Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque
Dir: William Beaudine and Tom McNamara
Cast; Mary Pickford, Roy Stewart, Mary Louise Miller, Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Charlotte Mineau, Spec O’Donnell, Lloyd Whitlock, Billy Butts, Monty O’Grady, Jackie Levine
Sparrows is a 1926 American silent film about a young woman who rescues a baby from kidnappers. The film, which was originally titled Scraps, starred and was produced by Mary Pickford, who was the most powerful woman in Hollywood at the time.
Mr. Grimes and his wife operate a dismal “baby farm” near an alligator-infested swamp. Molly, an adolescent inmate and the oldest of their charges, attempts to provide the other tattered, starving kids with the loving maternal care they need. Most of the children are orphans. One mother sends her child a doll, but Grimes crushes its head and tosses it into the swamp.
The children are ordered to hide anytime someone comes to the farm. When a hog buyer shows up, Ambrose, the Grimes’ son, maliciously prevents Splutters, one of the children, from hiding. The buyer then purchases the boy from Grimes.
Molly has promised the others that God will rescue them. When a boy asks why nothing has happened after a month, she tells him that He is busy attending to sparrows (a biblical reference).
Ambrose catches Molly with stolen potatoes, so she and the others are given no supper. She pleads for the children, especially the sick, youngest baby, to no avail. Late that night, in a vision, Christ enters the barn where they sleep and takes the baby. When Molly wakes up, the child is dead.
Joe Bailey and his associate bring a kidnapped baby girl to the farm for concealment until they receive a ransom from the rich father, Dennis Wayne. When Grimes reads about the kidnapping in the newspaper several days later, he decides it is safer to chuck the baby into the swamp.
When Ambrose grabs the little girl to carry out the plan, Molly gets her back. After she fights off Grimes with a pitchfork, he strands her in the hayloft and decides he must get rid of her, too.
That night, Molly flees with the children. Grimes finds this hilarious; he figures either the mud or the alligators will take care of the children. However, when the kidnappers come back for the baby, he leads them on a search.
Meanwhile, Splutters is brought to the police station, having been discovered by one of the search parties. He tells the policemen and Mr. Wayne about the baby farm.
Molly and the kids emerge unscathed from the swamp and hide aboard a boat, unaware it belongs to the kidnappers. Pursued by the police, Grimes runs into the swamp, but falls into deep mud and perishes, while the two criminals flee in the boat. Unable to shake the harbor patrol, they try to slip away in a dinghy, but are run over and drown.
The baby is reunited with her wealthy father, but when she refuses to drink her milk without Molly, Mr. Wayne offers Molly a comfortable home. She accepts only on condition that he take in the other children as well.
- Sparrows was Mary Pickford‘s next to last silent role; it was followed by 1927’s My Best Girl. After that, Pickford did some talking pictures before retiring to “Pickfair”, her estate with husband Douglas Fairbanks.
Although William Beaudine received critical acclaim both inside and outside the film industry for his direction, star Mary Pickford felt that he was too cavalier about the safety of the actors, especially in a scene where she had to carry a baby across some water filled with alligators. Pickford wanted to use a doll, but Beaudine insisted on using a real baby, since the alligators’ jaws were bound shut. However, Hal Mohr, the film’s director of photography., debunked this story, saying “There wasn’t an alligator within ten miles of Miss Pickford,” and revealing in precise detail how the effect was done. Regardless, Pickford swore that Beaudine would never work for her or her company as long as she lived. She was as good as her word, as Beaudine never worked for her or United Artists again. Toward the end of the picture, they clashed so often that Beaudine developed a serious paralysis of his face from the pressure and aggravation. He finally turned the picture over to his assistant, Tom McNamara, and left the set. McNamara finished the picture uncredited.
Art director Harry Oliver transformed 3 acres (12,000 m2) of the back lot between Willoughby Avenue and Alta Vista Street into a stylized Gothic swamp. The ground was scraped bare in places, 600 trees were carted in, and pits dug and filled with a mixture of burned cork, sawdust and muddy water.
Filming began in July, over summer vacation. The children had the run of the set, barefoot and in costume, so they would become accustomed to the environment. Each child had a crew member assigned to fish them out of the gunk. These assistants also made sure the kids were cleaned up and comfortable with warm towels when they emerged from the swampy water.
Pickford developed a great fondness for two-year-old Mary Louise Miller. Pickford, who had no children of her own, even tried to adopt the toddler, but her parents refused.
An earlier version of the “Jesus in the barn” scene was filmed in which the dead baby’s spirit was carried to Heaven by a phosphorescent angel. The scene was rejected in favor of the Jesus take.
- The New York Times: “Gustav von Seyffertitz, with a suspicion of Lon Chaney’s penchant for deformity, is emphatically capable as Mr. Grimes. Little as she does, Charlotte Minneau gives an excellent portrait of the cruel and unimaginative Mrs. Grimes. … Although Miss Pickford’s performance is as flawless as ever, it is doubtful whether she served herself well in selecting this special screen story, in which there is an abundance of exaggerated suspense and a number of puerile ideas. It is an obvious heartstring tugger during most of its length, and it frequently dallies with the thrills of old fashioned melodramas.”
- Motion Picture Magazine, December 1925: “It was Douglas Fairbanks who told us that Mary Pickford’s production of “Sparrows” was Dickensonian. And after seeing it we have nothing less and nothing more to say of it. Perhaps you know that it is the story of a baby farm . . . with Gustav von Seyffertitz as Grimes, the cruel manager . . . and Mary, as Mollie, who watches over the little boys and girls. Melodrama is interwoven in the story and there is nothing new or startling about the plot. But you won’t realize this until the last lovely close-up of Mary has faded from the screen. Which means, of course, that the story interests you so much that your critical faculty is dulled. We are glad that Mary is not going to continue to play grown-ups parts. So many on the screen can be the grand lady. And no one else that we have ever heard about or seen captures the elusive and misty quality of childhood as Mary does. You’ll weep a little. You’ll laugh a great deal. And you’ll hold your breath once or twice.”
- Picture Play, January, 1927: “The choice of “Sparrows” was a singular one for Mary Pickford to make, but no one can deny that she has done the picture surpassingly well. The subject is gloomy, and some of the horrors recall Dickens, yet the darkness is shot through with many laughs. Indeed, so heavily does the hand of melodrama smite “Sparrows” that the picture passes beyond the bounds of credibility. Thus the spectator relaxes, content to give way to his amazement at Mary’s skill. She is Mama Mollie, a lovely waif in whom the maternal instinct is well, there aren’t words to tell how strong it is, for she mothers eleven woebegone, poverty-stricken children at a baby farm kept by the villainous Grimes in the midst of a Louisiana swamp. A kidnapped baby is thrust by Grimes into the group and the plot gets underway, Mollie’s heroic efforts to keep the baby against the will of Grimes leading her and the entire brood into the deadly swamp. “Sparrows” is well worth seeing.”
- Film historian Jeffrey Vance considers Sparrows to be Pickford’s masterpiece. In his program notes for the Giorante del Cinema Muto (also knows as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival,) Vance writes in 2008: “Sparrows is her most fully realized and timeless work of art. The film’s superb performances, gothic production design, and cinematography all serve a suspenseful, emotionally compelling story anchored by a central performance by Pickford herself imbued with pathos, humor, and charm.”
Milestone Film & Video released the Library of Congress restoration of Sparrows to DVD and Blu-ray in 2012 as part of a box set called Rags and Riches: Mary Pickford Collection. The home video version contains an audio commentary track by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta.