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D. W. Griffith's 1925 United Artists release Sally of the Sawdust is remembered as an anomaly for the great filmic pioneer, a comedy among serious social dramas. Modern audiences think of it as a W.C. Fields film, when he's really the second attraction in a sentimental vehicle for the silent star Carol Dempster. Dempster's mugging and Fields' antics enliven what is essentially one of Griffith's old-fashioned melodramas, where a deserving orphan is reunited with her family and the rascally circus cardsharp outruns the sheriff. The source is a play called Poppy, which starred Fields on the stage. Fields remade it as a talkie eleven years later.
Carol Dempster is Sally, a joyful "child of the circus" whose mother and father have both died, leaving the carnival juggler Professor Eustace McGargle to assume guardianship. McGargle is so attached to Sally that he doesn't mention her when he writes her grandparents the Fosters (Erville Alderson & Effie Shannon) about their daughter's passing. Years later Sally is a fully-grown young lady, and still unaware of her true heritage. McGargle joins a carnival in her hometown of Green Meadow to see if her relatives are good enough to know the truth about her.
Sally and Eustace wow the carnival crowd with their performances, play with an elephant that picks pockets and fight off a gang of rubes cheated in McGargle's "Old Army Game". But Green Meadow turns out to be a place of petty intolerance. Judge Foster disowned his daughter because she married a circus man. Now partnered with the rich Lennox (Charles Hammond), Foster is prejudiced against all carnival folk. The young Lennox heir Peyton Lennox (famed stage actor Alfred Lunt) ignores the society match his father has arranged as soon as he sees the beautiful Sally dance in the carnival. Chosen to perform for a party at the Foster mansion, Sally and the elderly Mrs. Foster meet and become immediate friends. To remove his son's unacceptable girlfriend, Lennox conspires with Foster to have McGargle arrested for gambling and Sally sent to a reform school. Will love win out? Will the Fosters discover Sally's true identity? What will become of McGargle?
Silent film enthusiasts may be surprised by the relative lack of technical sophistication in Griffith's Sally of the Sawdust in comparison to his other mid-twenties features. Much of the editing lacks polish. The first image is a jerky pan across a rural setting. A typical action cut shows Sally's mother turning in a wide shot, but the cut to the closer angle shows her still at rest, and beginning the turn again. These action mismatches occur so often that the movie begins to look like a rough cut. The Moviola editing machine was brand-new in 1924, but editors previous to that year routinely made better cuts than these. The grand courtroom reunion shows Sally reacting by throwing her arms in the air. She quite clearly repeats the gesture in another angle, and the result is rather distracting.
But Griffith's skill with melodrama is undeniable. He really believes in the play's contrivances and manipulates his characters to insure our emotional involvement. He's also clearly enamored of Carol Dempster, favoring her over W.C. Fields at all times. Dempster is seen in a variety of situations: she's the playful kid hopping on an elephant, the carny dancer fending off a loutish acrobat and a poor girl intrigued by a fancy mansion. One moment she's a child-woman making impish faces, and the next she's posing in a sleek gown at the swank party. Griffith also adorns Dempster with the idealized soft-focus star close-ups that he reserves only for his classic virginal beauties.
The other half of the equation is W.C. Fields, slimmer but otherwise identical to his later screen persona. Some of his scenes are one-take copies of stage business, as when McGargle's popcorn cart converts into a mobile speakeasy, complete with a brass foot rail. It's initially awkward to see the great comedian deprived of his distinctive voice, but when we read the dialogue on the inter-titles we can almost hear him speak. McGargle hugs Sally, not realizing that she's hidden two muffins in her dress-top: "Sally, you are growing up!"
Although Fields was the star of the Broadway show, Griffith treats him in a neutral manner, perhaps because the Ziegfeld headliner is not the sentiment-based sort of performer the director favored. Professor McGargle's concern for Sally is initially expressed only in the inter-titles. Fields performs some good juggling on the carnival stage, with gags identical to those of "The Great McGonigle" in his later The Old-Fashioned Way. But Griffith stages some of Fields' best juggling from the back row of the carnival audience. For Griffith, Sally of the Sawdust is clearly Sally's story. To keep McGargle out of the way while the Judge railroads poor Sally, the story contrives to have him waylaid by a gang of bootleggers -- a subplot abandoned as soon as McGargle rejoins the main action.
Rushing to the courthouse to save Sally, McGargle takes part in a wild car chase, which is somewhat reminiscent of the far more ambitious four-way race that concludes Griffith's 1916 classic Intolerance. Interestingly, Fields' funny-car gags and Dempster's courtroom antics -- Sally escapes through the courthouse window like a monkey -- contrast strongly with the anguish of grandmother Foster, who observes from the gallery. Grandma's motherly instincts intuit a personal connection with Sally. In the middle of his farce, Griffith is building up for a tearjerker of a climax.
The lighthearted ending doesn't bother to resolve the story's social conflicts. Judge Foster and the wealthy Lennox have conspired to use the law against Sally and McGargle and for their own selfish purposes. One happy verdict later, all animosities are forgotten. Sally never learns that her grandfather condemned her as a "guttersnipe". The ever-opportunistic McGargle welcomes the opportunity to apply his larcenous skills in a socially sanctioned form of the "Old Army Game" -- the real estate business.
Kino's Griffith Masterworks presentation of Sally of the Sawdust has been transferred from an original print in fine shape, with only a few scratches on the main titles. The soundtrack is a lively piano and organ score by Donald Sosin. In addition to an original trailer (now a rarity for a title of this vintage) and a generous still and art gallery, the disc presents a brief introduction to the movie by Orson Welles for a syndicated TV presentation. Welles, who knew Fields, tells us that the comedian's writing credit in The Bank Dick, "Mahatma Kane Jeeves" was an in-joke referring to Welles' Citizen Kane.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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