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Mary Pickford achieved fame and fortune playing a young girl with long golden curls. But when she turned 30, she decided to leave Little Mary behind. So she played adults in Rosita (1923) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924). Both films were profitable, but didn't do as well as her earlier films. In a signed article in Photoplay magazine, Mary asked her fans, "what type of picture would you like to see me do?" The response was overwhelming: "give us back our Little Mary!" So Pickford returned to adolescent roles in Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Sparrows (1926), in which she played an orphaned teenager who mothers her fellow orphans. It would be her last "Little Mary" role, and one of her best.
Sparrows is equal parts Gothic thriller and sentimental melodrama. Set in a swamp in the Deep South, it's the story of a "baby farm" whose evil overseer keeps the children in squalor. Spunky Mary protects and ultimately saves the children from his evil clutches. The set for the farm was built on four acres of Pickford's studio. Art director Harry Oliver transplanted hundreds of large trees and draped them with two boxcars' worth of Spanish moss. Oliver personally aged every bit of wood used to build the ramshackle farm and barns. Some of the scenes, such as a moonlight chase on the lake, were achieved with a combination of a constructed three-foot-deep lake and miniatures. Cameraman Hal Mohr recalled that for the miniature lake, Oliver used flax seed on which he sprinkled aluminum powder. He then carved a model boat which he pulled through the "lake" with a concealed string, leaving a sparkling, moonlit wake.
Filming the scene in which Mary carries the children to safety through the alligator-infested swamp was a story which Pickford told, with many embellishments, throughout her life. She claimed that they rehearsed the scene repeatedly, with real alligators, and that she carried a bag of flour instead of a baby. But she knew she would have to carry a real baby, and she told her husband Douglas Fairbanks that she worried about putting the child in danger. Whereupon Fairbanks marched down to the set and bawled out director William Beaudine, demanding that the stunt be performed using a double-exposure optical effect. But plucky Mary went ahead and did the scene with live gators and a real baby anyway. At least that's the most substantiated version of the story. But a close viewing of the film shows that the baby is a dummy. As for alligators, it's possible, but not probable, that Pickford rehearsed with the real reptiles. Cinematographer Hal Mohr discounted that as well: "There wasn't an alligator within ten miles of Miss Pickford," he scoffed. He then explained in detail how painstakingly the effect was accomplished. Fake or real, the scene is frighteningly effective.
After Sparrows, Mary Pickford starred in one more silent film, My Best Girl (1927), in which she played a shop girl who falls for the boss's son. Then she appeared in a handful of talking pictures in which she played adult roles, but Pickford soon realized she could never achieve the heights she'd reached as Little Mary in silent films. She retired to her home, Pickfair, where she lived in semi-seclusion until her death in 1979.
Producer: Mary Pickford
Director: William Beaudine
Screenplay: C. Gardner Sullivan, based on an original story by Winifred Dunn; titles by George Marion, Jr.
Editor: Harold McLernon
Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss, Hal Mohr
Art Direction: Harry Oliver
Principal Cast: Mary Pickford (Mama Mollie), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Grimes), Roy Stewart (Richard Wayne), Mary Louise Miller (Doris Wayne), Spec O'Donnell (Ambrose Grimes), Monty O'Grady (Splutters).
by Margarita Landazuri