A Romance of the Redwoods (1917) A Silent Film Review

Mary Pickford is a naive city girl who journeys out to the redwoods to live with her uncle. What she doesn’t know is that her uncle is dead and a bandit (Elliott Dexter) has borrowed his identity as cover for his stagecoach robberies. The pair form an uneasy alliance. Mary has nowhere else to go and Elliott doesn’t dare let her leave since she can blow his cover. That romance in the title? Well, with a city girl and a bandit sharing digs, what do you think will happen?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The lady and the bandit

I am very excited to be hosting a guest rebuttal. Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. She wrote a thoughtful and enjoyable review of this film a while back and was gracious enough to come aboard for this post. You can jump to her comments by clicking here.

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On the surface, it looked like Mary Pickford was riding high in 1917. She had signed a lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures (the result of a studio merger) and was one of the most recognized and beloved women in the world. However, her previous two films (Less Than Dust and The Pride of the Clan) were not as popular as they could have been.

Cecil B. DeMille had also suffered a setback when his mega-budget pet project, Joan the Woman, did just so-so at the box office. DeMille and Pickford pictures had different styles, different values and both star and director liked to be in charge. However, movie mogul Adolph Zukor felt that combining the DeMille and Pickford brands would revive the box office magic.

One of the more stressful periods of Pickford's life.
One of the more stressful periods of Pickford’s life.

Pickford enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy on her film sets but her studio bosses felt she had gone too far during the production of her latest film, The Poor Little Rich Girl. Pickford and her screenwriter/gal pal Frances Marion had concocted all sorts of zany slapstick to add to the action. Director Maurice Tourneur was highly annoyed by these unplanned bits of humor. Zukor forced Pickford to send a humiliating telegram to DeMille, promising not to interfere with his story decisions during their upcoming films. (Mary won in the end. When it opened, The Poor Little Rich Girl was a blockbuster and her additions to the scenario delighted audiences.)

In her memoirs, Pickford recalls that she did not have one happy moment on the set of A Romance of the Redwoods as a result of that mortifying telegram. She was sick with worry about the reception of The Poor Little Rich Girl, which would not be released for a few more weeks.

Pickford's career needed a jumpstart.
Pickford’s career needed a jumpstart.

Pickford’s personal life was also in a state of flux. Her marriage to Owen Moore was crumbling (she was already well on her way to being involved with Douglas Fairbanks). According to her memoir, her self-confidence was at a low ebb due to her enormous workload and the treatment she was receiving from the executives who held her contract. In January of 1917, after a fight with Owen, she wrote that she found herself contemplating suicide. Pickford’s mother spoke to Zukor and it was soon arranged for the ailing star to make a film in California, a complete change of scene. (Some Pickford biographers question this account, believing that she came to California primarily to be near Douglas Fairbanks. In any case, Pickford made all of her subsequent films on the west coast.)

The versatile Elliott Dexter was DeMille's go-to leading man in the 1910s.
The versatile Elliott Dexter was DeMille’s go-to leading man in the 1910s.

Meanwhile, Cecil B. DeMille was ironing out his choice of story. A Romance of the Redwoods was a compromise. DeMille did not wish to make Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (thank goodness for both the director and the audience!) and studio executives felt that still-neutral USA was not ready for the anti-German film The Little American. Redwoods was a heavily influenced by DeMille’s 1915 film, The Girl of the Golden West, an adaptation of a Beslasco play. (That film was remade in 1938 as a vehicle for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. You can read the original story here.) The California-based tale would make use of the natural beauty of the Boulder Creek redwoods and engage the talents of one of DeMille’s favorite leading men, Elliott Dexter.

A Romance of the Redwoods started filming on February 17, 1917 and the shoot was completed in five weeks.

So now that we have established the backdrop for the film, here is a brief outline of the plot:

Black Brown had a sister named Pink Brown and a cousin named Tan Brown.
Black Brown had a sister named Pink Brown and a cousin named Tan Brown.

“Black” Brown (Elliott Dexter) is a successful bandit who specializes in relieving stagecoach passengers of their Gold Rush-rich belongings. After a particularly successful haul, he finds himself on the run with the law on his heels.

Jenny Lawrence (Mary Pickford) is a naive east coast beauty whose mother has just passed away. Her mother’s dying wish was that her daughter would be sent to live with her beloved brother, John, who departed for California.

