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Sparrows

Sparrows(1926)

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teaser Sparrows (1926)

For years Mary Pickford claimed the title of "America's Sweetheart" for herembodiment of innocent charm and ebullient optimism. These qualities areabundantly evident in Little Annie Rooney (1925), one of theperformances that defines her cinematic persona.

The genesis of the film began as Pickford was one night wandering through adeserted urban set on a Hollywood backlot. She thought it might beeffective to play a rough-and-tumble Irish girl of the pavements. Seekingfurther advice from someone with a distinctly Irish-American perspective,she called silent comedienne Mabel Normand, who simply suggested, "I'd getan Irish title...and write something to go with it."

In the titular role, Pickford is an inner-city ragamuffin who stirs uptrouble in the tenements during the day, while in the evening tending toher father, a burly, firm-but-fair Irish cop (Walter James). The seniorRooney keeps a watchful eye on Annie's brother Tim (Gordon Griffith), whohas fallen in with a band of streetcorner loafers teetering on the edge ofcriminality. Annie harbors a not-so-secret crush on Tim's pal Joe (WilliamHaines), a handsome tough who seems destined to follow in the footsteps ofSpider (Hugh Fay), the neighborhood ex-con.

During a brawl at a neighborhood dance, Officer Rooney is shot by one ofTim's delinquent sidekicks (Carlo Schipa), who casts the blame on Joe.Devastated by her father's death, Annie clings to the belief that Joe mustbe innocent and endeavors to save him, even as her brother takes gun inhand to avenge the murder of his father.

Haines, who plays Annie's would-be love interest, was a popular leading manin the silent era, but is most famous today for being one of the firstmajor Hollywood stars not to hide his homosexuality. Ultimately Haines's refusal toforsake his lover, Jimmie Shields, damaged his acting career, but fordecades he remained a respected and beloved member of the Hollywoodcommunity. (Joan Crawford called Haines and Shields "the happiest marriedcouple in Hollywood.")

One of the founding members of United Artists, Pickford was perhaps themost powerful woman in Hollywood at the time, not only a top-drawerbox-office star but the head of her own production company. Tired of thesausage-curled sweetheart that she had been playing since the early 1910sunder D.W. Griffith, Pickford used her independence to escape the wholesomewaif stereotype. "I hate these curls!" she once said. "I'm in a dramaticrut eternally playing this curly-headed girl. I loathe them!"

After such departure films as Frances Marion's The Love Light (1921)and the costume picture Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924, whichshe co-directed with Marshall Neilan), she felt obliged to provide her fanswith a quintessential Pickford performance. So, as Variety reportedin its review of Little Annie Rooney, "Gone are the long velvetrobes, the flowing plumes, the brocades and white powdered wigs, and Maryis again a smudgy-faced gamin of the streets. She's dirty-hands,dirty-face and all that sort of things, and the fans are going to love herto death."

Pickford's decision to star in Little Annie Rooney was not a totalconcession to the public's desires. Instead of the much-despised sausagecurls, she allowed her hair to dangle in two waist-length braids. At thetime she made the film, Pickford was 32 years old, but was still able toblend in with actors a third her age, testament not only to her diminutivesize but to her gifts of mimicry.

Her juvenile co-stars were probably based on the successful "Our Gang" kids,who had been assembled by producer Hal Roach circa 1922. But the OurGang chums inhabited a more idyllic world than the gritty urban setting ofLittle Annie Rooney. Presaging the dour setting of 1937's Dead End(which spawned the "Dead End Kids"), Pickford's film places itsdirty-faced waifs in a crime-ridden asphalt jungle. Regardless ofthe dour socio-economic circumstances that surround them, the multi-cultirascals maintain their pluck and childish innocence. Only in a Hollywoodreconstruction of tenement life could Irish, Greek, Jewish,African-American, Italian and Chinese children wage war with volleys ofbricks and bottles, all in the spirit of wholesome fun. So bright is theoverriding charm of Pickford that the audience is blind to the story'spotentially depressing setting. A year later, she further challengedaudience optimism by leading a group of orphans through analligator-infested swamp in Sparrows (1926), and again succeeded.

Both Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows were directed byWilliam Beaudine, who was essentially a Hollywood workhorse with a gift forstrictly adhering to budgets and schedules. In the course of hisfifty-year career he directed approximately 250 films and numerous TVshows, ranging from high-profile star vehicles to skid row comedies (suchas Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, 1952). Beaudine was cannyenough to know what the audience expected of Little Annie Rooney,and he kept the camera focused on Pickford as much as possible. In one scene ofunmitigated pathos, the camera is riveted to Pickford's face as Annieresponds to news of her father's death -- releasing a torrent of tears andwoeful expressions of little-girl grief. Few actresses could stand up tosuch a demanding task, but Pickford does so with grace and power. Thepainfully prolonged close-up becomes the emotional core of Little AnnieRooney, and reminds viewers of the remarkable acting talent possessedby Pickford, a genuine mastery of the art that might easily be overlookedamid the woman-child playfulness for which she is more famous.

As if the challenge of depicting Annie's grief were not difficult enough,Beaudine broke the proper mood by yelling, just before the take, "All rightboys, get out the rubber boots, Mary has got to cry!" After Pickford got backinto character, the shoot was interrupted by Rudolph Valentino, whoappeared on the set for an unexpected visit. "At any other time hispresence would have been thrilling and welcome," Pickford later wrote inher autobiography Sunshine and Shadow, "but that afternoon it threwme emotionally off balance. It took me hours to get back into the mood ofthe tragedy of that little girl of twelve. Had it been make-believe andnothing more, I could have turned it on and off at will. But I really wasthat bereaved little orphan."

Pickford may have tapped into a vein of stress that was running deepthrough her own life at the time. Police had uncovered a plot to kidnapthe actress, but could not arrest the culprits until they actuallyattempted to abduct her. Watched by a bodyguard, often accompaniedby police escort, sometimes employing a decoy "double," the actress wasrequired to maintain her usual acting/producing schedule while alwayswondering when the kidnappers might strike. Eventually the men wereapprehended and sentenced to ten to fifty years at San Quentinprison.

Producer: Mary Pickford
Director: William Beaudine
Screenplay: Louis Lighton and Hope Loring
Based on a story by Katherine Hennessey
Cinematography: Charles Rosher and Hal Mohr
Production Design: John D. Schulze
Principal Cast: Mary Pickford (Annabelle Rooney), William Haines (Joe Kelly),Walter James (Officer Rooney), Gordon Griffith (Tim Rooney).
BW-95m.

By Bret Wood

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teaser Sparrows (1926)

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).
BW-82m.

by Margarita Landazuri

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