Wednesday, February 23, 2011
“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925)
“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925) is a silent comedy starring Carol Dempster, W.C. Fields and Alfred Lunt. Directed by D.W. Griffith, this film is a fascinating departure from the austere moral drama in which he specialized.
The story opens with the circus coming to town. Sally, played by Carol Dempster, is a circus waif who has been raised by a lovable con man, Professor Eustace McGargle, played by W.C. Fields, a sideshow juggler and entertainer. Flashbacks reveal that Sally’s mother had married a circus man against her father’s wishes and was ordered never to return home. Later, Sally’s mother became a widow with a child, and on her death bed entrusted her little girl to their best friend, McGargle. Now that Sally is a teenager, McGargle decides to return her to her grandparents who now live in Green Meadow. Stranded and broke in the town of Burryville, McGargle and Sally steal a ride on a train. Once they arrive in Green Meadow, McGargle and Sally both stir controversy when attending a charity event for homeless children near the estate of the very wealthy Judge Henry L. Foster, played by Erville Anderson and his wife, played by Effie Shannon, Sally’s grandparents. Complications arise when Peyton Lennox, the son of a respected citizen from Green Meadow, played by Alfred Lunt, meets and falls in love with Sally. Even though McGargle escapes arrest for dealing in a crooked card game, Sally is arrested for being his accomplice and must stand trial to be placed in a home for delinquent girls. Meanwhile, Peyton is sent out of town by his father in the hope that he will forget Sally. The ending is quite surprising.
“Sally of the Sawdust” was based on W.C. Fields’ popular play, “Poppy.” W.C. Fields in his second appearance on the screen made a standout characterization within a story that had mystery, jazz, comedy, romance and drama. Although it is remembered solely as a Fields’ comedy, Carol Dempster acquires most of the attention under Griffith’s careful supervision. Even though much has been said against the actress about her looks and talent, her plain looks only add to her role as Sally. One of my favorite scenes is during the charity event when Carol gets a complete makeover with styled hair, sparkling jewelry, and an evening gown. I think Carol was quite comical in many of the scenes with Fields. However, she gives a touching performance during the final courtroom battle. I liked, in particular, how Fields showcases his skills as a physical comedian in this film. He does a few inventive juggling acts and he is so graceful. Even though “Sally of the Sawdust” is not one of Griffith’s masterpieces, it is an enjoyable film to watch with its pristine quality print and the screen presence of W.C. Fields and Carol Dempster.
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, on December 9, 1901, Carol Dempster moved with her family to California, where she came to the attention of Ruth St. Denis and joined her dance school. She is apparently one of the dancers in the Babylonian sequence of “Intolerance” (1916), but whether Griffith noticed her at this point is unknown. Within three years, Carol was featured in Griffith’s productions of “A Romance of Happy Valley,” “The Girl Who Stayed at Home,” and “True Heart Susie,” all released in 1919. “The Love Flower” (1920) was Carol’s first starring role followed by “Dream Street” (1921). She gave one performance in a non-Griffith production, “Sherlock Holmes” (1922) starring John Barrymore. Carol ended her career starring in six of Griffith’s last films, “The White Rose” (1923), “America” (1924), “Isn’t Life Wonderful” (1924), “Sally of the Sawdust” (1925), “That Royle Girl” (1925) and “The Sorrows of Satan” (1926). Carol Dempster was the last star created by the man credited with creating the American motion picture as we know it today. Carol Dempster died on February 1, 1991. She was 89 years old.