John Lawrence (Winter Hall) is in no position to take care of his niece. He died in a shower of arrows launched by a native tribe. (This is, by the way, the only really “epic” scene in what is otherwise an intimate film.)

Let's see, tintypes, petticoats, firearms, I'm ready to go!
Let’s see, tintypes, petticoats, firearms, I’m ready to go!

Jenny prepares to depart for California. She only packs a few things: Her dresses, petticoats, hats, gloves, canary and a teeny-tiny little pistol for self-defense.

It looks like Black’s luck has run out. The posse is closing in. Then he stumbles on the body of John Lawrence. Black takes the dead man’s hat, coat and identity papers. He leaves his own papers and clothing behind to throw the posse off the scent. The plan succeeds and Black is free to continue his life of crime under a new identity. He settles in a cabin outside the mining town of Strawberry Flats.

Always check to see if someone has kin before stealing their identity.
Always check to see if someone has kin before stealing their identity.

Jenny makes the arduous journey to California by ship and then by donkey. (And, yes, she brings her luggage, her petticoats, her canary and her teeny-tiny pistol.) Meanwhile, a letter announcing her arrival finds Black in Strawberry Flats. Realizing that Jenny could arrive any time, Black rushes back to his cabin. Sure enough, Jenny is there waiting for her uncle. Black locks the doors and shoves Jenny around, hoping to intimidate her into helping him continue his charade as her uncle. Jenny is terrified and almost hysterical but she refuses to give in.

Finally, Black takes her to Strawberry Flats and lets her loose in the saloon. No one is interested in what she has to say. Instead, she is harassed by the women and manhandled by the men. Black only comes to her aid when she breaks down and asks her “uncle” to protect her.

Oh brother...
Oh brother…

Jenny spends a miserable night sleeping in the barn but the next morning she sets to work making the cabin a little more civilized. Black is caught off-guard by Jenny’s refined ways and isn’t sure how to refuse her– or even if he wants to refuse her. Soon he finds himself eating off of tablecloths, washing his hands before meals, watching Jenny weave flowers through her hair, and, oh yeah, he’s the one sleeping in the barn…

The men of Strawberry Flats are also charmed by Jenny. They come a-courting complete with bouquets. Black grows jealous of the attention Jenny is giving them but isn’t sure what to do about it.

My word, that man has atomic sneezes!
My word, that man has atomic sneezes!

In spite of Jenny’s civilizing influence, Black continues his stagecoach robberies, it’s the only life he knows. While he is off on one of his raids, Jenny discovers his mask, complete with eye-holes (why couldn’t he just tie a bandanna around his nose like everyone else?) and realizes what his true profession is.

Will Jenny turn Black into the police? Will he repent of his wicked ways? And who will Jenny marry (if anyone)? All questions are answered in A Romance of the Redwoods.

Not the best print.
Not the best print.

I would like to talk about the look and feel of the film. Unfortunately, the only copies of this film available to the general public have atrocious print quality. It looks like a beautifully shot film (DeMille had some lovely cinematography at this point in his career) but I cannot be absolutely certain due to the fuzziness of the print. This is also a shame because it obscures the more delicate expressions of the actors. I appreciated the use of menacing shadows, particularly when Black first discovers Jenny in his cabin, and I liked how everyone seemed sufficiently grubby but were not many other details that were visible. So, I am forced to move on to the structure of the film.

I enjoyed the opening scenes of the movie. Both of the main characters are introduced and the attention of the film focuses back and forth as they make their life-altering decisions: He robs a stage. She loses her mother. She decides to live with her uncle. He finds the uncle’s body and borrows his identity, etc. This ping-pong structure tightly establishes the characters of both Jenny and Black and also neatly sets up the central conflict of the plot: Just what Jenny is going to do when she discovers that her “uncle” is a bandit and just what Black is going to do when he discovers he has a niece.

Bad Elliott! Bad, bad Elliott!
Bad Elliott! Bad, bad Elliott!

During this period of film-making, audiences were entranced with the Good Bad Man variations William S. Hart specialized in. Basically, Hart would play characters who start out as villains and then are softened by the love of a good woman and/or old time religion. In this film, DeMille and Elliott Dexter take that Good Bad Man character and crank the dial to eleven.

