A local gardener, Charlie, told me that, at the age of 5, he met Mary Pickford in 1927 in Anaheim, California. He still remembers that day well; any five-year old who met Pickford at that time must have thought of her as a big sister.
Pickford plays Molly in “Sparrows,” the oldest child a 1926 film directed by William Beaudine. She toils at a swamp orphanage, or baby farm, cruelly lorded over by Mr. Grimes. Molly and her 10 young charges, destitute orphans all, dig potatoes and corn, avoid alligators and quicksand, and pray daily for a rescue out of their dreary swamp. As the opening title card says, “The Devil’s share in the world’s creation was a certain southern swampland — a masterpiece of horror.”
Grimes, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz, schemes a kidnapping of a rich child and has her brought to his baby farm, where Molly mothers her. As the police close in, Grimes conspires to get rid of the evidence (i.e., throw her into the swamp), but Molly does her best to protect the little girl. This leads to a flight of the children across the alligator infested swamp, and then a high-speed boat chase.
It amazes me that Pickford could so convincingly play a 12-year old, but the then 34 year-old diminutive star definitely pulls it off. In the biography, “William Beaudine: From Silents to Television,” author Wendy L. Marshall says Pickford personally picked Beaudine to direct the picture. He directed her previous movie, “Little Annie Rooney, but friends warned that directing her so soon again would make him “screwy.” The experience traumatized Beaudine so much that he developed temporary paralysis on one side of his face. Thankfully, Beaudine’s background as a comedy director and the several comic touches well put over by Pickford and the children keep Sparrows from being an unrelentingly dark picture.