There has never been another Hollywood star to reach the height of popular glory Mary Pickford attained. She was adored and scrutinized at a level even our modern internet culture cannot rival. At one point she was considered the most recognizable woman in the world, beating out Queen Mary of England. We’ll never see another star like her. In 1926, Mary Pickford was still at the pinnacle of her popularity, though she would retire in less than a decade.
Of the two films she made that year (the other being Little Annie Rooney), Sparrows is certainly the better, though it received worse reviews at the time. It is my favorite Pickford film. Its moody atmosphere (tinted with the dark light of German Expressionism), its emotion (melodramatic, but affecting), its surprisingly harrowing adventure action in the third act, and, of course, its star, who exhibits here everything that made her special, make this a truly classic film that does not receive enough attention today.
Sparrows tells the story of a group of orphans and stolen children who live on a rotting farm in the middle of a Florida swamp. They are held captive and barely provided for by a hillbilly husband and wife who use the kids for slave labor. Pickford plays the eldest of the lot, performing as a woman-child as she did so often, caring for the destitute and lonely children trying to survive in this tropical hellhole.
We get off to a wonderful sardonic start with the title card below, which sets the mood for the aw shucks attitude the film takes with the story of these kids who are being abused, neglected, and trafficked. Far from being disrespectful to their plight, it’s the right mood for allowing us to cheer for them without wanting to jump head first into a swamp of despair.
Pickford is perfect for this role. It allows her to play all of the notes she sang so beautifully throughout her silent prime – the coquettish tomboy, the mischievous rascal, the resourceful and caring surrogate mother, the rags-to-riches princess.
Despite the dismal subject matter of Sparrows, the film does find time for humor and certainly takes advantage of Pickford’s skills as a comedienne, which were considerable. She is often criminally omitted from modern conversations of the great screen comedians of the 1920s, a list generally limited to a boys club of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and a few others.
The final act of the film, in which Pickford and her youthful charges make their escape through the swamp, chased by their captors and menaced by alligators, is one of the great action/adventure sequences in cinema, especially from this era, but somehow never gets brought up in such discussions. The atmosphere, visuals, and suspense are stunning.
There is a feel to the police station scene when Mary and the children are finally rescued that recalls the final page of Lord of the Flies. She has fought tooth and nail to protect these kids, and under the well-intentioned but somewhat less than empathetic (and male) eyes of the officials, there is a communication impasse. She is like a cornered animal in this scene, feral, agile, with a thundering heart. She can’t quite believe the ordeal is over. Of course, if we’re honest, it never will be. She and the other children will carry the scars of their neglect and abuse their entire lives, no matter what the ending wants us to believe.
Sparrows ends as so many great Mary Pickford films did, with the star (and this time, all the other kids as well) being plucked from poverty and dropped into unexpected luxury. It’s an impossible but lovely ending to a film that feels at times like Faulker-meets-fairy-tale.
We’ll be showing Sparrows at GPL as part of our Third Floor Film Series on Thursday, May 19, at 7 p.m. As always, there will be free theater popcorn, candy, pop, and coffee, and I will be leading a short discussion following the film. I look forward to seeing you there.