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Reviews of silent film releases on home video.
Copyright © 1999-2017 by Carl Bennett
and the Silent Era Company.
All Rights Reserved.

Sparrows
(1926)

 

Following the success of Little Annie Rooney (1925), Mary Pickford chose another of the little girl roles her audience expected of her but this time decided on a story with a darker theme. Always trying to prove that her acting abilities extended beyond the ingénue, Pickford was at least going to make a film with a little girl in it that looked like an art film. It would be a serious-themed film with a touch of Pickford comedy. It would please her commercial audience while garnering praise from the industry she had helped establish. It would be Sparrows (1926).

Mr. Grimes maintains a secret baby farm in the midst of a dank swamp. Several young orphans and castoffs are held captive by Grimes for free labor and eventual sale to another shiftless soul. Molly, being the oldest, cares for the children. Being unshakeably religious, she inspires the children to struggle on because God (who has seemingly forsaken them in the midst of the god-forsaken swamp and the godless Grimes) watches over and cares for all His creations including the little sparrows. When a kidnapped toddler is hidden at Grimes’ farm, Molly leads the children away on a daring escape when Grimes threatens to kill the child to avoid being caught by authorities.

Director William Beaudine, who had worked on Pickford’s previous film, handles the material at hand deftly. He balances the serious drama of the film with light touches and tender moments such as the scene when Splutters is being taken away by another farmer, having been sold for half the price of a pig by Grimes. The other children, hidden from detection, wave a last goodbye to Splutters with nothing but their fingers showing through the barn wall boards.

The escape through the swamp from Grimes and the kidnappers takes on epic proportions. Live audiences often find themselves on the edge of their seats and cheering the children onward.

Gustav von Seyffertitz plays a great villain as Grimes, a role similar in heinousness to Ernest Torrence’s in Tol’able David (1921). Charlotte Mineau, of Chaplin Keystone comedy fame, turns in a small but solid performance as Mrs. Grimes. Spec O’Donnell, from the Little Annie Rooney cast, makes an appearance as Grimes’ son Ambrose.

The film shows the influence of 1920s German films, with leading German cinematographer Karl Struss lending a hand to longtime Pickford cameraman Charles Rosher. The film has a dark textural look that is often described by latter day critics as gothic. Certainly the cinematography is no insubstantial part of the success of Sparrows. The film is packed with deliciously complex visuals. And Pickford would never produce another film that looked like it. — Carl Bennett
The Milestone Cinematheque
2012 Blu-ray Disc edition

Rags & Riches Mary Pickford Collection (1910-1926), black & white, 257 minutes total, not rated,
including Sparrows (1926), color-toned black & white, 90 minutes, not rated.

Milestone Films, distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, MileBD00120, UPC 7-84148-01205-6, ISBN 978-1-933920-38-2.
Three single-sided, single-layered, Region 0 Blu-ray Discs, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in pillarboxed 16:9 (1920 x 1080 pixels) progressive scan AVCHD MPEG-4 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 5.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops; three-disc BD keepcase, $39.95.
Release date: 6 November 2012 (limited release, July 2012).
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 9 / audio: 9 / additional content: 9 / overall: 9.

This updated Milestone Blu-ray Disc edition has been remastered from the color-tinted 35mm restoration print prepared by the Library of Congress.

The film is accompanied by an original music score by Jeffrey Silverman, conducted by Hugh Munro Neely and performed by the Rouse Philharmonic Orchestra.

The supplemental material includes optional spoken intertitles with explanations of the action to assist younger viewers with their enjoyment of the films, optional audio commentary by historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, an original 1926 theatrical trailer for the film, a selection of outtake footage, and an interview with Louise Paziak, daughter of Sparrows actress Mary Louise Miller.

While the source print is not perfect, this BD disc set is a great example of what a high-definition video transfer of a silent film should be. This edition is highly recommended.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 Blu-ray Disc edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 Blu-ray Disc edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 Blu-ray Disc edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports Silent Era.
The Milestone Cinematheque
2012 DVD edition

Rags & Riches Mary Pickford Collection (1910-1926), black & white, 257 minutes total, not rated,
including Sparrows (1926), color-toned black & white, 90 minutes, not rated.

Milestone Films, distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, unknown catalog number, unknown UPC number, unknown ISBN number.
Three single-sided, dual-layered, Region 0 NTSC DVD discs, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced? scan MPEG-2 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops; three-disc DVD keepcase, $34.95.
Release date: 6 November 2012 (limited release, July 2012).
Country of origin: USA

This updated Milestone DVD edition has been remastered from the color-tinted 35mm restoration print prepared by the Library of Congress.

The film is accompanied by an original music score by Jeffrey Silverman, conducted by Hugh Munro Neely and performed by the Rouse Philharmonic Orchestra.

The supplemental material includes optional spoken intertitles with explanations of the action to assist younger viewers with their enjoyment of the films, optional audio commentary by historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, an original 1926 theatrical trailer for the film, a selection of outtake footage, and an interview with Louise Paziak, daughter of Sparrows actress Mary Louise Miller.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports Silent Era.
The Milestone Collection
1999 DVD edition

Sparrows (1926), black & white, 107 minutes, not rated,
with Wilful Peggy (1910), black & white, 17 minutes, not rated, and The Mender of Nets (1912), black & white, 16 minutes, not rated.

Milestone Film & Video, distributed by Image Entertainment, ID5958MLSDVD, UPC 0-14381-59582-6.
One single-sided, single-layered, Region 0 NTSC DVD disc, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, 5.5 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital AC-3 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 18 chapter stops; snapper DVD case, $29.99.
Release date: 5 October 1999.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 7 / audio: 4 / additional content: 7 / overall: 7.

The source print utilized for this DVD edition’s video transfer originates from the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education’s archival holdings of Pickford and United Artists films. The print features very good image detail with a slightly flat range of greytones that are a little on the dark side, with the highlights being a little grey rather than white. The print endures a few minor flaws, mostly very light speckling and dust with some scratches and markings. When viewing the DVD, we prefer to brighten and slightly increase the picture contrast on our monitor system. This adjustment provides a pleasing image, but we feel we shouldn’t have to adjust anything to get a watchable picture.

The disc includes two Pickford Biograph one-reelers, Wilful Peggy (1910) and The Mender of Nets (1912), directed by D.W. Griffith. Both films look as though they have been mastered from an older video transfer, probably those utilized for the 1990 Image laserdisc The Griffith Biographs. The appearance of the films on DVD (both being slightly soft of image detail and a little flat, with greyish highlights) is virtually identical to the laserdisc.

Sparrows is accompanied by an organ score performed by Gaylord Carter taken from the optical soundtrack of a reissue print, with hiss, incidental pops, flutter and high volume distortion faithfully reproduced in monaural Dolby Digital sound. The poorly recorded piano/organ performances of the short films are reproduced from optical tracks taken from early 1970s prints prepared by Matty Kemp for the Mary Pickford Company. We feel it would have been possible to go back to the original recordings of the Carter Sparrows performance and the soundtracks of the short films (most likely still existing in the Pickford archives) to create cleaner and more dynamic digital soundtracks for the DVD.

We couldn’t check our suspicion that this DVD edition of Sparrows looks the same or better than the early 1990s laserdisc edition from Image. But it probably doesn’t look worse. This Milestone edition of Sparrows should be the best available on home video even though its audio is substandard. However, we recommend the Milestone Blu-ray Disc edition noted above.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Other silent era MARY PICKFORD films available on home video.
Mary Pickford filmography in The Progressive Silent Film List
 
 
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