A plucky orphan rescues her fellow inmates from a Dickensian “baby farm” in this adventurous melodrama. “Sparrows is horrifically good—a bad dream that wakens to a happy ending, a fairy tale told with brilliant style, a comedy, a Grand Guignol, an expressionist thriller (Eileen Whitfield). Live music by Maestro David Drazin.
Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, the beloved wife of another silent film superstar, Douglas Fairbanks, a superb actress, a hard-nosed business woman. She was an international celebrity starting in 1909, and with Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin, at the vanguard of a passionate fan interest in the lives of celebrities that had never been possible before at a global level.
Her reputation endured as that of a demure, Victorian era child-woman with a halo of golden ringlets. Because she had complete creative control over her film archive, and because she had wanted all her films destroyed after her death (an intention stated first in 1931) there were only still photographs, the sentimental Little Lord Fauntleroy (MoMA had a print, and showed it at its pioneering museum film series) and the remake of her hit, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (starring a real little girl with golden curls, Shirley Temple) to preserve her legacy. She did not carry out her threat to destroy her films, but did keep them out of circulation.
Her appeal was not just her delicate beauty, her superb comic abilities, her dramatic command of the silent screen, and her renowned marriage. She was loved for a particularly American reason, her democratic belief that to be poor was more ennobling than to be rich. Her boisterous heroines triumphed over adversity and in an era just emerging from one that believed a proper lady was to be worshiped on a pedestal, she was spunky, brave, determined and independent, qualities that also defined Pickford in real life. And, of course, the woman who showed the world and idealized childhood, never had a childhood she could call her own, other than that on the screen.
She was born Gladys Smith in Toronto in 1892. Her father died when she was six, leaving her mother with three small children to support. Gladys went on stage shortly afterwards (there were hundreds of barnstorming theater companies in North American, employing tens of thousands of actors) and became the sole support of her family, a position she would hold throughout her life. At 14, she strode into Broadway impresario David Belasco’s office demanding a role suited to her age and abilities, startled by her nerve and her talent, he complied. Two years later, faced with the summer closing of the New York theaters (there was no air conditioning, so no plays) she introduced herself similarly to pioneering director D. W. Griffith, only now demanding the princely salary ($10/day, $25/week minimum) a player of her status deserved.
While acting in hundreds of one and two reel Biograph films, she learned everything about the movies, not just acting, but lighting, acting and directing. After she left Griffith, she was in complete control, not just of her art, but of the business of the Mary Pickford Motion Picture Company. She was the first female star to create her own corporation (in 1915) and was the first star/producer. By 1919 with the founding of United Artists she became her own distributor, as well, a level of power unmatched by stars even in today’s media empires. She and her cofounders Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith could to make the movies they wanted without interference. In 1926, in the glory of the silent era, they were all at the height of their power. Iris Barry wrote “Mary made herself a star by her own unremitting efforts; she created a character for herself on the screen, she invented a brand of girlhood the public responded to, and she built up this character and stabilized this brand by every effort in her power” (Pickford/Brownlow).
Although Mary was clearly the author of her own movie performances, she brought in director William Beaudine, who had just directed her in Little Annie Rooney, to direct Sparrows. He specialized in “kid pictures” and with a large cast of “baby farm” youngsters, he was recruited again to elicit natural performances. He knew how to combine comedy and pathos, making the light moments reflect strongly on the heart-rending ones. Little Annie Rooney, the adventures of a plucky slum girl, had been a big hit, “The box office returns suggested that Mary Pickford could continue to play a twelve year old until her dying day.” (Marshall). She was 34, however, and Sparrows would be the last time she played the gamine.
The gothic plot of Sparrows, which involves kidnapped children and a sinister “baby farm” may seem exaggerated today, but they did exist, and wealthy parents often feared their children would be kidnapped. This fear played out in the national press a few years later, with the tragic kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son.
Mary did not want to go on location, preferring to stay at the studio where her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, was shooting The Black Pirate. The exceptional photography is by her favorite, Charles Rosher, with assistance from Karl Struss and Hal Mohr. Art Director Harry Oliver would transform three acres of the back lot between Willoughby Avenue and Alta Vista Street into a stylized Gothic swamp, a setting that clearly influenced Charles Laughton’s swamp scenes in The Night of the Hunter. The ground was scraped bare in places, 600 trees were carted in and pits dug and filled with a mixture of burned cork, sawdust and muddy water. “Harry Oliver was one of the greatest art directors who ever lived,” said third cameraman Hal Mohr. “Harry would pick up a stick or some object with character and design the whole set around it. And, he’d burn the wood. Every piece of the Sparrows set was scorched to age it. The quicksand was sawdust and cork, ground up, with water. And, it had a bottom to it, so that you couldn’t actually go under. (Child actor) Spec O’Donnell’s feet were resting on something solid; he couldn’t go further down than his chin.” (Pickford/Brownlow).
