Ambrose Grimes (Spec O'Donnell) threatens to throw one of the children into the swamp while Mother Mollie (Mary Pickford) reacts.
(© 1999 Mary Pickford Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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In discussions of the great silent-era stars and filmmakers, names such as D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton attract much of the attention. However, many other stars who were hugely popular in the '10s and '20s have been neglected and deemed largely unworthy of critical commentary. Unfortunately, Mary Pickford is one of these stars. Today, her movies are widely considered as unsophisticated melodramas. Even Mary Pickford herself doubted the importance of her movies. After she retired in 1933, she began buying all existing prints of her movies with the intention of having them all torched. However, before she died in 1979, she fortunately changed her mind.

Now, Milestone Film & Video, in cooperation with the Mary Pickford Foundation and Image Entertainment, is releasing several of her movies on DVD. Sparrows (1926) is the first of these movies, and others to follow include Stella Maris (1918), Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley (1918), Daddy Long Legs (1919), Tess of the Storm Country (1922), and My Best Girl (1927).

Watching Sparrows is a revelation. It's an exquisitely crafted melodrama, one of the best of the entire silent era. Words such as "hoary" aren't entirely misplaced when describing Sparrows and its relatively simple good-versus-bad storytelling, but such arguments miss the point. Sparrows is a melodrama of Dickensian proportions, created with notoriously menacing mise-en-scene. The movie's first camera shot is a stunner. It gives us a view looking down on the Grimes farm. The farm is practically surrounded by mud and stagnant swamp water. The farm house, barn, and outbuildings appear on the verge of either collapse or inundation. It seems beyond comprehension that anyone could live in such conditions. But people do indeed live here. Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), in fact, runs a baby farm where unwanted children are sent by families that can't care for them. Mr. Grimes pockets what little money the families provide while forcing the children to live under deplorable conditions.

Mother Mollie (Mary Pickford) and the orphans in Sparrows.
[click photo for larger version]

The movie's set was created by one of the great unheralded art directors of the silent era, Harry Oliver. The Grimes farmstead is a masterpiece of design. The buildings are made of rough-hewn planks and worm-eaten wood. Spanish moss hangs on all the surrounding trees. The ground is all dirt and mud with no grass anywhere in sight, except for the weedy muck at the swamp's fringe. To top it off, a huge pit bull dog stands guard over the children. This environment is captured on film by the work of three separate cinematographers: Charles Rosher, Hal Mohr, and Karl Struss. This triumvirate represented some of the finest photographers of the silent era. Struss and Rosher shared the first Best Cinematography Academy Award for their work on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927). Later, Mohr would win Oscars for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and Phantom of the Opera (1943). (And Rosher won a second Oscar for The Yearling in 1946.) This was one of the most talented groups of cinematographers to ever work together. In Sparrows, they help to enforce the farmstead's oppressive atmosphere. In the barn, where the children live, the camera emphasizes the ceilings and walls and thus reinforces the constraints upon the children.

The movie's set-piece masterstroke comes when the oldest of the children, Mother Mollie (Pickford), leads the children on an escape. After overhearing Grimes talk about tossing one of the children in the swamp, she decides it's time they make a break for it. So they throw crates and planks out of the barn's back door and into the thick muck that surrounds the farmstead. With the crates and planks slowly sinking beneath their feet, they gingerly run for safety. But this is only their first step. Now they must contend with alligators and quicksand. Mollie leads them as they clamber across tree branches and wade through swamp water--while Grimes discovers they've escaped and sets loose the pit bull on their trail. The swamp scene is so harrowing that film historian William Everson included an entry on Sparrows in his seminal work Classics of the Horror Film.

DVD cover artwork for Sparrows.
[click photo for larger version]

As the children move past the base of a tree, the camera shows us alligators snapping at them, seamlessly incorporating the children and the alligators into the same shot. This camera shot has long generated arguments about how it was actually created. Mary Pickford herself added to the confusion by telling a story about her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, visiting the set and becoming enraged when he saw the dangerous conditions that his wife was working under. However, film historian Booton Henderson helped dispel the mystery when he coaxed the secret out of Hal Mohr: the alligators were filmed first with the top half of the film masked out. An animal handler tossed meat to the alligators so they would snap and thrash. Two days later, Pickford and the children were filmed as she led the children past the same tree where the alligators were filmed. The director (William Beaudine) shouted instructions to her about where to stumble, increasing the illusion of danger.

With such excellent set design and cinematography, the presence of Mary Pickford almost seems secondary. This was her last role as a child. Pickford plays a character supposedly sixteen years old. While actually 32 at the time, Mary is completely convincing as a teenager. She cares for the younger orphans like a mother. In a horribly heart-wrenching scene, she cares for a seriously ill infant in a scene guaranteed to extract tears from mothers everywhere. Pickford's role in Sparrows served as a transition to the adult roles that soon followed. But audiences didn't really accept Mary as an adult. Or rather, whatever was unique about Mary didn't make the transition when she assumed adult roles. She won an Academy Award for her performance in Coquette in 1929; but audiences weren't impressed. In 1933, Mary retired from filmmaking.

Sparrows stands as arguably her greatest achievement. It's an amazing film that all lovers of silent cinema should be familiar with. This new DVD from Milestone Film & Video and Image Entertainment also contains two Mary Pickford shorts--"Wilful Peggy" (1912) and "The Mender of Nets" (1910), both directed by D.W. Griffith for the Biograph Company, where Pickford worked for as little as $40 a week. By 1916, she was making $10,000 a week (plus a $300,000 signing bonus) at Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Company. For people who think Mary only played children characters throughout her career, look no further than these two films. In "Wilfil Peggy," for example, she plays a vixen who runs off ("In the spirit of deviltry," the title cards tell us) on her wedding night with another man. It seems she prefers the local bar over the uppercrust wedding reception offered by her well-to-do husband.

The DVD contains no other extras than the two shorts, but the video transfer for Sparrows was culled from an amazingly well-preserved 35mm print. In addition, Gaylord Carter provides an effective score on organ.


Sparrows is available on DVD from Milestone Film & Video and Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.95.