A Romance of the Redwoods (1917)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Cast: Mary Pickford, Elliott Dexter, Tully Marshall
Synopsis: A young girl travels west to live with her uncle during the California Gold Rush only to find that he has been killed by Indians and his identity assumed by an outlaw.
Mary Pickford was such an important star in the teen years of the 20th century that she wielded enough power to have Cecil B. DeMille fired from The Poor Little Rich Girl when she preferred the directing duties to be handled by Maurice Tourneur. Unfortunately for Pickford, the executives at Artcraft Pictures were so convinced that The Poor Little Rich Girl, in which the 24-year-old actress played a 10-year-old, was going to be a dud that they sent her off into the wilderness of Boulder Creek for her next picture for some team-building location work with Mr DeMille. We can only imagine what the atmosphere was like on that particular shoot.
Pickford plays a fully-grown woman here, although there’s still an overtly attractive innocence about Jenny Lawrence, the plucky young woman sent to live in the West with her Uncle following the death of her father. Unfortunately for Jenny, her uncle (Winter Hall — Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) meets a grisly end when he discovers that his welcome committee to the Wild West is comprised entirely of angry Indians with painted faces. Shortly after his death, stagecoach bandit “Black” Brown (yeah, I know — wonder how long it took writer DeMille and co-writer Jeanie Macpherson to come up with that one), played by now-forgotten DeMille favourite, Elliott Dexter (Don’t Change Your Husband, Stella Maris) stumbles across Lawrence’s body while on the run from a posse. He hits upon the idea of swapping clothes and identity with the dead man, who had just arrived in the West, and was therefore unknown to anyone out there, and settles himself in Lawrence’s cabin in the town of Strawberry Flats safe in the knowledge that the pursuing posse now believe him to be dead.
No sooner has Brown got everyone in Strawberry Flats believing he’s a sort-of respectable man (even if he does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in the local drinking den) than he receives a letter informing him that ‘his’ niece Jenny is on her way out to live with him and is due to arrive around the same time as the letter. Sure enough, he arrives at the cabin to find Jenny gazing around her in frank horror at her surroundings. She, of course, knows that Brown isn’t her uncle, but when he hauls her into town to ask for help she finds herself more intimidated by the patrons of the saloon into which he takes her than she is by Brown, and meekly pretends he really is her uncle.
A Romance of the Redwoods is full of possibilities at this point, and has so far managed to deliver quite an intriguing tale, but instead of exploring the very real dangers to which Jenny might have been unknowingly exposed by her well-meaning relatives, the film settles instead on showing the developing relationship between Jenny and her fake uncle. The map of their blossoming love for one another is all too familiar, and it was probably just as well-known to audiences in 1917. First, Jenny’s sleeping in the shed with the horses and then Brown is sleeping in the shed with the horses, and we all know it’s only a matter of time before the horses are back to sleeping alone again, only the film’s too coy to show us that. However, money is hard to come by honestly, and it’s not long before the briefly reformed Brown is tempted back into his old ways.
A Romance of the Redwoods is enjoyable enough, and benefits from some polished direction from DeMille. As it was made long before the Production Code grew a pair, it’s quite open about the occupation of the girls who haunt Brown’s favourite saloon which, it has to be said, looks more realistic than any Western movie saloon seen on screen from the 1930s to the 1960s. This lack of a moral code also means that bad guys could get the girl which, although truer to real life, means that A Romance of the Redwoods is saddled with an unbelievably stupid resolution when it looks as if Brown is about to perish at the hands of a lynch mob.
It’s a strange movie for Pickford, and it wouldn’t be long before she was back to playing pre-pubescent waifs, but she’s quite convincing here and even displays an unexpected tough streak on occasion. Although an innocent, in A Romance of the Redwoods Jenny is never a helpless waif dependent on the protection of men, and although her decision to try and reform the man who assumed her dead uncle’s identity is a difficult one to swallow, the quality of Pickford’s performance at least makes it more palatable than it otherwise would have been.
(Reviewed 20th August 2014)