Sparrows - A Century of Film

Mary Pickford proves why she was the most powerful woman in Hollywood.

Devin on screen

A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a movie from every year between 1917 and today. For 1926, we watch a film from once and future Canadian Mary Pickford, Sparrows.

There is a distinct difference between an actor and a movie star. Someone can be both at the same time, but it’s two separate skill sets. A star is someone who takes over the screen from the moment the camera turns on, an actor is someone who can make you believe their character exists. Sometimes a star isn’t necessarily an actor - Arnold Schwarzenegger was a star from when he first appeared on screen in pumping iron, but it took him a few movies before he could actually act, and he still doesn’t really have a range beyond being a giant Austrian man or robot. When he is on screen, however, it’s difficult to pay attention to much else, he fills the frame and his over-abundance of charisma makes him fascinating to watch. Sometimes an actor isn’t a star, generally people who tend to appear in hundreds of movies but only get the vaguest recognition. Allen Ruck, for example, has been in a huge number of films and television shows, probably being best known for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and is a great actor, but isn’t especially famous because he’s not a star - he’s a much better actor than Schwarzenegger, but doesn’t dominate the screen in any way.

Mary Pickford was the definition of a star. She was tiny, unlike Schwarzenegger, but dominated the screen if ever a camera was placed on her. This is evident from her first shot in Sparrows, where she manages to hold the audience’s attention by doing very little. She also could act, and Sparrows is the kind of film that a star makes if they want to prove they’re an actor too. She dresses in rags, gets down in the muck, and generally tries to strip away as much glamor as she possibly can. She can’t ever stop being a star, the camera loves her, but she also proves she’s an actor as well as a star. The habit of stars to strip off the trappings of fame for a role is something that is still a favorite of stars who want to prove they are also actors.

Sparrows is a film that could be very bad, were it not so well made. It’s a fairly overwrought melodrama on paper. We have Mr. Grimes, played as a sentient scowl by Gustav von Seyffertitz, who runs a baby farm, where children are forced to do manual labor and hide in a barn. The eldest among them is Molly, played by Pickford, who could somehow play a convincing teenager in spite of being in her mid-30s at the time. They suffer under Grimes and his wife, Mrs. Grimes, played by Charlotte Mineau as a tortured ghost who lives at the edge of the frame. She arguably does the best job in the film overall, telling a character’s life story in a pained glance. Another villain is Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell), the son of the Grimes family, who is mostly there to be a minor jerk with little motivation - a really long sequence involves him stopping a kid from entering a barn, even though he has no motivation to do this at all, and in fact would be courting trouble with his parents if he did. Eventually, the Grimes family gets involved in a kidnapping plot, which spurs on the final act, and introduces a baby with impossibly curly hair (Mary Louise Miller) to the film. This baby is huge, which is an interesting contrast to the incredibly tiny Pickford, who seems to have a smaller head than this child in some shots.

The film is lighter than the plot suggests, Pickford has a gift for slapstick and there are enough little comic moments to lighten the mood in spite of the entire film being about children in peril - though some of her tics can grate, her habit of spinning in a circle while in crisis feels out of place in the more dramatic moments. The willingness to go light even when dealing with a serious subject is what makes the film work, if it was wall to wall misery it would be unbearable, but it can get away with a lot just because it’s not a slog to get through.

The film also manages to make its melodrama work just by kicking out some great imagery to go with it. The opening sets up the malice of Grimes by having him toss crush a doll and toss it in the mud, where it slowly sinks. It’s a surprisingly shocking image, and the grotesque form the doll as it sinks is an unshakable visual. Later, when a baby dies, Jesus himself shows up to take it off to paradise, a moment which would have been hilariously overwrought if it wasn’t for the beauty of the shot itself, the grime of the barn opening onto a pastoral landscape, complete with sheep. The shot is so good it managed to overcome all of the mental barriers I was throwing up in response to it.

I would have hated the script for Sparrows, but the film was executed so well I have overcome them, and appreciate the picture as a work of visual art. It is melodrama, and at times it can be the worst kind of melodrama, but it’s so effective at delivering the goods that I can overcome my many misgivings and appreciate the film before me. Part of the reason I can do that is Pickford, and that’s why she’s a star. You want to see her on screen, the fact that she can act is a bonus.

Next time, the sound era begins with The Jazz Singer.

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