SPARROWS (United Artists, 1926), directed by William Beaudine, is a prime example of good vs. evil with a timeless story centering upon abducted children, mostly orphans, being held in bondage on an isolated location surrounded by treacherous swamps and quicksand where they are put through slave labor with little nutrition, only a potato for each, as well as living in constant fear from a "family man" named Mr. Grimes, who threatens to throw them into the swamp if they don't behave. Headlining the cast of not-so-well known actors is Mary Pickford, one of the top names of the silent screen, whose performance in SPARROWS has been singled out as the finest and most revived of her long list of film credits. Better known as "America's Sweetheart," Pickford, as one of the "sparrows" (title inspired by the Biblical quotation concerning the Lord's attention even to the most humble sparrow) is convincing as the eldest and mother figure to the enslaved children, in spite of being a woman in her thirties, yet, this being her farewell performance as the little girl with pig tails, it's the sort of role moviegoers and film historians remember her best.
The opening inter-titles gives much indication as to what's to be seen: "The devil's share in the world's creation was a certain southern swampland - a masterpiece of horror and the Lord appreciating a good job, let it stand," followed by an overview of the location from where the story is set, "Then the devil went himself one better - and had Mr. Grimes live in the swamp." Grimes (Gustav Von Seyffertitz) is then introduced as the title cards read, going one better, seen limping through the swamp land with mosquitoes flying around his head, acquiring a doll to be given to a little girl on his farm, then crushing the doll's head and throwing it into the quicksand as he watches it slowly sinking. Next introduction is Mollie (Mary Pickford) along with the other little orphans flying her kite with a message for help attached. The kite flies away in the wind only to be caught on a tree branch. There goes her plea for help! The "sparrows" must hide in the barn whenever the bell rings so that they won't be visible to visitors buying hogs from Mr. Grimes. As the story progresses, Grimes acquires a two-year-old girl (Mary Louise Miller) from a couple of abductors, unaware that she is the daughter of millionaire David Wayne (Roy Stewart). When Grimes learns of the child's identity in the newspapers, and that police are on his trail, he attempts to dispose of the evidence by throwing her into the swamp, but Mollie prevents this, first by using a pitchfork as a weapon against Grimes, and later making a daring escape taking the baby and the other "sparrows" with her, risking their lives through the swamps, quicksand and very hungry crocodiles. With this being the highlight, it is followed by a second climatic scene that fails to recapture the initial thrill.
With the exception of Pickford and the child actors, much of the supporting players are very much like the Charles Dickens novels, unsympathetic types. Grimes is evil beyond belief; his wife (played by Charlotte Mineau) is an ignorant country woman with some common sense, but not quite as pleasant, while their son, Ambrose (Spec O'Donnell) is quite brutal, especially when he pleasures himself by bullying the sparrows, mainly the defenseless ones, ranging from a stuttering youngster to a lame boy bearing crutches.
Throughout the years, SPARROWS has been available in alternate versions, not in terms of length or missing scenes, but in music accompaniment. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York City had a tribute to Mary Pickford in June 1979, the very year of her death, SPARROWS was presented to an attentive audience with a slow pacing piano score, the same print shown in the 1982-83 public television's weekly series of "Sprockets." Distributed on video cassette through various distributors, ranging from those with an organ score by Gaylord Carter, piano or no score at all, Turner Classic Movies shows it on it's own "Silent Sunday Nights" equipped with piano score by William Perry from the Paul Killian collection, having the 1970s "Silent Years" feel to it.
As good as the story goes in regards to sentiment, suspense and limited doses of comedy, SPARROWS leaves some questions unanswered, one in particular regarding the father of Doris Wayne. With the only other female residing in his mansion being a private nurse, whatever became of the mother? Is he divorced or widowed? As for Pickford's character, she comes across as self-confident, religious and never losing her faith, praying to the Good Lord in hope that someday she and the nine other "sparrows" will obtain their long awaited freedom. One poignant scene occurs with Molly holding a dead baby in her arms as she envisions Jesus Christ approaching her and taking the infant with Him to Heaven.
Of the handful of screen villains at that time, such as Ernest Torrence or Tully Marshall, Von Seyffertitz comes across as very sinister, coming close to the physical resemblance to Max Schreck in the German made NOSFERATU (1922). In spite of a few weaknesses found in the screenplay, it's almost a perfect film. Only debit happens to be humorous scenes that seem to not fit into this atmospheric setting. It's also quite surprising that a movie with a touch of D.W. Griffith to be directed by William Beaudine, better known today more for his low-budget productions in later years.
With a majority of silent movies remade during the sound era, it's amazing that as popular as SPARROWS has become, that it wasn't redone. A remake with Anne Shirley as Mollie and Edward Ellis or Arthur Hohl as Grimes might have worked as good casting. However, as remakes go, very few have ever recaptured the success of the original. (***)