While Hart had on occasion threatened, kidnapped or intimidated his leading ladies, Black Brown is considerably more violent in this regard. Dexter’s character literally throws Pickford across the room and drags her around like a doll. He threatens her with a pistol (twice!) and a horsewhip. Then he tosses her into a crowd of primitive men who are a clear threat to her safety and watches the spectacle with amusement.

Have you never heard of Listerine, sir?
Have you never heard of Listerine, sir?

Even when the characters grow fond of one another, he still consistently invades her space and physically dominates her. This is all made worse by the fact that Black acknowledges Jenny’s petite figure and youth several times. (He refers to her as a “kid” and jokingly buys her a doll since it is about her size) A strapping six-footer, Elliott Dexter towers over most of the other performers.

Black’s brutish behavior is not limited to Jenny. He bullies his fellow bandits (smashing at hands if they get too close to his gold stash and thrashing one fellow unconscious) and burns a nosy dance hall girl on the hand with a cigarette. In fact, the stagecoach robberies are probably the least violent aspect of the character!

Dexter’s characterization, in fact, is almost too good. More on that later.

A difficult chore for Pickford.
A difficult chore for Pickford.

As for Mary Pickford… All I can say is that I have always had enormous respect for her as an actress but learning the background of this film makes her performance all the more astonishing. Pickford was terrified that her career was ruined and she had been forced to make concessions. However, she manages to turn in a thoroughly charming performance. Even though Elliott Dexter is able to physically dominate a scene, Pickford does not give one inch when it comes to projecting emotions. She is tiny but her scenes are hers, no doubt about it. Pickford is also awarded numerous close-ups, which further heighten her acting. (These close-ups were enhanced by a baby spotlight technique that Pickford had discovered by accident at her dressing table.)

The supporting cast is hit and miss. Raymond Hatton overacts atrociously as an enthusiastic young miner. I wanted to shout at the screen that we could definitely see him in the back.

Let's have none of that, Mr. Black Brown-- IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME.
Let’s have none of that, Mr. Black Brown– IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME.

Now it’s time for the really bad news. In spite of having many strengths, I can’t say that A Romance of the Redwoods was my cup of tea.

First, the film is actually a victim of Dexter’s convincing performance. He was just so good at playing a violent lout that I had a hard time accepting that Pickford’s naive and sensitive character would fall for him. I realize that the film was meant to be a “civilized woman tames savage man” tale but I wish that DeMille had not insisted on quite so much savagery. But telling DeMille to tone down anything would probably be an exercise in futility.

Meek Mary? Bah!
Meek Mary? Bah!

The next objection really has more to do with my tastes as a movie watcher. You see, I consider myself to be a Mary Pickford fan. As a result, I have seen a lot of her films and the titles that I like the best are the ones that feature Mary as a gutsy, take-charge heroine. Now I realize that Mary brandishes her wee pistol throughout the film but it is treated more as a running joke than an actual weapon. The film definitely falls into the Beauty and the Brute category of story. You know, the heroine taming the horrid man through her sheer girliness. Give me Mary Pickford, hell-raiser! I’ll take her over Girly Mary any day of the week! I have seen Mary take on alligators, shoot villains with pistols and shotguns, steal a judge’s gavel and chase down an armed gangster backed only by a band of kids. Like I said, personal taste.

Is happiness realistic?
Is happiness realistic?

I also feel that the ending is a little overly optimistic. (Obviously, a spoiler warning is issued.) Jenny manages to saved Black from the noose by faking pregnancy (oh Cecil, you rogue screenwriter, you!) and the pair wander off into the forest looking all dewy-eyed. But wait… Black had already lied once about reforming but he went back to his wicked ways to prevent Jenny from having to work. Who’s to say that he won’t do it again? I have a feeling that their union is going to be a long string of escapes and near misses as Black keeps tumbling back into banditry. After all, he isn’t much good at prospecting. But then… Maybe he could take a job as a marshal or sheriff, he is certainly tough enough… Anyway, I think the sequel would almost be more interesting than the original.

In the end, A Romance of the Redwoods is a good film in many ways but it has a few too many flaws for me to really love it. It’s worth seeing but is not one of my favorites.

