The Library of Congress restoration is a step in the right direction, but projected at the wrong speed by the Academy itself in its West Coast premiere, around the corner on Vine Street from the film’s original venue at the Egyptian, and without the proper music cues, it’s enough to make Douglas Fairbanks fighting mad (it premiered with The Black Pirate, a 1926 “duplex”).
Sparrows is a great film. Beaudine knows it, Pickford and the cast know it. As a matter of fact, the original trailer says, “If Mary Pickford never made another film, Sparrows would be enough to make her name live forever,” and that’s strictly true, however much it got up the nose of the New York Times’ nameless reviewer. The outdoor set is supposed to have been constructed on the lot near Hollywood and La Brea, but looks exactly like a swamp in the deep South “built by the Devil, and left standing by God as an admirable piece of work.” This is typical of the entire production, where the highest artistic standard is met and maintained, not least in the boat chase at the end, intercut between two full-size craft in the water tank with bows spraying and engines frothing, and models representing open water with very broad swells reaching the shore, the entire sequence filmed as a night exterior.
The famous alligators are so realistic in their effect that they can snap at the camera dramatically and create the scene. Pickford says Fairbanks demanded a process shot in place of live alligators and was refused. Some say a matte shot was used here or there. The live alligators in one shot may have been kept apart from the actors and made to look close. A trained, skeptical observer at the Academy premiere didn’t even notice that some of the alligators were props.
The squalor of the baby farm is mitigated by horizontal light making it a naturalistic setting dominated by greed and cruelty, like Mr. Grimes himself, whose curled hand and limp are not stylized. He takes the money sent for his orphans’ upkeep, crumples the letter and drops the doll into the bubbling, oozing swamp, where it sinks.
He’s dropped a few live ones into it as well. Add to this that the farm is gated, that the children send pleas for help on kites that crash in the moss-laden trees, and you have enough for an image. Grimes overreaches, however, by conspiring to kidnap the infant daughter of a wealthy family, and this eventually leads to the rescue of the orphans, “those little birds of humanity,” as the trailer says.
Our Mother’s House has the stutterer in its brood (here called, though he doesn’t like it, “Splutters”), Psycho the swamp (Clayton’s film echoes the house and shed as well). When Molly has braved the dangers of the swamp and Grimes’ hound to bring the baby (and the little orphans) to its father, Pickford left alone in the shot strikes the pose of Rodin’s The Shade (this escape is remembered in Hathaway’s Nevada Smith). It’s a definitive expression of the scene, after what she has been through, receiving no thanks. Pickford does this again in an earlier scene when an orphan baby dies in her arms. After a dream interlude, she wakes and realizes what has happened, then looks upward with a terribly eloquent smile.
This interlude was originally to have been an angel receiving the baby into its outstretched hands. Four complete attempts were made to film it (slate numbers 588, 588A, 588B, 588C, in the Library of Congress) in double exposure, with and without an introduction of light beams fanning out upon the baby, whose inert, supine body rises to float towards the angel, strongly suggesting a great scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In the event, it was decided to have the rear wall dissolve into a vision of Jesus among sheep. The Savior walks into the granary loft (this time there is no double exposure) and takes the baby with him.
In contradistinction to such scenes is a good deal of comedy (some critics have objected to one side of this equation, some to the other), which is played very well indeed. It’s a matter of filching some extra potatoes for the starvelings, or of a very surprised baby getting splashed back down at the stream.
The tintings in faint blue and gold are refreshing and help to distinguish cross-cuttings in the pursuit. The beautiful cinematography has been everywhere commented on.
The Old Fashioned Way
The showman’s life. A brass band is for the member of some fraternal order or other, he lives by his devices and his wits.
A wealthy patroness is frozen out. The romantic interest is handled in rapid-fire analyses of The Drunkard (dissolute collegian brought back to the fold) and, on the distaff side, East Lynne. The performances are rigorous and demonstrative.
After this inculcation of art in Bellefontaine, where every note of its reception is carefully given by Beaudine, The Great McGonigle (W.C. Fields) solus rex demonstrates his “juggling and conjuring”.
In the end, he’s selling Yack’ Wee Indian Tonic, “it cures hoarseness!”
In the village of St. Marvell the church spire is falling down, the vicar is obliged to raise a thousand pounds, “roughly.”
An airplane out of petrol lands on the road, roughly completing the image (a future son-in-law is the pilot).
A complicated image, far too many for Britmovie.
The title is a horse named after the vicar, who is persuaded to bet on it in a steeplechase.
A masterpiece, roughly, from Sir Arthur Wing Pinero.
Where There’s a Will
A boozy London lawyer with a puppyish clerk and no clients is used as a patsy by a gang of American crooks, shakedown racketeers on the lam out to “tap a bank” below his office, he’s to trace the lineage of a Chicago McCracken who’s the bait and moll of the outfit.
They saw down through his floor like it was Rififi, his fingerprints are left behind.
The contemptuous brother-in-law gotten up as Henry VIII is their next target in the course of a fancy dress Christmas party at his country house.
Beaudine has authority in his “New York and Pennsylvania” gangsters, the greatest delight in everything to do with this, a very funny script and a very adept cast for what has seemed to a critic or two essentially obscure, “rather slapdash”, says Halliwell, “with very good scenes along the way.”
Windbag The Sailor
A voyage to Norway round the Horn from Falport, captained by Ben Cutlett the canal bargeman.
He likes a boast, the Rob Roy is for scuttling, never been to sea in his life, a perfect mug.
A Sea Scout and an old pub landlord number one and two him, over the side on a raft to a cannibal isle.
Beaudine is surprisingly in his element here, from pub and hall to the high seas on a vivid freighter like Keaton in The Navigator.
Time Out Film Guide calls this “rudimentary”, which is the very word Halliwell chooses for Wellman’s Blood Alley.
Horace Takes Over
One of Beaudine’s immortal concoctions, on a honeymoon couple from the wilds of Connecticut, in New York for the first time, mistaken for a gangster and his moll.
Also known as One Thrilling Night.
The Ape Man
A very masterful film built around a single horror gag handled with such simplicity as to be poetic, with a surrounding armature of brilliant wiseacre comedy and a conclusion that just blows the whole thing up into a Mallarméan aperçu.
This is plainly a precedent for Christian Nyby’s The Thing, possibly even a missing link, anyway shedding much light on that vexed question.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter
Two entirely different films coincide at a former monastery in Arizona.
The outlaw has a wounded friend who’s just the physical specimen wanted for a brain transplant to achieve total control.
The Mexican villagers at the foot of the hill have been preyed upon for experiments. Jesse James, betrayed by an informer in the depleted Wild Bunch, makes the acquaintance of Juanita and her folks.