Louise Brooks defied all odds in becoming the defining cult figure in early cinema, despite the fact that her brief stardom was as an American actress in European films. Although Brooks lacked initial recognition, she was far more contemporary and provocative than established stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford was the female superstar of the silent era. She was huge box office, married the swashbuckling matinée idol Douglas Fairbanks (theirs was the first Hollywood celebrity wedding) and together they built their famous mansion PickFair. Astutely, Pickford learned the business of filmmaking: editing, cinematography, lighting and production. She was the first woman to form her own production company and, later, with Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, she built the mega studio United Artists. She was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While politicos were battling over woman’s right to vote, Pickford’s voice was such an influential one that the Academy awarded her what was perhaps an undeserved Oscar for her first talking performance in the wretchedCoquette (1929). Pickford and Fairbanks were Hollywood Royalty, wining and dining the famous from Albert Einstein to H.G. Welles. Alas, royalty has its price. Coquette flopped at the box office. With the advent of sound the public wanted new faces, and because of their “royalty” status, Pickford and Fairbanks were seen as the old establishment. Although Pickford had an exceptionally fine voice, her career, along with that of her husband’s, came to an end. Still, even in reclusive retirement, Mary Pickford was treated as a pioneering queen of Hollywood, receiving numerous accolades and tributes while the outsider Louise Brooks went through winters of extreme poverty. Today, Mary Pickford is virtually forgotten and Brooks is remembered. There are plenty of reasons for this.
Pickford’s virginal child persona dates her. The bulk of her films are heart-on-sleeve rudimentary melodramas, soaked in so much religiosity that they make saccharine contemporary fare like “7th Heaven” or “Highway to Heaven” look like cutting edge dramas. Pickford herself doubted the value of her films after she retired, and left instructions for her work to be destroyed. Thankfully, this wish was not carried out (although her films were kept out of circulation until the DVD age). Despite the Victorian halo, Pickford’s screen persona is a curiously bewitching one, due to its archaic, ethereal nature coupled with an irresistibly delicate feistiness. Her mastery of comedy and drama in the pantomime form, her finger on the pulse of Americana, and her thematic sympathy for the less affluent adds to her appeal.
Sparrows (1926) was Pickford’s last role in her child persona. It’s also her most compelling film. The religiosity is there, but it is so audacious as to be startling. Amazingly, William Beaudine directed. Beaudine later became known as “One-Shot Beaudine” because of his penchant for shooting single takes in poverty row programmers. Although he was one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors, with over 400 films to his credit, the bulk of these were “penny dreadfuls.” For all the sympathy fans have for Bela Lugosi suffering under an amateur Ed Wood, poor Bela was not a stranger to slumming it in One-Shot films like Ape Man (1943-Lugosi’s most embarrassing project), Ghosts on the Loose (1943), and Voodoo Man (1944).
Beaudine’s presence makes Sparrows all the more surprising. Pickford and Beaudine had worked together previously in Little Annie Roonie (1925), which was an unremarkable box office hit (it had returned Pickford to her irascible waif persona after several failed attempts to play an adult). Sparrows was produced by Pickford, photographed by her favorite cinematographer Charles Rosher, and written by C. Gardner Sullivan (Hell’s Hinges, Tumbleweed, Sadie Thompson, All Quiet On the Western Front), all of which may explain the film’s being an exception to the general Beaudine rule. However, Sparrows would be Pickford and Beaudine’s final collaboration. The star vowed never to work with Beaudine again after his supposed bad treatment of the children in the cast. Beaudine vehemently denied Pickford’s allegations, claiming she fabricated them for the sake of publicity. Beaudine’s defense is backed by others’ recollections. More than likely, Pickford and Beaudine clashed over artistic control. Art Director Harry Oliver created the stylish swamp, which was merely a few acres on a backlot. Alligators, with wired jaws, were brought in for “dramatic effect.”
In this Dickensian Gothic melodrama, Pickford plays Molly, the oldest of a group of orphans being used for slave labor on a potato farm. Despite being about twenty years too old for the part (!), Pickford pulls it off with plucky perfection. The potato farm is actually a baby farm, with Molly as the self-appointed mother of the brood. Every melodrama needs a good villain. Sparrows has a superb one in Gustav von Seyffertitz as the aptly named hunchbacked baby thief, Grimes. Seyffertitz was a favorite silent era villain and his portrayal here is saturated in mire. When his racket is threatened with exposure, Grimes has no qualms about “chucking them babies in the swamp.” News of Grimes’ plan reaches Molly. A chilling, breath-taking chase scene follows, which probably influenced Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Molly leads her charges through the bayou, facing gators and quicksand. There is an early casualty amongst the children and none other than Jesus Christ Himself appears to escort the poor lad’s corpse into heaven!
Sparrows is a model of art direction. Every detail counts. It was hailed as a masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch (who called it one of the eight wonders of the world) and Chaplin (who typically hated Pickford’s films). The late (and much-missed) film historian William K. Everson loudly sang its praises. Everson was rarely off, and he wasn’t here either.