Thrilling and unforgettable -- a beautiful film9/10
We take home video and DVDs for granted now, but for film buffs who grew up prior to the video era some silent movies weren't so easy to track down. They weren't frequently aired on TV, and when they were shown, unfortunately, they were sometimes treated as laughable relics with "funny" interpolations. Thankfully, vendors such as Blackhawk offered good prints of many vintage titles in 8mm and 16mm formats, and museums in some cities would schedule occasional screenings. Consequently, as a kid I was able to catch memorable performances by Lon Chaney, Valentino, William S. Hart, and most of the great comedians. Mary Pickford, however, remained elusive. Aside from a few early Biograph dramas most of her movies were locked away in vaults, and shown only rarely. Awareness of her phenomenal fame lingered, but the movies that brought it about were difficult to see. I had only a vague sense of Mary's screen persona, and imagined she must have been an earlier incarnation of Shirley Temple, a goody two-shoes with blonde ringlets whose vehicles were mostly tear-jerkers. Eventually, of course, the situation changed, restoration efforts commenced, and Mary's films began to emerge from hibernation. In the 1980s Sparrows became one of the first Pickford classics to become available on good quality VHS, and once I saw it I understood Mary's appeal. Seeing it again recently on the big screen, at a Pickford festival at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, only confirmed my first impression that this is one of the most beautifully produced silent dramas anyone ever made. It isn't flawless, and it isn't for all tastes, but it's powerful, moving and unforgettable, and the leading lady gives one of her definitive performances.
Sparrows is essentially a thriller, at times close to a horror story. Our setting is a bleak "baby farm" in a swampy bayou that looks like a landscape by Hieronymus Bosch. Mary plays an adolescent known as Mama Molly who acts as a protective maternal figure to a gang of scruffy, starving kids. These are children who have been sent away by families too poor to care for them, well-intentioned folk who naively believe their children will be raised properly. The farm is run by the most evil family you'll find in the movies: old Mr. Grimes, his wife, and her son, played by top character actors Gustav von Seyffertitz, Charlotte Mineau, and Spec O'Donnell. Both Mineau and O'Donnell had backgrounds in comedy, but their performances here are deadly earnest and without a trace of humor. Good as they are, however, they're topped by Von Seyffertitz in what he must have recognized as the role of a lifetime. Grimes is a Dickensian monster: a greedy, spindly, limping man with dead eyes and no conscience. His prison-like farm is surrounded by quicksand and alligator-infested swampland. The children in his keeping are treated as his property, and he'd sell any one of them down the river for a few coins. At the screening I attended a child in the audience responded to Grimes' evil-doing by loudly announcing: "He's baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!" We laughed, but the kid only said aloud what we were all thinking.
Mama Molly occupies the story's moral center, but she's no goody two-shoes. She's been toughened by adversity, and she's fiercely protective of the youngsters in her charge. When Grimes' horrible step-son bullies them she is quick to stand up to him. And when Grimes threatens to punish the children by withholding their dinner, all because of a minor infraction on Molly's part, she volunteers to go without food for two days rather than see the children suffer. She is also the primary caregiver for a sickly baby who, despite her best efforts, dies one night in the loft of the old barn. In a scene some viewers may find a bit sticky, an image of Jesus appears at the moment of the baby's death and carries him away to the after-life. Sentimental? Sure, but it's performed with absolute conviction, and the close-up of Mary that concludes this scene is deeply affecting. (At the recent museum screening I attended we were shown several rejected takes of an earlier version of this scene in which the baby's spirit is carried away to the heavens by a phosphorescent angel. The out-takes were fascinating, but I feel the scene works better as it stands.)
Much of the credit for this film rightfully belongs to the scenic designer, Harry Oliver, and to the crack team of cinematographers, Charles Rosher, Hal Mohr, and Karl Struss. All of these artists have numerous impressive credits to their names, but their collaboration in this case produced something extraordinary, a movie that is exceptionally beautiful in its design as well as beautifully photographed and edited. It's said that the production was influenced by the work of such German auteurs as Murnau and Lang, and indeed the film has a distinctly "Germanic" atmosphere, but with greater emphasis on audience empathy; that is, the filmmakers really want you to feel for these kids. Our emotions peak during the climactic escape, when Molly leads the children through the swamp to freedom. Pursued by Grimes' dogs they dash across rocks, narrowly missing the quicksand, then climb trees and crawl over branches hovering just above alligators that swarm and snap. It's an amazingly suspenseful sequence.
Unfortunately, this is not the film's finale. The escape is followed by a gratuitous action sequence involving kidnappers attempting to flee the police by boat, and when this concludes we still have a couple more scenes meant to tie-up the plot's loose strands. If the last twenty minutes or so had been reduced to a brisk seven or eight, the movie would have been just about perfect. Nothing can top the escape through the swamp, and it's too bad they made the attempt. Even so, in my opinion Sparrows stands as one of the most memorable works of the silent cinema, and Mary Pickford's crowning achievement.