Saturday, October 04, 2008


Turvattomat. US 1926. PC: The Pickford Corporation. P: Mary Pickford. D: William Beaudine. Story: Winifred Dunn. DP: Charles Rosher, Hal Mohr, Karl Struss. CAST: Mary Pickford (Mama Molly), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Mr. Grimes), Walter “Spec” O’Donnell (Ambrose). Orig. l: 7763 ft. Print: LoC (restored 2006), 7763 ft /21 fps/ 95 min, tinted, original in English, e-subtitles in Italian, viewed at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Cinema Verdi, 4 September 2008.
Score composed by Jeffrey Silverman. Performed live for the first time by Orchestra Sinfonica del Friuli Venezia Giulia. Conducted by Hugh Munro Neely.
The conductor on the score: "This performance marks the premiere of a new symphonic score for Sparrows by Jeffrey Silverman, a Los Angeles based composer. (...) For this new score, the composer has employed an expansive harmonic palette that is as atmospheric, in its own way, as the fantastic settings designed by Harry Oliver for the film itself. The orchestra employs a compact woodwind section, full brass, percussion, piano and harp, in addition to a relatively large string section."
Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta: "Sparrows is Mary Pickford’s masterpiece. Both Charles Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch—two of her most critical and contentious contemporaries—praised it as her finest work. Although Pickford had greater commercial successes as well as films that garnered more critical acclaim, Sparrows is her most fully realized and timeless work of art. The film’s superb performances, gothic production design, and cinematography are all at the service of a suspenseful, emotionally-compelling story anchored by a central performance imbued with pathos, humor, and charm.
Throughout the early 1920s, “America’s Sweetheart” longed to eschew “the little girl with the golden curls” and expand her range in adult roles and more ambitious productions. Her two forays into this arena, Rosita (1923) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), found success at the box office, but to Pickford they were disappointments, as they failed to surpass the greatest of her previous releases. Her first venture back into the world of pre-adolescence, Little Annie Rooney (1925), was such a commercial hit that Pickford reassembled much of the same team for a follow up. Originally entitled Swamp Babies, the film was in actuality a daring departure for Pickford: a suspenseful drama with a darkly gothic visual style, which quickly became known during production as The Baby Farm.
Baby farms, places where the children of unwed mothers, prostitutes, or deserted wives were boarded for hire and then often sold like commodities to adoptive parents, were notorious rackets in certain sections of America in the 1920s. From this contemporary scandal, Winifred Dunn created a melodrama which, as Edward Wagenknecht and others have previously noted, contains several Dickensian touches in its focus on abused children, background of mysterious misdeeds, and in the demonic Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz) who owns the farm, a character fully the equal of Dickens’ Mr. Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby. Pickford plays “Mama Molly” the eldest child and guardian of the farm’s little “sparrows.” (The film’s title is drawn from a passage in the Gospel of Luke: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.”)
Three acres of the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios Hollywood lot were transformed into a gothic nightmare, the centerpiece being a bubbling swamp, under the supervision of art director Harry Oliver. Six hundred trees were acquired; pits were created and filled with muddy water, sawdust, and burnt cork to effectively achieve the stylized look of the production. The cinematography was greatly influenced by German stylized cinema as a result of the German UFA studios having engaged the services of Pickford’s favorite cinematographer, Charles Rosher, as photographic consultant on F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). Pickford also retained two additional cinematographers: Karl Struss and Hal Mohr. The three men produced beautiful, painterly images for Sparrows that are the equal of the very best films of the period. (Rosher and Struss subsequently photographed Murnau’s Sunrise [1927]). Sparrows had a supporting cast of eleven children under the age of ten and required director William Beaudine’s skill with them, just as he demonstrated with the many children that populated the cast of Little Annie Rooney.
Pickford was thirty-three years old in 1925. Despite the public's continual clamor for "Little Mary,” she undoubtedly realized that her days of portraying pre-teens and adolescents were drawing to a close. This knowledge uniquely informs her portrayal of Molly with a beguiling wistfulness and in the last of her little girl roles, Pickford is a revelation. She always understood that the motion picture experience was an intensely intimate one between viewer and screen, and through her superbly modulated performance, she reaches the highest levels of silent communication with her audience. Nowhere is this assertion more exquisitely demonstrated than in the sublime sequence in which Molly, attempting to nurse one of her desperately ill “sparrows” back to health, awakens from what she assumes is a Divine Hallucination of Christ taking the child to Heaven. Upon awakening and finding the infant dead in her arms, a river of emotion washes over her face. Through her large expressive eyes one sees her confusion, distress, devastating realization, and finally, calm resignation and knowing gratitude that the child has gone to a better place. It is a virtual primer in the art of silent screen acting.
One of the most lyrical and moving scenes in the film, the sequence in the final cut evolved from something quite different. Surviving outtakes depict an earlier conception in which a phosphorescent angel takes the dead body from Molly’s arms. The effects shots were completed, but were ultimately rejected from the final version which tied more clearly to earlier plot points of the film. (Molly had earlier been shown reading a tattered illustrated booklet of the Christian Scripture).
Pickford’s own maternal feelings were never more evident to her than when she made Sparrows. Although she confessed in her autobiography that she “had maternal designs on every baby that played with me on the screen,” she was inordinately fond of Mary Louise Miller, who plays baby Doris Wayne. Pickford desperately wanted to adopt the cherubic Miller, and newspapers reported that Pickford offered her parents a million dollars to adopt her. Miller’s parents refused to part with their child. Correspondence survives between Pickford and Miller well into the 1970s; Pickford signed her letters to Miller as “Mama Molly” until the end.
The most celebrated scene in Sparrows involves Molly (with Baby Doris on her shoulders) and her flock of children making a desperate attempt at freedom across a crumbling, low-hanging branch above an alligator-infested swamp pursued by Mr. Grimes and his vicious dog. The scene is also famous for apocryphal stories—principally told by Pickford herself—that it had been rehearsed with live alligators before an incensed Douglas Fairbanks put an end to it. Contradicting Pickford was Hal Mohr, who photographed the sequence and spoke of his use of split screen for this scene. Mohr carefully counted each turn of the camera’s crank and a script supervisor maintained a detailed continuity record of when the alligators lept or snapped their jaws so that Pickford and the children might recoil properly at the precise moments. The superb Library of Congress restoration print clearly reveals that the snapping mouths and movements of the alligators for this scene are being manipulated by an ingenious system of wires. Although these revealing shots may at first appear to shatter the carefully constructed illusion,the cumulative effect makes the incredible craft of the original filming all the more impressive. (...)
It was the opinion of the public, however, that Pickford cared about most, and they were uneasy about the film. Pickford told Kevin Brownlow in 1965, “My picture Sparrows wasn’t too successful, comparatively speaking, because of an error of judgment. We tried to put too much drama into it….it was so terrifying for many people seeing babies in such danger that Sparrows didn’t do as well as it might have done.” Sparrows had a production cost of $463,455.00 and its domestic gross was a respectable $966,878.00.
In retrospect, it is now clear that Sparrows was a great film released at the wrong time. The very qualities which made many filmgoers, and even its star, uneasy in its initial release are the same attributes which gave it resonance in later years. Thanks to the Library of Congress restoration, Sparrows can finally be viewed in its full pictorial glory, and gain reappraisal as one of the masterworks of the silent cinema. It is also the perfect introduction for twenty first century film audiences to the magic of Mary Pickford." - Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta
A beautiful print of a familiar film (I included it in my MMM Film Guide on the 1100 best films in 2005), and a magnificent score.

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