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.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.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.
Although parts of this story stretch credibility a little (this is DeMille, after all), the strength of the director and his long-time collaborator screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson in storytelling is evident. As was by now customary with his pictures, he economically introduces each character with a title giving their name followed by a brief shot which tells us everything we need to know. For DeMille this era was the peak of his visual storytelling abilities. One technique he uses is a quick shot of something happening out of a character's sight, yet which it is implied they can hear. For example, Elliot Dexter puts his ear to the ground, we cut to a close-up of horses' hooves, and we understand. It is not always so effective for example the scene where Mary Pickford is startled by a wolf howling in the forest. From the way the sequence is edited it is not clear whether she is hearing the wolf or seeing it as well, even though we assume the former because it makes more sense.
One thing that sets Romance of the Redwoods apart from DeMille's previous effort, the spectacular Joan the Woman, is the frequent use of close-ups and multiple angles. This reflects changes going on in the cinematic form around the time, as more freedom was given to camera placement, and the idea of placing the audience inside the action gained currency. In the case of this picture, it of course enhances the ability to tell stories with images, but it also adds emotional and psychological weight to the scenes that need it. DeMille uses the soon-to-be standard trick of keeping the camera back for the purely expository stuff, then moving in close when a dialogue between two characters enters a deeper, more emotional level. It says a lot for his cinematic method that he manages to sustain a western with very little action, mostly through an air of menace, which inevitably gives way to romance.
This was Mary Pickford's first film with DeMille, and you can see she benefits from the time and space he allows his performers to act. Pickford was far more interesting before she began playing children, and here she is convincing as a youngster on the cusp of adulthood. Her most memorable moment in the film must surely be when she discovers Dexter's bandit mask. Horrified at first, she slowly lifts the rag to her own face the scene is like a distant ancestor of Lorraine Bracco being given the gun to hide in Goodfellas. Elliot Dexter is adequate as the male lead, even if he does look more like a Dickensian villain than anything out of a western.
For all its merits, Romance of the Redwoods is a worthy yet somewhat bland entry in the DeMille canon. It is full of nice touches but lacks a real punch. What's more, the premise of the innocent easterner heading west was growing a little tired. It would be a few years yet before pioneer westerns The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse would arrive to revitalise the genre.
- Aug 31, 2008