by David Nilsen
For most of us, childhood taught us at least as much about cruelty as it did about charity. My own was rich in both wounds and wonders. I spent my first half-dozen years in a trailer park in the Rust Belt, and it was an ample classroom for the learning of both. Our mobile home park was draped like a dirty shop rag over a few small hills, hemmed in on two sides by swamps of black water and green duckweed. As children, we had no way to escape the confines of the park, so we roamed in feral packs harassing parents, each other, and each other’s parents. All told though, it was probably the wildlife who endured the worst of our attentions. Like trailer park brats, the denizens of a swamp rarely have anywhere else they can live. The only refuge the reptiles and amphibians had from our bored campaigns of terror and curiosity were in the deeps of the bog. More turtles, snakes, and frogs spent nights in smooth-walled confusion inside buckets in our house trailer than I could ever count. Once, alligators were found, having been released by the widow of an exotic animal collector, though few believe me when I tell that story.
Spend sufficient time with anything frightening as a child and it becomes normal. It doesn’t necessarily cease to be frightening, but you can learn to breathe around it. Swamps, diesel locomotives, religious guilt, excessive corporal punishment; I learned to breathe around many frights. Normal is whatever happens most of the time.
In Sparrows, the 1926 silent film starring Mary Pickford and directed by William Beaudine (in so far as any Pickford film was directed by anyone besides Pickford herself, who unofficially helmed many of her own films during this era), “normal” for the children is pretty close to a living hell. As one of the film’s initial title cards informs us, “The Devil’s share in the world’s creation was a certain southern swampland—a masterpiece of horror. And the Lord appreciating a good job, let it stand.”
Burrowed into the stag trees of this fly and alligator-infested soup is an even worse horror—the home of the Grimes family. Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and his wife (Charlotte Mineau) run what the film refers to as a “baby farm”—a small farm on which children are forced to work for the Grimes for no pay and inadequate food and lodging. They have been sent to live with the Grimes by parents tricked into believing their hosts will provide a better life. Instead, they are used for cheap labor and sometimes sold to other farms. The farm is surrounded on all sides by bottomless mud, and the children pitifully try to send messages tied to kites over the trees to anyone who might help; they all tangle and crash in the swamp’s vegetation.
The leader and caretaker of these children is the oldest of their number, Molly (Pickford). Mary Pickford was at the height of her unrivaled popularity in 1926, and she acquired that popularity playing roles like this one; a rags-to-riches story in which she plays a character half her actual age (she turned 34 in 1926, while her character is no more than 15). She was the platonic ideal of young American womanhood during the silent era, and most often played wholesome but plucky young women who rose from humble beginnings to achieve great comfort and, by extension, moral vindication. The poor could feel the hope of riches, and the rich could feel connected to their roots, since America’s privileged classes never lost the belief that they had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps from certain destitution. Mary Pickford was everything America wanted to believe about itself in the economic excess of the 1920s, and she was beautiful to boot. How could one feel bad about spoiled excess when it had been fought toward from such lowly beginnings?
In Sparrows, Pickford couldn’t start much lower. She’s physically abused by Mr. and Mrs. Grimes and their snotty son, and goes without food so the younger children can get something into their grumbling stomachs. She’ll endure anything to keep them alive. When an inciting incident arrives in the form of the blonde, curly-haired, kidnapped baby of a wealthy widower, Molly realizes the only way to keep them alive is to risk their lives in escape through the perilous swamp. The film’s third act, in which Molly and her passel are pursued by Mr. Grimes and his cronies, and threatened by swarming alligators, is among the more tense adventure sequences in classic film.
I recently screened Sparrows for my 9-year-old daughter, who had been begging to watch it for some time. Children are remarkably unphased by the strictures of the silent format. Studios who believe anything less than 3-D computer graphics and skull-pounding surround sound will bore today’s kids are hopelessly out of touch with reality. My third grader sat riveted, whimpering for the neglected children, tensing up for the chase through the swamp. The typical physicality of silent films is aimed perfectly to speak to the kinetic world of kids, as are the staged emotional displays of the characters. My daughter read the title cards, but she almost didn’t need to. How much does it take to understand what’s happening to these children? It’s all right there on screen.
