Circus life is the only existence young Sally has ever known. Her mother Mary, the daughter of a prominent Connecticut family, was disowned after marrying a “circus man” …and as she lays on her death bed, she asks her friend and fellow Big Top performer “Professor” Eustace P. McGargle (W.C. Fields) to let her parents know they have a granddaughter. Whether it’s because he’s enormously fond of the little nipper or because otherwise this movie would be the length of a two-reeler, McGargle decides to become Sally’s adoptive parent after a letter sent to the Fosters is ignored.
Sally (Carol Dempster) proves to be an asset in Eustace’s personal and business life; in the latter, she dances for the circus customers as a warm-up to her “Pop’s” magic and juggling act. Following an incident in which she’s attacked by a lecherous acrobat (Glenn Anders) and an altercation involving some agitated rubes swindled by McGargle’s “pea-under-the-shell” game, the Professor decides to take another stab at contacting the Fosters with his charge blossoming into womanhood. Green Meadow is where the family Foster calls home, and it’s where Eustace and Sally find work with a traveling carnival. Interestingly, Judge Henry L. Foster (Erville Alderson) has a reputation for demonstrating nothing but disdain toward “show people”—boy, is he in for a surprise!
Let’s take a trip in the WABAC machine to the 1970s, when your humble narrator was just a young lad and getting his silent movie education watching a lot of PBS. Those stations ran silent films under the umbrella title The Silent Years, and it’s there where I first immersed myself in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and Keaton’s The General (1927). While normal kids were outside getting plenty of healthy exercise and fresh air, I was tuning in to Intolerance (1916) and The Mark of Zorro (1920)—courtesy of The Paul Killiam Library. (I was an odd child.)
One film that I remember quite well from those television viewings was Sally of the Sawdust (1925), which I was curiously drawn to because it starred The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields. Fields in a silent film? It doesn’t seem possible! Sure, William Claude’s cinematic immortality rests on such classic comedy features as It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) …but before the “talkies,” the comedian was making a name for himself onscreen as far back as 1915 with a pair of one-reel shorts, Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma (thought to be a lost film for many years until a print was unearthed in a private film collection in Belgium in 2006). (Correction: Richard M. Roberts e-mailed me to let me know that the existence of Dilemma remains an unsubstantiated rumor, remarking “Perhaps the print was sitting next to…London After Midnight.”) To quote Leonard Maltin from The Great Movie Comedians: “…they prove just how good a comedian could be, even without the aid of sound. This should come as no surprise when one considers that he didn’t speak on-stage for more than twenty years and took to billing himself at one point as ‘W.C. Fields, Silent Humorist.’”
Fields curtailed his budding movie career to work on Broadway in various Ziegfeld Follies productions from 1916 to 1922…but his success in the 1923 musical comedy Poppy played a small part in getting him back in front of a motion picture camera when he accepted the supporting role of a British sergeant in 1924’s Janice Meredith. The following year, D.W. Griffith decided to bring Poppy to the big screen. (Griffith retitled the movie adaptation Sally of the Sawdust because a Norma Talmadge movie titled Poppy had been released in 1917. The sound remake in 1936 that stars Fields returns to the original title.) That same year, while Griffith was making That Royle Girl for Paramount, he added Fields in a role as the heroine’s intoxicated stepfather for comedy relief—reuniting him with Carol Dempster, his Sally co-star. (Sadly, Royle Girl is believed to be lost. As the [always reliable] IMDb would say, “Please check your attic.” I did—no sign of it.)
Sally of the Sawdust has been released in various home video editions over the years but the one I watched was the Kino version—one of several discs in the company’s 2008 Griffith Masterworks 2 collection (Kino Lorber had the individual DVD on sale a few months back, and I put that baby in my online shopping cart faster than you can say “Suffering sciatica!”). It’s in excellent shape (from a 35mm archive print), but what I enjoyed most was that Kino included the original Silent Years intro to the film, with your obedient servant, Orson Welles. Orson observes that Sally was Griffith’s only comedy—and I’ll contradict him here, since it’s more of a melodrama with comedic overtones—but the most interesting reveal in Orson’s on-camera confession is that he takes credit for William Claude’s nom de cinema for The Bank Dick’s screenplay, “Mahatma Kane Jeeves.” (Welles says Fields used to call him “The Great Mahatma” and that the “Jeeves” came about after Orson introduced him to the works of P.G. Wodehouse.) This contradicts what I’ve read—most sources say “Mahatma Kane Jeeves” was a play on the movie dialogue convention of “My hat…my cane, Jeeves”—so I don’t know if Welles honestly believed his take or if it’s an example of how O.W. liked to engage in anecdotal embroidery from time to time.
