'Sparrows', the silent Mary Pickford-produced masterpiece, features certainly one of cinema’s most despicable villains with a concept even more frightening than the most grotesque from the horror films of today. It's the story of a baby farm run by a diabolical landowner, Mr. Grimes, who steals babies and interns them on his ranch for ransom, sale or anything else he desires. As one of the most celebrated Pickford films, it was a controversial talking piece in the day, a Gothic nightmare of monumental proportions, but also a riveting and inspirational adventure film featuring one of cinema's greatest escape sequences at the end.
Sparrows (1926) dir. William Beaudine
Starring: Mary Pickford, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Charlotte Mineau, Roy Stewart, 'Spec' O'Donnell
By Alan Bacchus
In the middle of a remote and treacherous bayou swamp lives Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a hunchbacked devil of a man. And judging by his sickly visage and ominous presence, he’s like Fagan meets Nosferatu. Huddled in the barn are a group of seven children who have been kidnapped by Grimes and his wife. The eldest is Molly (Pickford), who tends to the children like Mother Teresa, both sheltering them from the evil Grimes as well as educating them in the eventuality that they may escape or be rescued.
Early on, Grimes receives a doll intended to be given to one of the children, but in the most diabolical fashion he throws the gift into a mud sink hole and gloriously watches it slowly get sucked into the earth – a chilling visual metaphor for the danger these children face. When Grimes breaks into the mansion of one of the local plantation owners and steals their two-year-old daughter it sets in motion his demise and the escape of Molly and the children.
Perhaps what is most chilling is the fact that the film never really tells us why the children are there. Most of them are certainly too young to work on the land. Thus the nebulous purpose of this prison renders the mood and threat even more bone-chilling.
The film is not shy to characterize Molly like the Virgin Mary, a near-deified protector of the children. Her education of them includes quoting scripture and referencing God who watches over them. The most emotionally stunning sequence is the celebrated Jesus scene in which Molly, while nursing a starving baby, imagines Jesus himself entering through the barn to take the child away from her, only to wake up and find the baby dead in her arms. I can think of fewer moments in cinema as powerful and moving as this scene.
The finale is equally stunning, a riveting escape/chase sequence out of the compound and through the treacherous swamp. As Molly and the children climb across branches above the snapping jaws of snarling alligators and avoiding the trappings of the mud sinkholes, it’s one moment of tense jeopardy after another rendered all the more dangerous because of the children’s lives at stake.
If anything, the film pushes the chase one scene too long. After escaping the swamp and after Grimes is sucked into it, it turns into a boat chase between Grimes’ accomplices and the police. But it’s all in aid of the feeling of spectacle, as led by Pickford herself, who championed the film and served as its producer.
So look past the usual Halloween fare and seek out Mary Pickford’s Sparrows for a jolt of spine-tingling Gothic horror from the silent era.
Sparrows will soon be available on sparkling Blu-ray in the Milestone Films’ Rags to Riches: Mary Pickford Collection. It includes three Pickford films - Sparrows (1926), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and Hoodlum (1919) - as well as invaluable audio commentaries, Pickford home movies and short film accompaniments, which add value to the reverent package.