One of the remarkable things about Sparrows—and something that ties it to other classic children’s movies such as Cinderella—is its tone, especially in the context of its grim subject matter. Mary Pickford is criminally omitted from lists of the great physical comedians of the silent era (a boy’s club if ever there was one), and her skills as a comedienne are on full display in Sparrows. She stomps and fumes and throws things and puts the Grimes boy on his ass with a headbutt to the chest. It’s all justified by despicable child neglect, and yet it’s played for laughs. In one case, it’s done expressly to make one of the children laugh. In their claustrophobic world of pain, pantomiming a lesser pain can bring relief. This is their normal. Their world is a swamp and hard labor, their comfort is a hay loft and an adolescent standing in for a mom. Their salvation, in the end, is a barefoot scamper through an endless gator pit.
Oh, they’re rescued. Of course they are. The father of the golden-locked cherub whose kidnapping finally sets the upper crust into motion ultimately adopts the kids. Yes, all of them. He offers to take in Molly to take care of his baby, but she’ll only come along if all the swamp children can come. He laughs, just as we do, and accepts. Because it’s absurd to think of taking in all these children when you only offered to take the first so she could take care of the baby you already have. Because it’s absurd not to. Because it’s hilariously naive to think these children are now safe, that their traumas are now behind them, that their night terrors and PTSD and ingrained distrust and malnutrition damage will be soothed beneath high ceilings and high thread count sheets, pain and fear assuaged by luxury. “We’ll have to build a new wing for the house,” the father chuckles.
There is an incredibly affecting scene just before the father adopts this whole pack of muddy faces and bony arms, in which the father and the sheriff and some other men bearing authority and benevolent condescension explain to Molly she must hand over the baby, who is only still alive because of her fierce love and determination. It happens in a courthouse, and against the tall figures of these men and the clean, straight walls of the court we see Molly for the child she is: small, filthy, and feral. She won’t hand the child over. You don’t pick up trust like new clothes, and you don’t lay down fear like the tattered rags you’ve lived and slept in ever since you first blinked open your eyes on a world significantly less warm and safe than any newborn should be able to expect. A decade and a half of misery might become normal, and it might become endurable, just barely, but it cannot be quickly recovered from, if at all. Molly behaves like a cornered animal in this scene, and while the camera allows for laughter here, it is the saddest scene of the film for me. There is nothing comical about the children crying on the beach at the end of Lord of the Flies when the adults finally arrive to save them from a new and terrifying normal. There is nothing comical here in condescending to a child whose love has had to grow teeth to stay alive, to keep those around her alive. That she recovers by the next scene, and believes in her caretaker’s inherent goodness so easily, is a farce. It can only be believed as a fairy tale.
My daughter is warmed by Sparrows, as she is warmed by Cinderella forgiving her stepsisters, or an abandoned Hansel and Gretel burning a witch alive and being reunited with their father. I too am warmed, but I can’t help but freeze the film on the faces of these children and think of what normal means for them. Colors and smells and tastes and sounds reflect on the senses much the same wherever you experience them, whether in a mansion or a morass. It’s only the details that differentiate them, and the creeping change in one’s expectation of goodness. The children in Sparrows seem primed to believe in the goodness of a wealthy new father who hasn’t even learned their names yet, and maybe that’s for the best. For some though, normal never does get any less frightening.
We moved out of the trailer park when I was 6, though when you’re born into a house on wheels you tend to pull it behind you wherever you go in life. We moved into an old house on a canal, where I ripped my foot open on a broken bottle under a bridge and ran screaming and bleeding down the street to our house, and then—because my dad was a traveling preacher in search of a permanent church—we chased a pulpit all the way to Florida, where at least the alligators were more expected. We returned to the rural Midwest when I was 8, and rented a series of farmhouses. We never slept another night in a mobile home, which is surprising, because money was tight. My parents never said a word, but I wonder if the thought of going back to living in a house with a trailer hitch attached to the front of it scared them as much as it does me. Normal may be what happens most of the time, and you can learn to breathe around it if it’s frightening, but all the while, you’ll be planning an escape.
David Nilsen is a writer and former librarian living in western Ohio. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and the former editor of the Fourth & Sycamore literary journal. His writing has appeared on The Rumpus, The Collagist, Open Letters Monthly, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. In 2015, he established a monthly classic film series in his hometown, and is working hard to turn his nine-year-old daughter into a cinephile.