Sunday, 9 June 2013

Gothic Pickford… Sparrows (1926)

" of the eight wonders of the World..." Ernst Lubitsch

It’s no surprise that, Sparrows’ obsessive art director, Harry Oliver, also worked on films with FW Murnau and Frank Borzage. The controlled claustrophobia of these directors marked a high-point for that period of cinema when the means of expression was perfectly controlled on the silent stage. The surprise though was in seeing a Mary Pickford film capturing the same atmosphere… before Sunrise, City Girl and The River.

Apparently Mary, along with husband Douglas Fairbanks, had visited Germany in 1925 and been so impressed with the working methods at UFA that they wanted to try them back home... They had plenty of like-minded support, not just Harry Oliver, who if anything influenced expressionism and not the other way round, but also cameramen Charles Rosher and Karl Struss who both went on to win Oscars for their cinematography on Sunrise.

This model shot captures the set atmosphere
The result was a film that kept reminding me not just of the great expressionist silents but also Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter - even if the “feel” is more through shared influences than anything else.

A tense modern adventure, Sparrows is easily one of the most striking Hollywood silent films I’ve seen and certainly up there with Mary Pickford’s best.

Before I’d ever really watched Mary Pickford, the idea of a 30-something actress playing a child wasn’t an obvious winner but here, as  in her other “child” roles, you soon forget how old she’s supposed to be – she’s just Mary or in this case  Molly a young woman of unspecific vintage.

The opening of Sparrows is so smart you know you’re onto something very quickly… a group of children are seen flying a kite and it’s only after the camera closes in that you realise this is not a bit of fun but a desperate attempt to send a message for help. But the kite is shown snagged in a tree and it’s clear that theirs is a helpless situation: held against their will as worker slaves in a “baby farm”, with no chance of escape…surrounded by deadly sinking sand and under the watchful eye of some of the wickedest captors in cinematic history.

In fact, this is a very un-child-like story, Mr Grimes (the superb Gustav von Seyffertitz) is not just cruel he’s psychotic: these children are mere animals to him and he cares only about their worth as slaves. Could a man be reduced to such callous indifference? We surely know that he could…and he's unrelentingly evil.

Mr Grimes points the finger...
His character is revealed in similar fashion to the kite… he’s seen opening letters from hard-up parents to the children under his care. There’s a moments uncertainty as he looks at a doll sent for one of the children, he glances at the toy then silently crushes its head before dropping it into the swamp and watching the sand pull it under just as it would suck down any child that would attempt escape.

One of the letters had mentioned how the parent was glad as at least their child wasn’t being exploited at a “baby farm”, but that is exactly what is happening… and things are not good at all.

Molly uses her head
The children live in total fear of Grimes, his oddly compliant wife (Charlotte Mineau) and their craven son Ambrose (Spec O'Donnell) – constantly out-witted by Pickford’s Molly, his “PA-MA-PA!” cry would be humorous were it not for the lives at stake.

Molly leads the gang of “babies” which includes a boy with a crutch, a stammerer called “Splutters” and the kind of kids who were missed out by the draft for Fagin’s little helpers or The Wild Boys… There is also a very young one who is severely ill.

This child passes away in Molly’s arms as she dreams a vision of Christ come to rescue him. This sequence was controversial at a time when representing Christ with an actor was frowned upon (see the “white light” in Ben Hur) but represents Pickford strength of religious feeling.

Famously the sheep had to face a sheer drop to keep them in shot...
Molly keeps on promising her sparrows that God will save them and, whilst there are dissenting voices – “ah, hop-turtles!” says the most cynical child – what else have these unfortunates got?

Things step up a gear as Grimes is involved in hiding the kidnapped baby daughter of millionaire Dennis Wayne (Roy Stewart), but whilst they wait for the ransom the heat gets too great and Grimes resolves to drop the baby in the swamp.

By this time Molly has become attached to the child and, with nowhere else to turn, she leads the children on an audacious escape through the deadly swamp.  This is the highlight of the movie and very well put together especially the scenes when the children are seemingly clambering on fragile branches directly over a seething mass of alligators (a sequence of clever double exposures timed to the second so that the ‘gators react to the actors and vice versa).

Pickford and friends
No further spoilers… in the unlikely event you haven’t seen the film. Once again I watched this with my teenage daughter and we were seriously enthralled… a family film that actually does stand up as genuine – at-face-value - entertainment almost 90 years after release.

Sparrows was nominally directed by William Beaudine, Producer Pickford put him under such pressure that he fell ill and could not complete with the un-credited Tom McNamara finishing off the story, no doubt with Mary’s help.

Special mention must go to the children in the movie who worked exceptionally hard. Mary Louise Miller plays Doris Wayne (the baby) and she seems almost permanently tied to Molly’s back… great physical acting from Pickford and, indeed, from the younger Mary. There’s a short documentary on the Milestone BluRay which tells Miller’s story with help from her daughter.

The other members of the gang all perform admirably: Billy Butts,  Monty O'Grady as Splutters, Jack Lavine, Billy 'Red' Jones Muriel McCormac, Florence Rogan, Mary McLain, Sylvia Bernard, Seesel Ann Johnson and Camille Johnson…

Mary and the Sparrows publicity shot
Mary obviously had a special affinity with children following the enforced parent-hood of her own youth*. It’s likely she pulled these remarkable performances from these infants she could identify with so well… not for the first time, director as well as producer.

Her own performance is as naturalistically nuanced and controlled as you’d expect. Pickford was surely one of the most universally sympathetic actors of all time – her characters were flawed and yet struck through with honest tenacity and an unquenchable belief in natural justice. People would leave their jarred existence outside the cinema and enter into the dark to commune for a brief time with her resonating positivity.

I watched the excellent quality and superb value, Milestone Blu-ray which comes with a spritely new score from Jeffrey Silverman as well as enthusiastic commentary from film historians, Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta.

Now I really must see My Best Girl… Mary acting her age.

*For a good biography on Mary I’d recommend Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield – well written and thoroughly-researched! 

Sparrows lobby card


  1. I was lucky enough to see this at the AFI-Silver last month -- and meet Christel Schmidt, author of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies to boot. Great movies, good times.

    1. Must be great on the big screen - what a remarkable talent she was, especially given her start in life. And, I'm going to have to add the Schmidt book to the list!

      Thanks Paul