Other than the significant role she played in Hollywood history, I know close to nothing of Mary Pickford’s work as an actress. This is why I wanted to take part in The Mary Pickford Blogathon hosted by Classic Movies. My attempt to venture wholeheartedly into the world of silent film. To this point I can say that, with few exceptions, I am only familiar with the silent comedies – the works of greats Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. To be a classic film fan and not know the work of Mary Pickford is simply shameful. She was, after all, the first true film legend. She reached unequaled popularity for her work in front of the camera, paved the way for women in the film industry and changed Hollywood history. All before noon, it seems. A force to be reckoned with.
I first submitted a comment to KC, the host of this great event,naming my film choice as Star Night at the Coconut Grove. When I watched that film, however, it became clear that it is not a film, per say, but an all-star review in which Ms. Pickford plays a small part in the night’s celebration. I loved it, but it didn’t quite seem a good choice for this event. Back to square one. I then took another look at her filmography and settled on another film because I liked the title. As good a reason as any I thought, for one who is completely clueless on this subject. And I must admit, I am more than a bit out of my league and intimidated here. But venture on. I chose A Romance of the Redwoods, aka La bête enchaînée. In this case, it was the aka, the film’s French title, which translates to “The beast chained” that intrigued me. Or, better said, the contrast between the English and French titles intrigued me. One, clearly sends a message of romance, the other has horror implications (at least to me). Well, turns out the French title is a misnomer, by my estimation. A Romance of the Redwoods is a romance through and through. I am not a fan of romance for romance sake. So we’ll see how this goes.
This film, directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille in 1917 has an interesting plot. I must WARN that spoilers lay ahead. A young girl, Jenny Lawrence played by Mary Pickford, is forced to go west to live with her uncle after her mother’s passing. This uncle, her last surviving relative, had gone west, as did millions of others during the California God Rush.
By the time Jenny arrives, her uncle is dead, killed by Indians (as referred to in the film) and his identity assumed by an outlaw, “Black” Brown (played by Elliot Dexter). As an aside, this character’s name, is quite interesting. We’ve seen through the years how the “bad” guys are dressed in black and the “good” guys in white in so many classic films, westerns in particular. In this case it’s his name, since he wears the uncle’s wardrobe throughout the film. “Black” Brown. Effective.
The beginning of the film introduces the characters and sets up the plot by way of parallel story lines. We see of how “Black” Brown gets to impersonate the uncle and how Jenny arrives in the mining town of Strawberry Flats, where her uncle was living. Brown is now successfully impersonating her dead uncle in that town, although he continues to rob stagecoaches when the opportunity arises. Jenny’s arrival puts a wrench in his long-term plan and puts her in danger when she is forced to move in with him – she has no other choice, as circumstances show.
Soon Jenny begins to do household chores, the cooking and cleaning and “Black” begins to warm up to her and she him. Their affection for each other grows. One day, inevitably, she discovers the facemask he uses during his robberies. By this point the two are in love, although neither has admitted it, and “Black” is ashamed that Jenny has found out about the dark part of his life.
Due to her love for him, Jenny never tells the authorities about “Black” Brown’s crimes. He promises her he’ll change his ways and eventually does. But, the authorities find out anyway and, in the “angry crowd” way of some early classics, they come to the cabin where the couple has been living to render his punishment. As the noose is placed over his head, panic sets in and Jenny is determined to save him so she comes up with a startling idea, a great twist in the film.
I won’t divulge what the idea is but it is brilliant. I was quite shocked by it given this is such an early film. But as a result, “Black” Brown is saved and the two rush off among the redwoods. It’s a Hollywood ending but still the film ends with a lovely portrait of love. She holds him. He gently kisses her hand. Fade to black. (Um…I may be a romantic after all.)
I watched A Romance of the Redwoods online, something I rarely, if ever, do. I was able to access the full film through several sites with the quality – not too good – comparable in each. This saddens me although I’m not aware if a good copy of the film exists. All in all, however, it’s a film worthy of attention. Some of the scenes, those among the Redwoods in particular, stand up well. The majestic trees are a wonderful setting.