Mohr remembered, “We had a lake, three-four feet deep, with two motor boats on it—there was a moonlight chase involved. He took a lot of flax seed, which is oily looking, and shook aluminum powder on it. Oh, the light shone like hell off it. He spread it two inches deep on a big table, and he carved a model boat, eighteen inches long, which he pulled through it with a concealed string, making him a wake. We worked it out to scale, an inch to a foot, and increased the speed of the camera accordingly. I remember I hand-cranked the camera. The effect was marvelous, more like water than water. We were so proud of it. We did it for ourselves, of course, but we also did it for Miss Pickford. (Hernedon).
Filming began with school out for the summer in July, so the kids could have the run of the set, barefoot and in costume, so they would be used to the environment by the time the camera rolled. The alligators were there, too, but with their mouths bound shut so they couldn’t actually nibble the cast. Mary gave each child an engraved silver pencil as a gift, and they each had a crew member assigned to fish them out of the gunk when the shot was canned. These assistants also made sure the kids were cleaned up and comfortable, with warm towels when they emerged from the swampy water. The pirates from Fairbanks’ movie next door came to play with them on their breaks. Mary developed a great fondness for two year old trouper Mary Louise Miller. Mary, who had no children of her own, even tried to adopt the toddler, but her parents refused.
Beaudine was confident that he could weather a second assignment with the most powerful woman in the movies. They had known each other since 1909, when she had begun to star for DW Griffith, and he had been the prop boy. But their clashes over his direction began soon after filming of Sparrows began, with her countermanding his directions. She began fabricating stories about the danger on the set, and the tyranny of Beaudine’s willingness to risk the health and safety of the children, completely untrue. It was great publicity, though, and Mary was still telling the stories to Kevin Brownlow, when he interviewed her for his masterpiece, The Parade’s Gone By in 1960s. Even though the alligator scenes were skillful double exposures, she intentionally implied the stunts were dangerous and rivaled those of her husband.
Hal Mohr confirmed, “There wasn’t an alligator within ten miles of Miss Pickford. Do people think we were crazy? I shot that scene myself. We had no trick department in those days. If there was a trick, the cameraman put it in there. I had some experience cutting mattes, and this was assigned to me from the beginning. We used the log as a guideline, about three feet above the swampy pool alive with alligators. I don’t know where the alligators came from—somebody picked up the phone and ordered alligators. We anchored the camera about twenty feet from the log. I cut a matte out of black fiber board to conform to the log, top and bottom, so that they would fit perfectly. We photographed the alligators first, covering up the top half with the matte. I set the counter on the camera at zero, and counted out loud, two counts to the foot. The trainer walked across the platform we built over the swamp, throwing pieces of meat to the alligators. As they jumped, jaws open, the script girl made note as to the exact count. Say the gator jumped at the count of 37, that’s a good place to have Miss Pickford slip and almost fall. So, now we get rid of the alligators, rewind and rehearse. We rehearsed for two days, and then shot it at the identical time of day as the first, to have the shadows conform. So, you’d see Miss Pickford on the marvelous log that Harry Oliver made, and at just the right moment, when we all knew the alligator was going to rear up with his jaws open, she’d slip and look frightened. It was hard work for all of us, but the only thing those alligators came close to biting was a chunk of horsemeat” (Herndon).
So, the children never saw the snapping jaws of an alligator. Beaudine insisted he would never, never put a baby in danger, he was a father, himself. His reaction to her micromanagement resulted in his suffering from a stress-related facial paralysis so severe, he had to quit the picture two weeks ahead of schedule, and it was finished by another director. Sparrows had a double premiere with The Black Pirate at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but was not as big a success as Little Annie Rooney. Perhaps, because the audience feared that the children were really in danger, but also because the sinister German Expressionistic design. Mary blamed her director. Beaudine was a gentleman to the end. When Kevin Brownlow asked him to verify her story, he said, “I wouldn’t want to contradict Mary.”
Ernst Lubitsch sent Mary a telegram in which he called Sparrows “one of the eight wonders of the world.” Mary herself thought if she died, she would have done so at the peak of her career, having made a film that even her most critical friends admired, “Even Charlie (Chaplin)".
“She projected herself as the kind of person that everyone wanted to meet and fall in love with. She was vibrant; she was sincere. She was good. She was also disarmingly charming and had a wonderful sense of humor. The whole world wanted to put its arms around her, and in a way, it did. She had a definite sexuality, but one of the kind that one anticipates experiencing only after having fallen deeply and idealistically in love. She was truly the ideal girl of the American Dream.” (Robert Cushman in Pickford/Brownlow).
If there is anybody in the world who doesn't know the subject of this portrait, they can write to Photoplay's Question and Answer man. So, we'll just make the title of this page, "Here is a new portrait of her" and let it go at that." Photoplay April 1918.
“…her films were unexcelled in their craftsmanship and technical polish. When seen on the big screen in good prints, they’re still stunning.” –Elliot Stein.
“I left the screen because I didn’t want what happened to Chaplin to happen to me. When he discarded the little trap, the little tramp turned around and killed him. The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me. I’d already been pigeonholed.” (Pickford in Brownlow/Parade).