Sunday, October 5, 2008


Silent movie superstar Mary Pickford radiates tenacity and vulnerability in director William Beaudine's outdoor Gothic thriller "Sparrows," a stunning 1926 epic that looks incredibly realistic for its day, especially so when the heroine and brood of youngsters brave the perils of an alligator infested swamp. Ostensibly, "Sparrows" is a crime yarn about a crippled fiend who operates a baby camp and participates in a kidnapping. The protagonist is a naïve teenage girl who has been forced to take care of about seven urchins and two babies. They live on a baby farm and the evil proprietor traffics in human misery. He starves them and forces them to tend his vegetable garden. The title refers to God watching over all the sparrows and concerning himself with the plight of a bird. The children and their self-appointed young female guardian pray for the Lord's help so that they can escape from the hardship and brutality of the baby farm. "Sparrows" concerns the themes of woman versus nature, woman versus men, and women versus society.

"Sparrows" (**** out of ****) opens with this ironic preamble. "The Devil's share in the world's creation was a certain southern swampland—a masterpiece of horror. And the Lord appreciating a good job, let it stand." Beaudine provides us with an aerial view of the baby farm to show us just how remote and isolated that it is in the middle of nowhere. The preamble continues ". . . Then the Devil went himself one better—and had Mr. Grimes live in the swamp." Mr. Grimes (Gustave von Seyffertitz of "Safe in Hell") is the first character that we see and he is walking with a limp. Not only is he crippled in one leg, but he also has a crippled arm. Literally, Grimes is crippled by his own villainy. Grimes has received a letter from a mother from a cash delinquent parent. She says in her letter she knows about baby farms where child abuse occurs but knows that he—Mr. Grimes—is above reproach. The evil Grimes crushes a plastic doll that the mother had sent for her baby and he watches as the disfigured doll sinks into quicksand. Quicksand and swampland surround the farm like nature barriers.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Grimes, Molly (Mary Pickford in pig-tails) is flying a kite with eight children huddled around her. Molly has attached a note to the kite, and it reads: "Please come and take us away from the Grimes cause they are awful mean to us. We can't get out the gate and the swamp is filled mud. Signed Molly and seven infants and one baby." After Molly turns the kite loose, everybody kneels and Molly prays: "Lord, our other kite done no good 'cause I guess Your angel had his mind on his harp. Couldn't you 'tend to this one personal?" A different title card appears: "But He in His infinite wisdom had other plans." The kite is shown crashed and out of reach. The gate to the baby farm has a bell attached to it and Molly conceals the children in the barn when the bell clangs. Molly explains that they must hide "because that old alligator Grimes don't want nobody to know we're here." When a child quizzes Molly about God's lack of action on their behalf, she defends the Lord: "He'll help us—if we keep on prayin'. He's pretty busy—watchin' every sparrow that falls . . . " It doesn't take much imagination to see where the filmmakers found the title to their movie. A disgruntled little boy inquires of Molly: "How come them sparrows got such a pull with Him?" On many occasions, Grimes has threatened to "run the lot of them into the swamp." Ironically, Grimes hates babies and even holds his own son in contempt. While Molly is dancing a jig to amuse a baby, Ambrose Grimes ('Spec O'Donnell) hurls a clod of weds at her. She responds in kind and hurls the clod back. Ambrose and Molly don't get along with each other. Grimes complains about Molly: "That Molly's been a troublemaker since she came here. I'm going' to shove her in the swamp." Mrs. Grimes (Charlotte Mineau of "Should Husbands Pay") rebukes her husband: "Some day you'll shove one too many in the swamp." Meanwhile, Molly must supervise the children and maintain morale and discipline. We are shown three times how treacherous the quicksand is in the swamp. First, the crushed doll sinks in seconds in it. Second, a barrel rolls into the quicksand and vanishes. Third, a villain stumbles into the quicksand, but he isn't shown drowning in the stuff. As one character remarks: "There ain't no bottom to them danged boy holes." The turning point comes when Grimes becomes an accomplice to a kidnapping. The police are closing in on the kidnappers, and Grimes decides to "chuck the baby in the swamp." The baby is a cute, chubby little cherub, Doris Wayne (Mary Louise Miller of "Satan in Sable") with golden curls. Molly refuses to let this happen. Already, she has lost a baby that died of malnutrition. There is a poignant, surreal scene where an angel comes to fetch the dead child from the cradle of Molly's arms. Grimes and the kidnappers chase Molly into the swamp, and Molly finds a boat to make good their escape. The police pursue the villains, capture them, and save Molly and her children. Eventually, Grimes dies in the swamp, and the police return the baby to her father. Not long after Dennis Wayne (Roy Stewart of "Fargo Express") brings Doris home, his little daughter rebels against her father and the nursery maid. Dennis negotiates with Molly to come live under his roof and tend Doris, but Molly declines the offer until Dennis assures her that he can build additional space in the house to hold the others.

"Sparrows" is a surprisingly elegant little thriller, and the last half-hour sizzles with excitement. Gustave von Seyffertitz steals the shows as the malignant miscreant.

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