“Them Sparrows Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us”
(dialogue of one of the orphans at the film’s conclusion)
Prince may have sung “Even Doves Cry” but last night even pastors cry—I’m just glad that the theater was darkened and nobody could see the tears.
And of all places; I never would have “thunk it.”
I was at White Concert Hall located on the campus of Washburn University of Topeka (one of my Alma matters) for the 17th annual Kansas Silent Film Festival. This was my fourth year in a row to go to this fun and entertaining event. I’m a huge fan of Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy, but also love most all the old classic Silents: Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera, Woman in the Moon, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Man Who Laughs, The Golem, etc., etc.
To view them from a projector (and not just digital DVD technology) and in public is the best! There’s nothing quite like sitting in a large darkened auditorium (White Concert Hall has a huge seating capacity, but even for a festival as ‘narrow’ as this we had several hundred people) watching a black & white, silent classic, laughing as one to the antics of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops, Fatty Arbuckle, or some ubiquitous dog or monkey. And the festival always has top-notch live musicians accompanying the Silents on piano or organ. If you live anywhere within driving distance of Topeka, Kansas, this might be worth your while in February of 2014: http://www.kssilentfilmfest.org/kssff2013/index.html
But last night it was different. The “feature” was a film starring Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” from 1926, titled SPARROWS : (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparrows_(1926_film and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017423/ ) I had never seen Pickford in a movie before (that I can remember) though I’ve known of her past fame and importance in the history of cinema.
Without saying too much about the movie, I knew as I was driving home last night that this WAS a blog post for sure.
Yes, it was almost melodrama in the “gay 1890’s” stage way (c.f. Desperate Desmond’s Dastardly Deed) but Pickford and the script infused it with genuine pathos, heart-felt comedic touches, and high adventure as well. It’s a story of a group of 8 orphan children, nine counting Pickford who is the leader and surrogate mother to the kids, who are held under brutal and inhumane conditions on a work-farm deep in the swamps and bayous of some unnamed Southern state. The evil taskmaster “Grimes” and his wife starve and beat the children and keep them hidden from the outside world. It is only when a kidnapped baby (the snatching was eerily & uncomfortably prescient of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1 March 1932) is going to be murdered by “Grimes,” by being thrown into the ubiquitous quicksand “bottomless” bogs, that Mary Pickford leads the children through the alligator infested swamps to safety. The initial harrowing escape is capped by a thrilling inter-coastal water chase on motorized boats with gunfire and cannonade. A great movie on all accounts…but…
I did not anticipate the religious underpinnings of the movie, the serious faith of Pickford’s character, and clear Christ-centered message of “divine and loving providential care.” Now to be sure, this was no confessional Lutheran film. The precepts were standard American Protestantism (circa early 20th century) but it just caused my jaw to drop open—so saturated is my brain in 2013 to the current milieu of film and the zeitgeist of anti-Christian media.
Mary prays with the children several times to the Lord. Mary keeps a picture of the Nativity to show the children. She looks up to heaven and asks for the Lord to intervene, protect and rescue her and the children. When things go from bad to worse, and the kids chafe at the Lord’s apparent indifference, Mary simply assures them that the Lord will shepherd them no matter how things “appear” to seem. But, what got to me in a visceral and physical way, was when (SPOILER…but not really, as the film is not currently available in the US on DVD, so I’m thinking one can only view this if TMC or Netflix has it) the baby that Mary has been attempting to nurture back to health becomes critically sick during the night of a bad rain-storm. Mary sits in a chair nestling the little child to her bosom when suddenly the wall shimmers and quivers in front of her. She is in a dream state, or maybe it’s a vision, when she sees a bright light tableau of Jesus as Good Shepherd standing in His pasture surrounded by lambs. He slowly (MY MOUTH GAPING; this is a secular group of film geeks I’m surrounded by, whose last contact with God in a movie is Morgan Freeman or Whoopi Goldberg—WHERE ARE THE PC POLICE?) steps from his sheepfold into the room where Mary and the baby are and takes the small child into His loving arms to return to His flock. Salty tears are flowing down my left cheek as it’s clear to everyone that the baby has just died, but NOT bereft of its Savior Pastor. When Mary comes out of the dream/vision and realizes what has happened, it is portrayed as a Miracle indeed; she knowingly looks up and nods with an ever so small ascent to Grace.
Only the darkness and a few coughs kept this lachrymose “softy” from embarrassing himself. My generation of “John Wayne” movie aficionados simply does not cry at sentimental and manufactured movie scenes. One meets Jesus in the strangest places.
There appears to be little commentary on this religious invasion into an otherwise standard comic/adventure/Dickensian Silent classic. The host to the Festival did not mention the cameo of Jesus nor even the several references to Matthew 10. 29-30 and the love Christ has for even the smallest Sparrows.
I can’t lavish too much credit on either Pickford or the director for their own personal Christian beliefs or confessions as I know nothing about their personal and private lives. But it is sad beyond the point of sighing, that I, a pastor and lifelong Lutheran, would be so desensitized by the last 40 year drift of all popular celluloid and televised drama and entertainment, that I would be so “caught off guard” by such a tender, decent, and respectful insertion of Christ Jesus and His tender shepherding of His flock.
It’s a beautiful, fun, sad, exciting, hopeful, and yes, beatific movie…you should track it down and view it with the whole family! It made me think of Augustine’s famous aphorism: “…our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
So, in a sense of lost times, and eras, when Jesus was not so alien and foreign to cultural stories and public gatherings, I desperately miss 1926, 1526, and 26. Come quickly Lord Jesus and take all your little sparrows home.