By this point in his career, the “Father of Film” didn’t have too much left in his directorial bag of tricks. I’m not saying this to be disagreeable, you understand; I just found Sally of the Sawdust dramatically uneven and a bit protracted in length (the sequence where McGargle tangles with the bootleggers should have been trimmed—it’s there, I know, to build the suspense to an expected Griffith finish, but it’s just unnecessary). Maybe I’m just becoming a sentimental slob in my dotage, but there were portions of the movie where I found myself getting all misty; the scenes with Carol Dempster and Effie Shannon (as Mrs. Foster, her gran’ma), who establish a rapport without knowing the reason why, are very nicely done.
Dempster, who was a leading lady in several Griffith vehicles (America, Isn’t Life Wonderful), is a delight as Sally (the very definition of the term “sprite”) though I’m a little puzzled at why the crowds seem to be mesmerized by her dancing. Carol was not held in high regard by some of the other actresses with whom David Wark directed (notably the Gish sisters and Mae Marsh) and the reason why she appeared in so many of his productions (and received a lot of lovingly photographed close-ups) might have to do with her “auditioning” for him after work…if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Alfred Lunt (of the legendary stage duo Lunt and Fontanne) is agreeable as the man who falls for Sally (not much romance here—they meet, they kiss, they’re ready for the minister) and I chortled when I saw Glenn Anders (as Leon the Handsy Acrobat in his film debut) because every time I spot him in a movie I say out loud: “Just tell ‘em you’re taking a little tarrrrrget practice.”
No, the reason I returned to Sally of the Sawdust after a prolonged absence is Fields himself, who (despite that damned clip-on moustache he insisted on wearing in his silent films) dominates the movie with hilarious throwaway comedy bits (like wringing out his wet cigar and dipping a fountain pen into a cup of tea instead of an inkwell—a gag he reprised in David Copperfield ) and juggling (he does his famous cigar box routine in this). For an actor who established a memorable persona as a small-town misanthrope beset by both life’s irritations and the small-minded individuals who comprised the population of those burgs, W.C.’s character of McGargle is a revelation; he has a very touching relationship with adopted daughter Sally, particularly in the early moments of the film when she’s a youngster. Then again, in many of the comedian’s talkies his characters always seem to have sweet relationships with his daughters—it’s the wives and mother-in-laws who give him grief. (If it’s any consolation, he does give a dog a small kick in Sally.)
“Whatever the modern-day reaction, Fields was not a hit with the mass American public in these silent films,” writes Maltin in Comedians. “Sally of the Sawdust was warmly received, partly because the film was based on a proven Broadway hit, Poppy, and partly because it was directed by the still formidable D.W. Griffith. But a second Griffith-Fields collaboration, That Royle Girl, pleased hardly anyone, and when Fields was set on his own in a series of starring vehicles, his stock with the Paramount executives fluctuated wildly.” (Leonard also mentions that W.C. and D.W.—sounds like Hollywood talk!—were in communication about doing an adaptation of The Pickwick Papers; given Fields’ fondness for Charles Dickens, it’s a shame that project never came to be.) Of Fields’ surviving silent features, the only two I’ve yet to see are Janice Meredith and So’s Your Old Man (1926); I watched Running Wild (1927) during my CSR years at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, and I did a review of It’s the Old Army Game (1926—a phrase repeated several times in Sally) for the blog back in 2007. (I’ve also not seen His Lordship’s Dilemma, and I’m skeptical that the late, legendary F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre ever did, either.) If you’re on your umpteenth viewing of Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) or Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) …why not put Sally of the Sawdust in the player for a change of pace?