As a young girl, I got a lot of use out of Eugene, Oregon’s small public library. It was where I plotted my adulthood. In those pre-internet days, I’d spend hours pouring over photos of yesteryear’s Hollywood glamour queens. Though I had my favorites: Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, I was enamored of anyone sultry and glowing in the enchanted light of the studio publicity machine. Very rarely was I disinterested in an actress. Only when a star was purposefully dull– seeming to refuse glamour in favor of sweetness, wholesomeness or purity– did I reject her. I was an aspirational fan, planning an adulthood swathed in sleek satin, rarefied cocktails, and sexy, mournful trumpets; I had no use for Jane Wyman or June Allyson. And I was particularly annoyed with publishers who wasted precious pages on Mary Pickford. With her treacly-sweet expressions and victorian ringlets, Pickford was the antithesis of vampy womanhood: she was delicate, moral and sexless.
It is only reluctantly and accidentally that I have come to appreciate Mary Pickford’s charms. Because I’ve made it my policy to see any silent movie that plays locally on a big screen, I’ve seen two Pickford pictures in the last two years, both accompanied by live original scores (I guess Seattle is a Mary Pickford kind of town). Last year, I saw her in a magical version of “A Little Princess” and last night I saw a screening of the poignant and surprisingly action-packed “Sparrows.”
In “Sparrows”, Pickford plays Molly, a scrappy and angelic teen-age “orfant” trapped on a baby farm in the middle of a trashy southern swamp. Molly is a curious but like-able creature, apparently constructed of 100% mothering instinct, absolutely devoted to caring for nine younger orphans. Her days are spent half in the happy nurturing of her unofficial adoptees– bathing them, reading to them, soothing them, and mending their quarrels– and half in desperate defense of “her” babies’ health and safety.
Molly and her fellow orphans are wards of the cruel and sadistic hog farmer, Mr. Grimes, who, at his merest whim, may starve them to death or even drown them in the sucking bog that surrounds his gothic swamp lands. Molly is, as the film emphasizes with an illustration from children’s bible she reads to the poor “orfants”, a modern Virgin Mary, happily sacrificing any personal need or desire to dote on the young ones, or beg them an extra crumb to eat. She is so saintly, in fact, that her one and only desire is to mother.
All this gory self-sacrifice may sound a bit hard to take, but it works just fine as gothic myth-making. “Sparrows” isn’t meant to be a realistic or progressive. It’s a shadow play about competing human compulsions towards survival: a fierce, feminine urge to nurture and protect versus a calculating, masculine desire to use and exploit. The setting could not be more splendidly gothic. The swamp, the rotting barn and farmhouse, the ominous trees,and the bleak, hard features of the Grimes family help conjure a perfect fairy tale gloom. In long shots of the dark swamp, the doll-house like models of the house and barn enhance the sense that the film is exploring primal survival themes, just as children do in play or dreams.
And Mary Pickford’s performance has doll-house magic too. Pickford’s brings an irresistible mix of the tough and the delicate to Molly, inhabiting the extremes of the victorian ideal: lovely and nurturing, tough and ragged. Pickford moves easily and naturally from a tender gaze to a scrappy defense–at one point using a pitchfork to ward off Grimes. With her turn-of-the-century beauty, she is an admirably unsinkable version of the beatific little match girl. But perhaps the most compelling element of Pickford’s Molly is her surprising earthiness. Her Molly reminds of us the deeply physical nature of motherhood. It’s a performance of exuberantly physical mothering– bathing, dancing, climbing, rocking, kissing, feeding, carrying, and defending– without any primness or posturing. Pickford is the Madonna as athlete. In an era that seems to more about separation and reserve, hand-sanitizer and personal privacy, a portrait of rough and tumble motherhood like this feels wild and hearty.