And, since I mention majesty, I have to add how shocked I was to see how tiny Mary Pickford was, how small she looks in the film. She pales in stature in all the scenes opposite Elliot Dexter who looks quite tall, an imposing figure. He often bends down quite dramatically to speak to her. But – man, oh man, does she ever have presence! This is why she was a star, beloved by so many. I knew the fact of that prior to watching this film but didn’t know the why. I know it now. Her onscreen energy is palpable, coming through clearly even on a poor copy of a very old film. Because of that I completely bought this tiny woman demanding of a seasoned criminal in Redwoods. It takes some getting used to acting in silent films when one is not used to seeing them. But I bought it all in this film and there’s no greater praise.
Another startling effect this film had on me was its lack of sound. Or so it was in the manner in which I watched it. Yes, I knew A Romance of the Redwoods is a silent film, but I’d never watched a silent film without music before. The complete silence was deafening at first. Somewhat of an uncomfortable feeling for one whom usually blasts film in surround sound. But, as the story moved along, I was caught up in the film and the silence no longer mattered. I enjoyed it quite a bit, actually. But, I will say that the total silence lead me to search for information about the film’s score – whether it had one and/or what happened to it. I would think that a DeMille/Pickford vehicle warranted a score – the biggest director and star at the time. I searched but found no information.
I know about how film scores worked during the silent era, in general terms. How many films had specific scores that were sent to different venues to be played along with the film’s showing. However, I believe oftentimes the choice of music was left up to the venue. I can’t say what the case was with Redwoods but I am now very curious to find out.
After I watched A Romance of the Redwoods, as I searched for answers as stated above, I ran across one of Pickford’s short films, The New York Hat from 1912 directed by the great, D. W. Griffith. Being from New York, the title caught my eye so I decided to watch it. In comparison to Redwoods, I was quite surprised by how great this one looks. As I subsequently learned, this one was a major vehicle for Mary Pickford. But it was made five years before so I expected it to look a lot worse. It’s not the case. This one’s beautifully preserved. I really enjoyed it. Lovely visuals. Universal story. A quality film on all fronts.
There is one more thing about The New York Hat I must mention. Aside from the look of the film, its quality, I was also quite happily surprised to see a very young Lionel Barrymore. I’ve seen many Barrymore films through the years but none during the silent era when he was so young. My grandmother loved Lionel Barrymore and even named one of my uncles after him. To me he’s always been Henry F. Potter, because of my love for Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But man, is he dashing in The New York Hat! Hot diggity!
There ends my foray into the world of silents and Mary Pickford. For now. I imagine I am one of the few who are participating in the Mary Pickford blogathon who has (pretty much) zero knowledge of silent films and very little knowledge of the great star. If any of you reading this are in a similar film situation, I highly recommend you take a look at some of her films. I saw only two to post this entry but neither was a waste of time and I look forward to watching many more. Soon, I will no longer be silent on the silents.
A thank you to KC of Classic Movies for hosting this great event and for giving me an excuse to venture into the career of Mary Pickford. Take a look at what I am sure are fantastic posts by experienced bloggers, lovers of Mary Pickford as superstar, legend and Hollywood powerhouse – here.
I’m so glad you used this blogathon as an opportunity to try something new. You actually aren’t the only contributor who hasn’t seen one of Mary’s films before this event! A lot of other people new to Pickford thought of contributing, but felt intimidated, so it is fantastic that you did. I love your observations about Mary. About the same thing happened to me the first time I saw one of her movies. Her charisma has timeless appeal. It astounds me that she can still reach people watching her films a hundred years after they have been made. Thanks for a fascinating post. I’ve got to see this movie now.
Here’s a link to a lot more Pickford movies online if you are interested: http://archive.org/search.php?query=Mary%20PIckford
Thanks, KC. I can’t attest to whether I offered anything of value in my commentary, but I’m glad I did this for the reasons I stated. And it is astounding she reamins a force in films made so long ago.
“All before noon, it seems.” Great line – I love a person who does it all before lunch! 🙂
Thanks for posting this review. I don’t know much about Mary Pickford and your review had a lot of info for a novice like me.
We can learn together if we both venture forth to take a look at her films. It seems, by some of the comments I’ve seen, that my chosen film is not considered one of her best or most popular. As I explained, I was clueless when approaching this entry but I’m glad I posted on an obscure choice. Well worth it, it turned out. I’m glad you liked it.
Pffft! So what if it’s not her best or most popular movie. Personally, I prefer to read about more obscure films, and you’ve made me really want to see “Redwoods”.
