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 head 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 decrepit 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 lovely 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 Mary carrying 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 the director, William Beaudine. But plucky Mary went ahead and did the scene with real gators and real baby anyway. That’s also the way contemporary accounts told the story. But a close viewing of the film shows that the baby seems to be a dummy. As for alligators, it’s possible, but not probable, that Pickford rehearsed with the real beasts, but after Doug’s tantrum, it was done optically. 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, Pickford starred in one more silent film, My Best Girl (1927), in which she played a shopgirl who falls for the boss’s son. Her roles in her few talking films were all adults, but she 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.
Mary Pickford was the most famous and powerful woman in the film business during the silent era. She was an industry pioneer who became Hollywood’s first movie star, with a cult-like popularity that made her a national icon and an international celebrity. Pickford also had a business savvy that gave her nearly total control of her creative output, with her own production company and a partnership in a major film distribution company, all before she was 30 years old. She blazed a trail in an industry that was in its infancy, a trail few actors have walked.
Pickford was born Gladys Smith in 1892 in Toronto, Canada. After her father was killed in an accident, Gladys, at age seven, became the family’s main breadwinner by performing in the theater. In fact, the stage became a family venture, as her younger siblings Lottie and Jack—and even her mother—took up the trade. But the drive and determination to be a star belonged solely to Gladys. In 1907, her ambition led her to the Broadway stage and famed producer-director David Belasco, who had her change her name to Mary Pickford and gave her a part in The Warrens of Virginia.
In 1909, when Pickford was between stage engagements, she approached director D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Company in New York and asked for work in moving pictures. She had no intention of working permanently in the new medium but hoped the income would tide her over before she went back to Belasco and the stage. Pickford was intrigued with film actin, and before long she began to enjoy “posing” for motion pictures. She stayed with the Biograph Company working as both an actress and writer from 1909 to 1911, leaving for a brief stint with the Independent Motion Picture Company and later with Majestic. She returned to Griffith at Biograph in early 1912, finishing out the year with him. In 1913, after a run on Broadway in A Good Little Devil, Pickford made a definitive break from the stage by signing a film contract with Adolph Zukor and the Famous Players movie company. 1913 marked the dawn of the feature film, and Mary Pickford was about to become its biggest star.
In fact, she came to features with a well-established legacy. “Moving Picture Mary” was the first movie star to adorn the cover of the New York Dramatic Mirror, which she did in December 1911, an honor previously bestowed only on theatrical stars. And because moviegoers had already singled out Pickford as a favorite, her success in features was guaranteed. In 1914, Pickford’s Tess of the Storm Country, the story of a fiery young woman fighting for the underclass, caused a sensation. The extraordinary reaction made Pickford an international star and created fan worship never before been witnessed.
This success gave Pickford incredible bargaining power. In 1916 she negotiated a contract that gave her a $10,000-dollar a week salary, 50 percent of her film profits, and her own production company. Pickford had to sign off on every aspect of her productions, from the script to the director. She was even known to have a hand in editing. During these years she worked with directors Maurice Tourneur and Marshall Neilan, the writer Frances Marion, and made some of the best features of her career, including Stella Maris, Poor Little Rich Girl, and The Hoodlum. In 1919, Pickford cofounded United Artists, the first independent film distribution company, with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and her future husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She was only 27 years old.
In 1920, Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks were wed in a private ceremony but shared their married life with the world. At first the couple had feared a negative reaction (both were already married when they met), but their union only fed into the romantic fantasies many fans had about Hollywood. The couple was mobbed at every port on their whirlwind European honeymoon. Back in California, they relished their place as the King and Queen of Hollywood, holding court at their home, known as Pickfair. Pickford decided to make only one film a year after 1921, focusing on the quality of her productions. Many believe that she was at her creative peak during the teens, but her films of the 1920s were the most successful, including a remake of Tess of Storm County, Rosita, and Sparrows.
The decade’s last year brought about major changes in the industry and for Mary Pickford. By 1929, the talkies had all but obliterated silent film. Pickford knew she could not resist the change; she cut her old-fashioned curls and made two talkies before the decade ended. Coquette won her an Oscar for best actress and The Taming of the Shrew featured the much anticipated pairing of Pickford and her husband Fairbanks. But even with good reviews and promotion, these films were not as successful as her silent pictures.
Pickford attempted two more sound features then retired in 1933 after 23 years of making movies. And though she kept producing films starring other actors after her retirement, she never found the experience as satisfying as her own career. Pickford, whose professional decline had begun in the same year as the death of her beloved mother in 1928, saw her brother and sister die in the 1930s. In 1936, her fairytale marriage to Douglas Fairbanks ended in divorce. Fairbanks died of heart failure only three years later. In 1937, Pickford married actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers, her costar in My Best Girl. The marriage lasted until Mary Pickford’s death.
It has been nearly 100 years since Pickford walked in front of a motion picture camera for the first time, but that elusive something that audiences found so alluring in those first movies of the 20th century can still be found in her movies today. Her tough but kind, sweet but strong characters who stand up for the underdog and pull themselves through the most harrowing of situations are as enjoyable to watch now as they were when first released.
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by Michael Mortilla