Monday, October 26, 2009

Silent Horrors: Sparrows (1926)

Since it’s beginning to get closer and closer to Halloween, I took some time this weekend to ponder as to whether or not I should post something along the lines of a “scary movie” theme to get into the “spirit” of the season. Several of my esteemed colleagues have done some novel Halloween-themed posts; my current favorite is Stacia’s She Blogged by Night, which features famous houses/structures from horror films and how they look today. Others who have taken up with horror movie-related posts include Kliph Nesteroff at Classic Television Showbiz, Caffeinated Joe, Tony Kay at Pop Culture Petri Dish, The Lightning Bug’s Lair (“From the moon, baby!”), Master of My Public Domain (I might have a lawsuit here), “Uncle” Sam Taylor at Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema, The Shelf and Paul D. Brazill. (Oddly enough, our old pal The Retropolitan went mute this month, but he has an explanation here.)

Anyway, I was laying on my bed, staring at the shelf of DVDs along the wall…when I spotted my copy of Sparrows (1926), a wonderful suspense thriller from the silent era starring America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford—and it was like the muse of inspiration had hit me up the side of my head with a ten-pound sack of flour. Why not devote this week to reviews of noteworthy horror classics from the period when they “had faces then?”

I’ll come clean at this point and confess that I don’t have as many silent horror movies in my collection as I estimated, so this series will be relatively brief. Many of you may question whether Sparrows even qualifies; there aren’t any supernatural or ghostly elements in the film, so to speak. But Sparrows deals with something I find far more frightening, what Arch Oboler once referred to as “the monster inside us”; and there are enough suspenseful and horrific moments in this Gothic thriller to more than qualify. (Pickford biographer Scott Eyman describes the movie as “Dickens laced with a strong dose of Edgar Allan Poe.”)

Pickford plays “Mama” Molly, the oldest of a group of kids being held prisoner at a “baby farm” located in the swamps of the Deep South, run by the indescribably evil Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), his shrewish wife (Charlotte Mineau) and idiot stepson Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell). Grimes enters into an agreement with a pair of kidnappers (Lloyd Whitlock, A.L. Schaeffer) to hide the young child of prominent businessman Dennis Wayne (Roy Stewart) once they’ve put the snatch on the kid, and he entrusts Molly with keeping the little girl (Mary Louise Miller) under wraps while they await word on the father’s intentions to pay the ransom. When it looks as if the father will not accede to the kidnappers’ demands, Grimes realizes he must dispose of the baby (he plans to chuck her into the swamp), so Molly and the rest of the children in her care endeavor a daring escape through the treacherous bayou, doing their level best to avoid quicksand and a nest of hungry alligators. Grimes and the kidnappers follow (the father changes his mind about meeting the ransom demands) in an effort to retrieve the baby but Mary and Company are rescued in the nick of time…with Wayne offering her and her “brood” sanctuary at his stately manor home in the end.

Elliott Stein of The Village Voice once referred to Sparrows as “the finest film of Pickford’s entire career” and while that sentiment is certainly open to lively discussion one can’t deny that it isn’t one of the most memorable titles on Pickford’s lengthy c.v. It’s rip-snortin’ Gothic melodrama at its finest; containing both a larger-than-life heroine and villains in a simple story that became a huge critical and box-office success at the time of its release. The surprising aspect of this film is that it was directed by the notorious William “One-Shot” Beaudine, who began his motion picture directing career guiding the fortunes of Ham (Lloyd Hamilton) and Bud (Duncan) in comedy shorts in 1915 and finished out his profession (a staggering backlog of 350 known films) working with the Bowery Boys and Lassie (directing seventy-two installments of the popular TV series). It’s one of the few prestigious pictures Beaudine held the reins on, and even then he wasn’t allowed to finish it—his assistant Tom McNamara completed the film after Beaudine developed a facial paralysis brought on by the demanding Miss Pickford. Pickford, in her defense, felt Beaudine was a bit cavalier regarding the children’s safety on the film—particularly in the scene where Molly and the kids navigate crossing a fallen tree branch while alligators—each of them about the size of Detroit—wait below. (In Beaudine’s defense, the gators’ mouths were all wired shut, but it’s still impossible to watch this scene and not become more than a little concerned for the kids’ safety.)

Pickford is a sheer delight in this movie: a plucky, never-say-die girl who fervently believes that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Her affection for the kids in her charge will warm the cockles of any cynic’s heart; she has a real rapport with the children—particularly Miller, who plays the little Wayne girl (Doris). (The childless Pickford became so enamored of Miller that she offered to adopt the toddler, much to her parents’ dismay—so the scenes in which the Oscar-winning actress lovingly interacts with her young charge go beyond mere acting.) She also demonstrates some moments of comic brilliance that equal anything from the great silent clowns; there’s a funny scene where she’s threatening to hit Spec O’Donnell but when Von Seyffertitz enters the picture, she pantomimes swatting mosquitoes instead. Character great Von Seyffertitz has a field day as the unrepentantly nasty Grimes, whose character is well-established in the beginning of Sparrows with a sequence showing him receiving a letter from a sick mother who has left her baby in his care and, accompanying the missive, a little baby doll as a gift. Von Seyffertitz crushes the doll’s head and throws it down in the mud, watching it as it slowly sinks into the mire. I also enjoyed seeing O’Donnell as the shiftless son; I have become well acquainted with the Specster from his appearances in many of the Hal Roach shorts starring Max Davidson (Call of the Cuckoo, Pass the Gravy).

If I have any quibbles about Sparrows, it’s that it’s a bit heavy on the religious moralizing—but even this is offset with the kids’ refreshing skepticism about God (“A whole month ago you said the Lord would help us get away—what’s He been doing all month?”) and Molly’s refreshing “Bible quotes” (“Let not thy right cheek know what thy left cheek getteth.”) There is also a memorable scene where Molly—who’s attending to a sick two-year-old that’s not long for this world—sees a vision of Christ that appears on the inside wall of the barn…and he gathers up the child in order to take her into the kingdom of Heaven. Molly awakes from the dream to discover the baby is dead—and she gazes upward with a smile on her face, knowing that all is well. A beautiful, breathtaking moment to be sure.

Sparrows was adapted by C. Gardner Sullivan from a story written by Winifred Dunn, and at the time it was a quite timely story since there had been a series of harrowing newspaper stories about real-life baby farms. The magnificent set (courtesy of art director Harry Oliver) and expressionistic cinematography (Hal Mohr, Charles Rosher, and Karl Struss) are awe-inspiring even today, and much of this foreshadows similar sets and cinematography in the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter. Sparrows was released to DVD in 1999 by Milestone Film and Video (in collaboration with Image Entertainment) and contains as extras a pair of D.W. Griffith-directed shorts with Pickford: Wilful Peggy (1910) and The Mender of Nets (1912). I watched these after Sparrows, but I think they are probably more suitable as appetizers—because the main feature is a film experience not soon forgotten.

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hobbyfan said...

The line about Dennis Wayne offering Molly and co. sanctuary in his "stately manor" brought a smile to my face. You're going to get some Bat-feedback about that one, Ivan.

KC said...

I was also touched by the scene with Christ. I thought it wasn't as heavy-handed as the typical religious reference in silent movies. And what a great action movie this is! So funny to think of Pickford as an action hero, but she was in Sparrows.