I love her in The New York Hat, but it was released in 1912 (possibly re-released in 1914 to capitalize on her success in features) and directed by the great D.W. Griffith,
Thank you so much for that. Unspeakable error – it’s been corrected. I searched so much for so long I guess I lost it a bit. But, I did enjoy the film a lot.
Aurora, you certainly went through hoops for this Blogathon but the end result was well worth it! First off, this is the first time I recall seeing the Romance of the Redwoods poster but it’s visually stunning. I enjoyed the film too but it left me a bit cold and it was actually a bit creepy as in spooky. I’m sure that sounds crazy.
You’ve done a great review of it and I do hope you’ll venture into more of Mary’s silent work, especially her comedies.
An enjoyable contribution to the Blogathon.
Thanks for your blog Aurora, it’s not everyday we get blogs on Mary Pickford and especially her more obscure films that seems last on the long list of Pickford’s people watch. It’s interesting that was your first Pickford film to review. Romance of the Redwoods definitely needs to be restored and cleaned up. I too was only able to see it online and you can barely make out the details of the faces. I think no matter what Pickford film a person starts off with, it seems like everybody figures out pretty fast why she was very popular.
Thanks for your comments! It did turn out to be an obscure film but I was too clueless to know. In retrospect I’m glad I saw it. You’re right that the film needs some restoration but it’s easy to see that it must have been really something given the locations. And Miss Pickford’s energy still jumps off the screen.
Thanks, Page. As always.
I’m glad, in the end, I stumbled on a movie that isn’t very popular, it seems. Sets a nice base for me to move forward into Pickford world.
I also have not seen as many silent non-comedies, but I am always looking to expand my viewing. Thanks for your honesty view and realistic thoughts. This sounds like a good movie that I would enjoy watching. I am not a fan of watching movies online, but this day and age it seems like the best way to see silent movies. (They are just to expensive to buy) Thanks again, I really enjoyed your post!
I agree. For someone not used to watching films online, it is a bit difficult. But since I’m determined to watch more silent films when I can, I’ll do that now and again instead of buying them, which can be expensive.
I’m hoping some films are in better condition than REDWOODS is because it makes me sad, plus makes it more difficult to view them. But it was definitely worth it for me.
Thanks for your comments and for visiting.
I’m glad you gave Pickford a try during the blogathon, and like many people seeing one of her films for the first time, you were pleasantly surprised. I’ve always had an interest in silent film, but not Pickford — until I saw The New York Hat in college back in the seventies. But it wasn’t until the past 7 or 8 years that I’ve seen many of her feature films.
I have a DVD which appears to be a copy of a VHS tape (the disc is a bootleg from ebay, I think) of Romance of the Redwoods, and it isn’t a whole lot better than the still images from your post. The Pickford films in the best condition are the ones she made with her own production company after she left Paramount in 1919. Although she later bought back the rights to many of her earlier films, it is the later ones that have been preserved and restored and are under the control of the Mary Pickford Foundation. Many, if not all of those titles have been restored and released on DVD (and some blu-ray to come, later this year) by Milestone Films. The MPF appears to have just a single 16mm print of Romance of the Redwoods, and I’ve never seen an “official” release of it anywhere.
My personal favorites, however, are her earliest films with Biograph, directed by D. W. Griffith, in which Pickford plays an incredible variety of roles, mostly young women and mothers. She was frequently cast, believe it or not, in “ethnic” roles because of her high cheekbones and brown eyes. These are the films where you can see her gradually develop the subtle art of acting for the camera — not overtnight, but between 1909 and 1912. While a number of these are available on DVD in decent condition, most are either not in very good condition, or are simply held in vaults or on paper prints, unavailable to the average viewer. Hopefully with greater interest in her work, this will eventually change.
Excellent post, by the way. Very perceptive for someone who claims to be a novice when it comes to silent film and Mary Pickford!
Thanks, Gene, I appreciate that. I intend to watch as many of her films, along with other silents, as time allows. It is an acquired viewing style for most not used to silents but I really enjoyed REDWOODS despite its condition.
I always love your comments because they teach me so much.
Thanks for stopping by.
I love Lionel Barrymore, he is one of my favorite actors. He does such a good job as the fictional Doctor Gillespie working with Lew Ayres in the Dr. Kildare series. I am really seeking more and more of his films out and would love to see the film you mentioned here.
My favorite Barrymore movie will always be the 1939, On Borrowed Time. It is a film with loads of character actors. It deals with the touchy subject of death in both a serious and funny way. Hope you have seen it.