Friday, January 14, 2011
Sparrows is the second of four Mary Pickford films being screened as part of “Mary Pickford and the Invention of the Movie Star,” an exhibit dedicated to the silent icon (and Toronto native) beginning January 13th, 2011, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. The exhibit is located on the fourth floor of the Lightbox, in the new Canadian Film Gallery, and features some 300 items, including photographs, posters, memorabilia, postcards, and products endorsed by Pickford, assembled over a 30-year period by private collector Rob Brooks. It’s curated by Sylvia Frank, Director of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Film Reference Library and Special Collections.
TIFF Bell Lightbox screens Sparrows this Sunday, January 16th, at Noon. It will be preceded by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (January 15th, 11 am); Daddy-Long-Legs (January 22nd); and The Poor Little Rich Girl (January 23rd).
In the swamp are tall trees that make crooked, black outlines in the night. Amid the trees is Mr. Grimes, who looks the same. Dressed in dark and shabby clothes, old Mr. Grimes limps past pools of bubbling quick-mud and over rolling logs that span a creek before his home: the only patch of solid ground around. Grimes maintains a little farm, joined by his wife and son, Ambrose. The farm’s supported by the labour of about a dozen other children, treated like slaves.
The boys and girls range in age from infancy to—thirteen? The eldest seems about that old. She is Molly, played by a then-34-year-old Mary Pickford. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz) has no use for any of them, beyond the farm work they provide and the money their parents apparently mail him.
‘Sparrows’ refers to one of Molly’s many explanations for why God hasn’t freed the children from their misery. She tells them, “He’ll help us—if we keep on prayin’. He’s pretty busy—watchin’ every sparrow that falls.” She’s gleaned this from Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.” Molly quotes the Bible a lot in this film, usually inaccurately, which is played for laughs. As one of the children replies, “How come them sparrows got such a pull with Him?”
Molly’s an unfailing Polly-Anna when it comes to the childrens’ futures—that is to say, she thinks they’ll all get out of Grimes’ farm alive. Day to day, though, she’s practical. She ensures the little boys and girls stay clean; defends them from the revolting Ambrose; negotiates with Grimes for more food for her charges and when that fails, she teaches the children how to steal his potatoes. Maybe her sunny side is itself a practical strategy—she’s older than the rest, and has seen more. She may have seen Grimes commit murder.
Sparrows is well-shot and well-paced by director William Beaudine; there's an Expressionist feel to this film, recalling some of the German classics that preceded it. Pickford’s trademark melodrama is here too, but it’s delivered in spoonfuls, not by the truckload; it’s never ‘a bit much,’ even in its most sentimental moment. Molly’s preoccupation throughout Act One is Amy, a babe-in-arms whom she alone is willing to care for. Amy is too young to work and too frail to persist in the mess of Grimes’ farm. One night, while Molly is cradling her in the barn-loft, Amy dies.
Well, Molly falls asleep first, it seems; she’s visible in the bottom foreground of a frame now dominated by the blank wooden wall of the barn. For a second we wonder why, then we see: the wall becomes a tableau, picturing Christ the Shepherd among His lambs. Christ then steps out of the tableau and takes the baby’s corpse from Molly’s arms. Perhaps this is a dream, but Molly doesn’t wake until the director has fixed his camera on Pickford, in close-up. She looks down to the child we can no longer see; is stricken a moment, then smiles gratefully.
Molly’s reaction to Amy’s death is important, because it reminds us of the fine line she treads between action and resignation. She’s been at the farm for years, most likely—long enough to be seen by the other children as a parental figure. But her time there has not made her passive. She’s servile to Grimes because it’s the best way to ensure a steady supply of food; she doesn’t attempt escape because she considers it too dangerous. Maybe she could make it alone, but she won’t abandon the little ones to a man she’s seen hurl children into the swamp.
Circumstances change with the arrival of a new infant—a happy, chubby little girl who happens to be the daughter of a wealthy man. This child has been kidnapped for ransom, and is being hidden at Grimes’ farm until the money is paid. For the old man, it’s just another chance for cash, but for his wife (played with chilling understatement throughout by Charlotte Mineau), this baby spells doom. Now, she tells her husband, they have stolen from a man who does care, and does have the means to regain what he’s lost, and there will be no ground so impassable that it can save them from his approach.
It is Mr. Grimes’ solution that finally spurs Molly to take the big risk; that is, an escape through the lethal swamp that’s been her excuse for staying all this time. Of course, she won’t go alone. This results in a third act that is almost pure action, and you won’t soon forget any of it.
I haven’t seen all of Mary Pickford’s films, but I’ve seen a lot. The number’s sufficiently great to form patterns in my mind—collections of types and situations common to her work. Sparrows represents Mary Pickford at her best. That is, the perfect balance of stillness and action, slapstick and schmaltz; with no one facet overpowering the rest.