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Sparrows (1926)
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by Jay Seaver

"What you expect from silents, which isn't bad."
4 stars

Watch enough silent films, and most will eventually come to appreciate them as a unique art form that had endless potential, even if they did originally think of them as slapstick, mugging for the camera, and girls flailing about tied to the train tracks. The thing is, sometimes they were those things, and sometimes that was good fun. "Sparrows" doesn't actually have any oncoming trains, but it does have quicksand, and that's the sort of thing that still often works as unvarnished entertainment.

It also has a "baby farm", full of kids whose poor parents had sent them away for one reason or another, and they were put to work. Molly (Mary Pickford) is the oldest of the children there, and the teenager looks after close to a dozen younger kids, because mean old Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyfferitz) and his wife (Charlotte Mineau) aren't going to do more than the absolute minimum. In fact, they're not above things like selling one boy ("Spec" O'Donnell) to the grocer or using the farm to hide a toddler (Mary Louise Miller) who has been kidnapped from her wealthy father (Roy Stewart).

Mary Pickford was in her mid-thirties when she made Sparrows, maybe a bit old to be playing someone in her early teens, although with her petite size and signature curls, it's not as crazy a stretch as it may sound. She certainly gets the body language and general attitude of Molly right; even if there were no intertitles, it would be clear that while this girl is uneducated, she's got the common sense and gumption to deal with whatever situation is thrown at her. It can be tough to figure out just how good a performance someone in a silent managed - those of us raised on the talkies often judge acting by how someone delivers lines, and as a result find ourselves "remembering" accents and deliveries based in part on what we see in the captions - but Pickford certainly makes Molly seem like the real deal.

Gustav von Seyffertitz does an equally impressive job as the villain of the piece. Even for a bunch of kids, he doesn't necessarily look like an impressive adversary - he's bent over and limping, not exactly physically imposing. He's got the sort of permanent scowl, shriveled heart, and unstoppable persistence of a creature from a monster movie, though, and his very pettiness makes him seem more evil. He's a perfect match for the miserable little swamp farm where most of the movie takes place - the fact that it looks like a little thing built in the middle of a sound stage works in its favor, emphasizing just how little he and by extension the kids have.

Main director William Beaudine and the crew know how to use what they've got to stage an entertaining chase, though; the back end of the movie may not quite be the sort of daredevil stunt that Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were pulling off, but it's got kids traversing perilous branches over viscous swamps waiting to swallow them up, and even if you can often see the strings on the rubber alligators, the cast sell the audience in how the characters believe in their peril, even if it's leavened with a certain amount of fearlessness and adventure. There's a similar charm to the build-up to those scenes - as monstrous as the Grimeses are, there's equal measure of pluck and cynicism to Molly and the other kids that is plenty of fun to watch.

It's simple pleasures, sure, but genuine ones. "Sparrows" is not high art - it is, in fact, almost exactly what you might expect from a silent movie based on the handed-down stereotypes - but it's generally an example of how those things worked back then, and still work on some level now.

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originally posted: 02/08/14 13:45:46
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User Comments

12/01/16 E. Hunter Hale A great film showcasing Mary Pickford and the art of cinematography as it had developed . 5 stars
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  14-Mar-1926 (NR)



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