The Pollock Theater provided cinema lovers with a treat last Sunday when they screened the classic 1926 Mary Pickford film “Sparrows” to live piano accompaniment. “Sparrows” is the third of five films screened in the Pollock’s “The Future of the Past: The Art and Philosophy of Film Preservation” series. The series, which is co-sponsored by the Carsey-Wolf Center and the UCSB Film and Video Archive, represents the Department of Film and Media Studies’ increasing dedication to film archive studies.
For those who aren’t familiar with early film history, Mary Pickford was an extremely successful and influential figure, especially impressive in such a male-dominated industry and time period. The Canadian-American actress and producer is frequently referred to as the first Hollywood movie star, involved in the making of over 200 movies from 1909 to the late 1940s. In 1919, Pickford formed the American film studio United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. She was also one of the 36 original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Though Mary Pickford was essential to the development of early cinema, viewable copies of her films are rare today. “Sparrows” is only available now due to the tireless restoration efforts of Library of Congress and film historian Christel Schmidt. Once the film began, Pollock Theater set the historical atmosphere well with a live, completely improvised piano score played on stage by Hollywood composer Michael Mortilla (how “Sparrows” would have been originally shown at some theaters in the 1920s).
“Sparrows” is a silent, black and white film from 1926, starring Mary Pickford and produced by the Pickford Corporation. She plays Molly, a young girl living on a baby farm, who must rescue her fellow orphans from evil Mr. Grimes after he threatens to dispose of them. Though “Sparrows” is filled with familiar film tropes, it also manages to seem fresh and exciting. There is the virginal female protagonist pitted against the wicked villain but also the unusual setting of a “baby farm” and surprisingly active and independent female character of Molly. Overall, “Sparrows” is extremely entertaining and provides a fascinating look into 1920s American culture.
After the film, UCSB Film and Media professor Charles Wolfe and assistant professor Ross Melnick moderated a Q&A session with Christel Schmidt and pianist Michael Mortilla. The discussion quickly turned to the art of film preservation, a mystical process to most people, even cinephiles. As a Mary Pickford expert and editor of the new groundbreaking book Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Schmidt spoke in detail about Pickford’s interest in preserving her own films. For example, after she donated three of her movies to the Museum of Modern Art, an accidental fire destroyed the negatives. Stories of a film’s survival are frequently ones of luck, like someone burying a canister in their backyard only to be dug up decades later and preserved. Unfortunately, the loss or decay of film negatives is common in history, which explains the incredibly small number of classic films available today and why film preservation is so important.
If you don’t want to miss out on cinema history, make sure to attend the last two screenings in the Pollock Theater’s film preservation series, “Lawrence of Arabia” on Feb. 26 and Wild River on Mar. 12.