Sparrows (1926) presented a radical departure from what audiences of the day expected from a Mary Pickford film. The looming influences of German Expressionism cast a deathly pallor over Pickford’s usual bouquets of dimples and cheer, so much so that Variety groused, “There isn’t a ray of brightness. For once, a Pollyanna is submerged, smothered and muffled in sinister gloom. There are reeks of agonies and the cumulative effect is oppressive.” Members of the public even complained, with some questioning the safety of the film’s child actors.
Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Berlin, Germany in 1925, and the effects of this visit reverberate in nearly every aspect of this film. Sparrows‘s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was hired by Germany’s UFA studios to serve as photographic consultant on F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), and he went on to serve as one of the photographers on the magnificent Sunrise (1927). Aside from the hunching, grotesque character of Mr. Grimes, the film’s sets convey the aged and exaggerated settings of a nightmare world. The swamps and baby farm appear as the products of some terrible dream; the wholly evil world that Mary and the children inhabit is one the exists in the absence of God or goodness of any kind. The use of Expressionism in the film extends to the minutest of details, even down to Mary’s and Gustav von Seyffertitz‘s makeup. Mary is almost a ghostly (or saintly, if you prefer) white, while von Seyffertitz is painted in shadows.
Mary plays “Mama” Molly, a teenaged orphan who cares for a troupe of grubby urchins in the Southern swamp. The lot of them are under the thumb of Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a satanic villain in the mold of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). The dichotomies of good and evil are as clearly established as the struggle between Rachel (Lillian Gish) and Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter. Molly, as the earth mother, bears the weight of childish goodness as she keeps the baying hounds of hell at bay (literally, at several points she protects the children from Grimes’s vicious, bloodthirsty dog). Molly and the other children are forced laborers on the Grimes farm, trapped by surrounding swamps and the menacing figure of Grimes himself. Tragedy is no stranger to Molly, who finds comfort in the words of the Bible.
The children are so malnourished and overworked that, inevitably, one of them dies. The child slips away while being cradled in Molly’s arms. This scene is a splendid example of the Silent era’s achievements in film technology. The barn wall that Molly faces while rocking the dying child fades away to reveal Christ in a sheep pasture. He steps out of the picture, toward the dozing Molly, and gingerly takes the child away in his arms. Molly stirs, unsure of what has just happened. In one movement, she conveys a sense of wonder while still groggy with sleep; effortlessly, she regains a hold on her surroundings and glances down at the dead child in her lap. Her sorrow is diverted toward feelings of peace as she realizes that her dream was no dream at all, and her countenance takes on a position of relief at the safety of one more child from the clutches of the Grimes farm.
The escape of Molly and the other children is one of the most harrowing scenes in any Pickford film to date. Having escaped the danger of quicksand and the swamps, they must now shimmy their way across an unstable tree branch, hanging perilously low over a pack of snapping aligators. The shot was achieved through a double exposure, with Pickford and the children shuffling across the tree branch, well away from the hungry aligators who were actually filmed in a separate scene and spliced together to achieve a seamless vision of terror.
It can be easy to overlook the comic elements of Sparrows in consideration of the weight of its misery. Molly must referee the intermitent bickering amongst the children, and also protect them from the bullying of Grimes’s son, Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell). In one scene, Molly is about to wallop him with a farming tool, when the elder Grimes comes on the scene. The only way out is to pretend she’s using the object to swat flies, and she skips away, pretending to hunt the pesky insects. Pickford’s touches of slapstick lend the film a fairy tale quality, and serve to temper the more sobering moments of dreariness. Sparrows is a superb blend of the best of Pickford’s earlier comedic achievements with the stunning maturity of silent film by this time in 1926. It is a technical achievement of the first order, and the performances of not only Pickford but the entire cast are totally effective and dynamic.