Special Guest Blogger: Aurora of Once Upon a Screen

I’m aghast that Fritzi would ask me to rebut (is that a word?) one of her reviews on a silent film. Yet here I am. The film of choice is one I’d watched and posted a commentary on a while back, Cecil B. DeMille’s, A Romance of the Redwoods from 1917. I’d jumped into the deep end of the film pool when I wrote my original commentary on this film as I was quite the silent film novice, and, unfortunately, I can’t boast a lot of experience in silents in the year since. Ironically, much of what I’ve learned about silent film – the genre and era – is from reading Fritzi’s blog. Although, a few of my big screen experiences in the last year have included a few silent films so I’m on my way to broadening my silent horizons.

Another look at the central romance.
Another look at the central romance.

Anyway – I’ve read Fritzi’s commentary on A Romance of the Redwoods and can’t say I have a lot to offer in rebuttal. I enjoyed the film when I first saw it despite its flaws, which Fritzi mentions in detail. However, I wouldn’t say I loved it by any means. So, I’m compelled to contrast her commentary on only one major point – the relationship between the two main characters in the film, Jenny Lawrence, played by Mary Pickford and Black Brown played by Elliott Dexter. And, by the way, I’ll jump right into it without recanting the plot since I noted the details of the story in my original post and Fritzi does such a great job with the synopsis in her review.

Contrasting stars
Contrasting stars

The print I saw of A Romance of the Redwoods was not a good one, but it seems it’s as good a print as is available. Still, I found the film visually affecting for several reasons, the most obvious being the strong physical contrast between the film’s two stars.

While I agree with Fritzi on the point that the extent to which Black Brown is physically abusive of Jenny is extreme and disturbing, I assumed this behavior was somewhat accepted in films of the silent era, a time during which performances were necessarily theatrical. So with that in mind, I judged the oft-excessive physicality as necessary to emphasize characterization. In other words, there is absolutely no mistaking the fact that Black Brown is a bad man and seemingly unrepentant and unredeemable given his bullying and violence toward everyone, Jenny in particular. All of which is necessary to emphasize the change that occurs in the character later.

Pickford holds her own.
Pickford holds her own.

Now back to the contrast – on the one hand you have Mary Pickford (Jenny) who is slight, or actually teeny-tiny although she had a commanding presence on-screen evident even through the poor quality of the Redwoods print. In comparison, there’s Elliott Dexter, a colossus of a man who uses his size at every opportunity in all of their exchanges. I think that because many of the scenes between the two actors are quite violent, particularly before the romance blossoms, it makes for effective juxtaposition when Jenny stands her ground and gains power in the relationship later.

I must add that I find even the casting of Pickford and Dexter opposite each other in this story fascinating given silent films depended solely on visuals. They are not well matched at all. Unless you want to use that in the story and I think in that regard it works. The fact that the dynamic between the two characters ends on par, for all intents and purposes, is testament to Pickford’s power and how she was able to bring that forth even in a character that seems so physically overwhelmed by another.

A feisty Mary.
A feisty Mary.

Unlike Fritzi, I have no other Mary Pickford hell-raiser role to compare this Jenny Lawrence character to. As a result, I can see clearly (from my perspective) that a feistier Pickford would not have succeeded in a life stuck in a small cabin with the brute that is Black Brown. She’d been outta there before the credits rolled. Now, don’t get me wrong, I prefer women in film who are depicted as strong and able, I just think Jenny is strong and able here, appropriate for the character and hand she was dealt. Is the “innocent girl tames the big bad man” story in Redwoods unique? No. But it works – as well as other films that depicted similar plots.
As far as the ending goes, I have a different result than Fritzi in mind as the couple ventures forth through the redwoods from that dewy-eyed final scene. In my mind Black is fully reformed by the love of a powerful and astute woman. The way I see it, Fritzi’s alligator-fighting Mary Pickford wrangled another one after all – although she is aided in the taming of the bad man by the majestic redwoods. Nature has the power to tame, after all – as does woman.

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It’s me again! A big hand to Aurora for her super rebuttal!

There you have it, readers. Was Black Brown tamed? Just how powerful a character is Jenny? Can our couple be happy? It looks like you’re going to have to watch The Romance of the Redwoods to find out.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★

Where can I see it?

The film was released on DVD in the out-of-print Cecil B. DeMille Classics Collection. Alpha Video has also released it as a stand-alone disc, which goes for about $5 at most major online retailers. Neither of these versions are particularly good quality. How’s about a higher-quality release? Pretty please? (The George Eastman house has a 35mm print!)

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