films of the era and even to the present day, it is hard to find a suitable resolution to such a plot that can keep the audience happy. While I applaud them for allowing Jenny to be smart enough to figure out an escape it is still a bit of a stretch that it would work. But, this is an issue for all melodrama films, the ending is always a sticking point and they always will be.
In the end, we have a great film that has probably been remade without our knowledge on numerous occasions throughout the years. Pickford and Dexter work terrifically together and DeMille is on top form as a director. There is a lot to enjoy and take away from the film. A perfect Sunday matinee.