October 12, 2017
Sparrows – US, 1926
I’m on record as saying that Mary Pickford could do no wrong, and there is nothing in her 1926 film Sparrows that would dispel me of this notion. Nine years removed from her sweet performance as a neglected child in The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford, 34 when Sparrows was released, still retained her youthful appearance and all of the charms and syrupiness that came with it. By then, she was no stranger to the type of role she plays in Sparrows, but, in this case, familiarity breeds a feeling of comfortable pleasure. You know what you are getting with her, and it still amazes.
In Sparrows, Pickford plays a young orphan named Molly, known more affectionately to the abandoned or lost children she takes care of as “Mama” Molly. The orphans all live and work on a farm owned by Mr. and Mrs. Grimes, and as you can tell by their moniker, they are hardly the type of people that should be raising children. In fact, early on in the film the swampland that they live on is introduced as the “Devil’s share of creation” with Mr. Grimes as its logical tenant. He has an air of gothic villainy to him, walks with a limp, and has a slight hunch. His land is made up of hog dens, vegetables patches, and an eerie quicksand-like swamp that is described as having no bottom – a fitting metaphor for the Netherworld. Throughout the film, he even references tossing children into the swamp when they either acted up or were no longer of use to him. In other words, he is every bit the kind of dark, oppressive villain that often occupies children’s nightmares.
It’s helpful to bear in mind that two years before the film was released the US Congress had introduced a constitutional amendment outlawing child labor one that was not ratified. This had followed two Supreme Court rulings overturning laws that had aimed to do the same thing. Sadly, it was not until 1938 that child labor officially became illegal. Therefore, Sparrows stands as a view into an America that was still struggling to protect its most vulnerable citizens from exploitation; however, it is also a look into a country trying to find its way on the issue. It is telling that Molly keeps the children’s spirits up by telling them about the goodness of God and repeating, regardless of how bleak their situation is, that they have not been forgotten. Mr. Grimes, on the other hand, is portrayed as a heathen much more concerned with acquiring wealth than achieving salvation. It is clear where the film’s – and by extension the audience’s - sentiments lie.
Director William Beaudine strikes a perfect balance between the film’s lighter, more kid-friendly moments and its much heavier undertones. We see the energy Molly puts into caring for the children, and these scenes have a tenderness that convincingly establishes her as the matriarch of the group. Such moments are interspersed – often in the same scene – by ones of raw emotion and occasional peril. In one of them, Molly works feverishly to nurse a malnourished infant named Amy back to health, only to have to watch helplessly as her condition worsens. A later scene in which we learn Amy’s fate is particularly touching, and I can imagine it bringing more than a few tears to audiences that saw it in the theater.
Much of the first half of Sparrows depicts Molly and the other childen’s daily trials and tribulations. In one of those horribly sweet scenes that you want to slap yourself for being amused by, the children hold a spontaneous competition to see whose stomach is “emptier.” The second half of the film changes the pace significantly. In it, Grimes becomes involved in a major crime, and Molly must become even more of a protector than she has ever been. This involves going on one of the greatest journeys ever put on film, one which retains all of the suspense it had on the big screen in 1926.
Throughout it all, there’s Pickford, smiling, scolding, reacting in ways that transcend the screen. She skillfully navigates the treacherous waters of a film of this sort, one which in lesser hands might feel forced and uneven. She makes us feel Molly’s concern, her love for the children in her care, and the conviction of her faith. Those people who know and understand silent film acting will once again be in awe of what she is able to do in front of the camera.
I suppose I could find something to nitpick about - perhaps the ending - but when a movie works as well as Sparrows does, it just seems wrong to do so. Sparrows is truly one of the greats of the Silent Era – timely in 1926 and a poignant reminder now of what was and still is in some parts of the word. It is a film that director Ernst Lubitsch once praised as “one of the eight wonders of the world.” It is a description that seems wholly appropriate. My only question is this: What are the other seven? (on DVD as part of the Mary Pickford Rags & Riches Collection)
4 and a half stars