Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" Look how she moves! That’s just like Jell-O on springs. "
— Jack Lemmon (regarding Marilyn Monroe), Some Like it Hot

MRQE Top Critic

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

With any luck, The Sorcerer's Apprentice will conjure up a bigger audience on Blu-ray. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Mary Pickford must have been the first causality of cool. As the 1920’s started roaring, Pickford was world famous yet self-typecast as a grown woman playing 10 year-olds and artistically stuck in the 1890s. It’s hard to imagine a post-war (WWI) forward-looking hipster sheik or flapper not sneering at the mention of her name. But because there are always a lot more un-cool people in the world than those on the cutting edge, Mary Pickford was for a time the most popular woman in America and the first superstar of the cinema. Everybody loved “America’s Sweetheart.” But eventually twenty-three skidoo modernism ran over Pickford and the first movie superstar was also the first one to fade. Now 90 years on, the out-of-fashion problem is a dead issue and Pickford’s films can be enjoyed again.

Mary had a class consciousness that has traction today
Mary had a class consciousness that has traction today

Milestone has just put out a solid three-disc set of Pickford’s most famous films: The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917, directed by Maurice Touneur), The Hoodlum (1922, directed by Sidney A. Franklin) and Sparrows (1927, directed by William Beaudine) and backed them up with some nifty bonus features and commentary tracks. Having these films bundled like this is a real treat and a must-have for any student of film. Each film is accompanied by very nice, fully orchestrated modern scores by Philip Carli, Bonnie Ruth Janofsky, and Jeffrey Silverman. The Poor Little Rich Girl and The Hoodlum are available for the first time commercially and this is the first Blu-ray release for Sparrows.

These three films nicely span Pickford’s film career. They are also all-Pickford, all the time. The scenes where she is not front and center are rare. But that was the point. The public went to Poor Little Rich Girl to see Mary Pickford. What she was doing in the film was almost incidental. That is after all what being a superstar is all about.

There is a weird similarity here with porn in that plot takes a back seat to the product. But at the same time, a good plot puts the product in a better light and (as long as it doesn’t get in the way of that product) can only help. This can be seen as the Pickford storylines become more complex over time. Her films, the film industry, and its audience were all maturing. Sure there’s a message in all of the films but the 1927 Sparrows is clearly the best of this set because of its engaging story. Action, adventure, comedy, pathos and horror... Sparrows has it all and Mary to boot.

Maybe the films are to our eyes overly melodramatic, na├»ve, and brutal all at the same time. Their sensibility is after all from another era. Yet even in the 1920s, Pickford’s films were already outdated and looking back to the stage melodramas of the 19th century. But they still struck a deep nostalgic chord with the public. Pickford’s hardscrabble life as a child stage actor was a mix of Dickens and Horatio Alger. Her movie persona always had a sweet face and a steel backbone; ever ready to lend a hand and never backing down from a fight. It must not have been much of an act because in real life she landed Douglas Fairbanks, was a co-founder of United Artists, and became America’s first self-made woman millionaire.

As the title “Rags & Riches” would suggest, there’s a lot of class consciousness going on here. In all three films, the very poor are contrasted to the very rich. This is a theme that came straight from Pickford’s own life and something that has some traction today. The target audience for Pickford’s films was the middle class who got to look inside a mansion to see the “unhappy rich” and to go slumming to see how bad it is to be poor. For the middle class, it was consolation for not having it all and a warning to keep your nose to the grindstone lest you wind up in the gutter.

In Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford appears as Gwendolyn, the neglected daughter of rich parents whose grasping for money and position in high society leave no time for the little girl. Will the medical mistake by the scheming servants take poor Gwendolyn’s life, or will her parents see the error of their ways and come to her rescue?

In The Hoodlum, Pickford is again the spoiled rich girl Amy who follows her sociologist father into a tenement slum. The environment is ghastly and straight out of Dickens. But the poor people are upstanding and Amy quickly becomes one of them. Both comedy and drama ensue and in the end everyone emerges a better person.

Sparrows is the heavy-hitter of the set. The action takes place in a dark and horrific “baby farm” deep inside a bayou swamp where a band of orphans are slave labor for the cruel Mr. Grimes. If given the chance, Grimes will sell the children to anyone with enough money to buy. Pickford (still playing a child) is Momma Molly, their leader and ersatz mother. Made in 1926, there is to my eye a strange precognition to the horrors of WWII concentration camps. The scene where the children wave forlornly through cracks in the doors of their barn-home was particularly chilling. I wonder what the audiences made of that at the time. In the end the guilty are punished and all is made right but it’s a dark journey with a few comic lights along the way.

Today there seems to be a rising interest in early movies. Successful films like Hugo and The Artist and events like the Denver Silent Film Festival are proof of that. But you do not need to be a movie archeologist to enjoy silent films. The Pickford films are still engaging as can be seen in the Rags & Riches set. If you would like to dip into the silent era, this would be a great place to start. And if you do go to Pickfordland, there’s a good chance she’ll become your sweetheart too... and really, wouldn’t that be most cool?

DVD Extras

I was very pleased with the commentary tracks, especially the one on The Poor Little Rich Girl done by silent-era expert, Scott Eyman. Unless you are already a Pickford scholar, you should watch Rich Girl first with this excellent commentary track on before watching the other two films. Sparrows also has a very good commentary by two film historians, Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta.

Rags & Riches also some of the best bonus features I’ve seen on a DVD. There are “home movies” from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ home “Pickfair”... be sure to watch for Charlie Chaplin. The clips are labeled “out-takes” yet seen as a whole, they are as crazy and entertaining as anything the Dadaists could have cooked up. Take that Un Chien Andalou!

Also included is Pickford’s 1910 appearance in Ramona. Given the time it was made, this retelling of Helen Hunt Jackson’s story of the White Man double-dealing the American Indian is amazing. I think this bonus feature is alone worth the price of admission. Take that Little Big Man!

Sparrows has some outtakes, a trailer, and a modern interview with the daughter of Mary Louise Miller, who played the kidnapped baby in Sparrows. This is an interesting insight to how popular Pickford was. Baby Miller became famous simply by association with Pickford and the press was filled with rumors that Pickford offered Miller’s parents a million dollars to adopt Mary Louise.

Rags & Riches is being pitched as having “kid-friendly bonus features” — in this case intro and outro options to each film that show “...a group of kids who discover a treasure trove of old films in an attic and learn a lot about film history in the process.” ...Well, maybe. These additions seemed like a stumble to me, but as noted, they are an optional feature and you can come to your own conclusion about using them.

One thing did surprise me during the commentary track on Sparrows. In the course of the film’s action, there is a kidnapping of a wealthy mans golden-haired toddler. The kidnapping is done at night by way of a ladder to the baby’s second-story window. This is so similar to the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case that it’s remarkable that the comparison is not made. The Lindbergh kidnapping was 7 years after Sparrows and everybody must have seen the film by that time and noticed the similarities. Yet I am unaware of that connection being part of the Lindbergh legend. I wonder why.

  • Andrea: I am a reader of old crimes and unsolved mysteries. I just saw the movie Sparrows and at first I thought the kidnapping scene was copied from the real life Lindbergh case until I double checked when the movie was made. I can't believe in all the things I have read about the case, the movie Sparrows was not mentioned. It's as if someone got the idea of the kidnapping from this movie. May 15, 2014 reply