US (1926) Dirs. William Beaudine & Tom McNamara
It’s long overdue but I’ve finally broken my Mary Pickford cherry. The First Lady Of US Cinema’s vast catalogue of films, mostly shorts, either no longer exist or are sadly unavailable here in Old Blighty but thanks to a free film app I found on my new Smart TV, I was able to watch one of Pickford’s most famous features.
Set on a hog farm deep in the marshlands run, Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), a spindly and surly individual is also running a baby farm. Most of the kids are orphans who he puts to work and forces to live in poverty. The eldest of this junior brood is feisty teen Molly (Pickford), essentially the designated mother figure to the kids, including a newborn baby, to the point she refers to them as her children.
One night Grimes takes in baby Doris (Mary Louise Miller), kidnapped by criminal Joe Bailey (Lloyd Whitlock) to hold until her wealthy father Dennis Wayne (Roy Stewart) pays the ransom. But Grimes panics when he sees the kidnap story in the newspaper and plans to kill Doris but Molly refuses to hand the baby over to him. That night Molly and the kids mount a desperate escape from the farm.
Adapted from a story by Winifred Dunn, Sparrows is a rather dark tale and something of a precursor to the southern gothic drama of the 50’s. Whilst the location of the farm isn’t disclosed, the dreaded swamp that surrounds it and the jungle like forest complete with alligators on the other side, certainly suggests the Everglades or somewhere within the Deep South.
Being a silent film means no accents can be heard although the intertitles are full of deliberate misspellings to denote the southern dialect, along with the yokel attire of the cast. There is a strong religious theme running present, also a prevalent fixture of the south, not in a didactic way but in how Molly is able to keep the kids’ spirits up by reading Bible tales and convincing that praying will end their suffering.
Not that it works and in typical childish fashion, the disappointment from the youngsters whenever a plan to get help fails is down to God being mean. If an adult spoke in the way the children did you know they would be uproar over such blasphemy but as they say, out of the mouths of babes…
Speaking of which we have to address the star herself, Mary Pickford. In 1926 she was Hollywood’s most powerful woman and already seventeen years into her film career. Because of her small stature, youthful looks and famed curly hair, Pickford largely played roles younger than her real age but by this point, at 34 years-old, close-ups would reveal this was no teen girl.
Audiences back then didn’t care, and in fact wanted Pickford to stay forever young, ultimately harming her career when she tried to play adult roles. As detrimental as this sounds, Pickford’s performance is convincing enough to make us forget her age. It’s not just her interaction with the other kids but her own instinctive understanding of the essence of childish behaviour and the nuanced natural touches that are so believable.
The film is a mixture of levity as Molly and the kids try to remain positive whilst battling with Grimes’s obnoxious son Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell), and grim social drama with the poor treatment they receive from Grimes and his wife (Charlotte Mineau). The idea of the farm is for grimes to be paid a stipend by parents who can’t give their time for their kids which he pockets and lets them suffer.
It doesn’t take much to sympathise with the kids but the misery is laid on thick anyway to ensure we are solidly behind them. One of them, Splutters (Monty O’Grady) – because he has a stutter – is sold early on to a famer buying a hog, although he is valued at half that of the pig. Charming.
A more tragic case is the baby whose departure is handled in one of the two major set pieces of the film, involving a special effects scene in which Jesus appears before Molly in the barn. But this infant is effectively replaced by Doris, given to Molly to look after until Grimes wants to throw her in the swamp to deflect any police investigation into his dealings.
The swamp is actually a clever plot device taking on many forms of oppression and danger, essentially the secondary antagonist of the story. If the kids misbehave they’re thrown in the swamp; if Grimes needs to get rid of something, in the swamp it goes; what stops the kids from escaping the farm? The swamp. Obviously the last one is a little spurious since (spoiler) they do escape but the overall threat of the swamp is effective.
Which brings us to the second set piece, the escape through the marshlands. A well-constructed and briskly paced mini-adventure, it is a combination of impressive physical dexterity from Pickford and the young actors and clever camerawork and tight editing to create a palpable sense of tension and danger. The crocodiles were a combination of real footage and puppets but again the shot composition disguises this well.
Pickford and director William Beaudine reportedly fell out over this scene when Pickford demanded a doll to play Doris (who was strapped to Molly’s back) but Beaudine said using Miller would be more realistic. As we see Pickford got her way and not only was Beaudine replaced as director by an uncredited Tom McNamara, but was also blacklisted from United Artists, the company Pickford formed with husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W Griffiths.
I don’t know if watching Sparrows as my first Pickford film means I have already witnessed her crowning glory, but it is a title that is regularly cited as THE one to watch, and I am glad to have done so. A wonderful silent drama.