Friday, April 18, 2008

Mary Pickford

I finally got around to crossing Coquette off the list of Oscar-winning movies I hadn't seen yet. I'd do a longer review of it, but it's not available on DVD. Suffice it to say that it's a creaky melodrama, with poor Mary Pickford miscast as a young southern belle (she was 36 at the time the movie was made) trying a southern accent. In fact, Pickford, although commonly known as "America's Sweetheart", was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (And Mary Pickford wasn't her real name; she was born Gladys Marie Smith, and got the Mary from her middle name and Pickford from her mother's maiden name.) Her acting style translates better to silent pictures, and if you want to see an excellent Pickford movie that's available on DVD, get yourself a copy of Sparrows.

Pickford plays Mollie, the oldest of several orphaned children on a "baby farm" run by the evil Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Grimes makes the children do all the work and basically treats them as slaves, locking them up in a barn when anyody comes so that the visitors won't know what Grimes is up to, and giving the kids meager rations on which to survive. Meanwhile, Grimes decides to make a little money on the side by kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy local man and holding the girl for ransom. The two plots collide when one of Mollie's charges dies of malnourishment, in a very well-done sequence that involves Jesus taking the baby to Heaven with Him.

Mollie, realizing the danger facing all of the kids, decides that the only thing left for them to do is escape. The only problem is, they can't just walk out the front entrance of the farm; and the rest of the farm is surrounded by an alligator-infested swamp! Still, plucky little Mollie takes the kids and makes a break for it, shepherding her charges while fending off the alligators. (In reality, the scenes are done using splicing, so there really wasn't much danger to the cast other than possibly falling out of trees.) To be sure, it's a melodrama, but audiences of the day liked melodrama, and without the possibility of spoken dialogue, movies had to resort to broader gestures to convey emotions to the audiences. And in Sparrows, the cast is so good, and the story so engaging, that it doesn't matter if it's melodramatic and a bit over the top.

Sparrows is highly recommended, and not just for seeing Mary Pickford.

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