Friday, November 21, 2008

Film Review--Sparrows

directed by William Beaudine
written by Winifred Dunn
adapted by C. Gardner Sullivan
starring Mary Pickford, Roy Stewart, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Charlotte Mineau, Spec O’Donnell, Lloyd Whitlock, Monty O’ Grady

A gaggle of filthy children are barely subsisting on a wretched baby farm owned by the diabolical Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz). They are cared for by the loving teenaged Molly (Pickford) who does what she can to keep the brood clothed and fed.

The children are all rotting without proper nourishment both intellectual and material. They are all mostly caked with dirt but they follow Molly’s lead and pray for a better life that it seems will never come. They work for Mr. Grimes tending to his scant fields and live in fear that he just might toss them into the swamp or feed them to the alligators. Grimes is a greedy bastard and he jumps at the chance to bring another tot into the fold even if it means the kid is napped in order to bring the deal into fruition. Indeed, a chubby toddler quickly finds herself sitting plumply on Grimes’s kitchen table as the nasty money fills Grimes’s pockets. Molly takes immediately to the new arrival and spends the rest of the film protecting her from the sinister machinations of the old man.

The film itself seems caked in mud as the entire lot save a few minor characters are very sorry indeed. The children seem hopeless and both the Grimes’s themselves are horrifically poor and shabbily attired. There isn’t but a modicum of joy to be found in the entire film and that naturally comes at the end when everything is solved for its own sake. Otherwise, it’s just dirty, smelly children chasing each other about and trying their best to keep out of old Grimy’s way. He doesn’t much like children and only uses them for work purposes. He doesn’t punish them directly but they must always be on their guard lest he sick his dog on them. The kids are also taunted routinely by the Grimes’s sissy pants son Ambrose (O’Donnell) who picks on the younger ones and cries to mommy and daddy when the slightest thing goes amiss.

There is quite a bit of tension during the final scenes where everything comes to a head and the children must escape with their lives through dangerous terrain that takes great focus to conquer. Grimes faces the piper as well leading up to the necessary ending when all turns happy and gay. It’s the only proper way to end such a sad state of affairs as this. One couldn’t possible leave these young ‘uns deprived of just about everything one expects children living in the Western world to enjoy as their birthright. It is never disclosed just where these brats come from but it is suggested that many of them were snatched away from warm beds and loving parents. Molly herself has a mysterious origin and it’s difficult to fathom what unlucky twist of fate brought her into her predicament.

Molly is presented as a good little mother who has been forced to care for a rather substantial group of youngsters. She seems to manage well and all the kids seem to adore her for the care she has taken to care for them as if she really were their mother. She considers the kids to be hers and will not part with them for even a second. They appear to provide her with a sense of purpose and add great meaning to her life. It’s the only thing in an otherwise dismal existence that gives her pleasure and opens her heart. Molly prays regularly for the children and they dutifully follow her lead and cast their gaze heavenward toward a place where they are not so routinely bowled under by the crushing realities of their lives. This is a film about longstanding faith and the power of prayer to change the lives of those who are steadfast and remain diligent in their supplication to God.

It’s rather strange and perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention but as the film opens there are at least ten kids and during their great escape there only seems to be seven and by the end there are nine. At first I imagined two of the weaker turdlings being preyed upon by the alligators but I figured this isn’t the kind of film that lets children suffer such a terrible fate. Still, it perked me up a bit until I realized that they all survived and I was left to await the necessary conclusion.

In my humble opinion there just isn’t enough Mary Pickford in this film. She shines in every scene and it’s a thrill to watch her do just about anything. When she’s not on the screen the children quickly wear thin because they remain a mass and we never get to know them as individuals. Can they do any tricks? What scares them more than anything in the world? What silly tales have they been fed that inform how they look at the world?

The music for this print does a grand job creating tension throughout. The scenes with Mr. Grimes are darkly somber pieces that truly reflect the blackness of his soul. Molly’s music is heroic and one is left with a clear impression of her integrity.

The performances here all work within the context of the film. As mentioned Mary Pickford is one of those rare creatures in cinema that it is absolutely impossible to take one’s eyes off of. She’s a ravishing gamine whose very presence makes this a watchable film. She plays the complex emotions afflicting her character with natural ease that makes one sad that she was never really able to make the transition into talkies. Roy Stewart says quite a lot with his cruel laughter in this film. He slithers about and seems to grow darker as the film progresses. His character is clearly drawn as an man of ill will and the film projects him as a bona fide creep.

Overall, this is a film that is best remembered as a Mary Pickford vehicle. The story meanders and feels too long. Ultimately the children weigh it down even though they don’t really do much of anything at all besides look wan and hungry. It does possess a certain line of terror for a while but that only works if one isn’t gearing up to watch one of the tasty morsels get eaten.

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