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Monday, June 10, 2013

SALLY OF THE SAWDUST (1925)

After a couple of ineffective shorts, W. C. Fields made his real debut in this D. W. Griffith adaptation of POPPY, the B’way hit that lofted him past his accustomed specialty spots as juggler & comic sketch man. Modern audiences need a moment to adjust to the non-vocal Fields, but it's hardly a problem for Fields who rarely spoke on stage during his international touring days. A bigger problem is that the story isn’t one of Fields’ dyspeptic knockabouts, but more a pastorale romance about his adopted daughter with accents (marvelous accents) of Fieldsian comedy, juggling and attitude. Even then, it’s still a frustrating film, largely because it so narrowly misses its potential, with Fields' routines only fleetingly glimpsed and Griffith not quite regaining the rural charm of his TRUE HEART SUSIE/’19 days. The story follows a young bride who runs away with the circus (literally); dying young and leaving her little girl to sideshow mountebank Fields. Years later, he works a carnival near what would have been the girl’s home; finds that her real grandparents have become rich, stuck-up country gentry; and decides to keep her family ties secret. But then the kid falls for the rich neighbor’s available son. As the grown up ‘daughter,’ Carol Dempster (Griffith’s try at replacing Lillian Gish) has a pleasingly goofy appeal, but can’t get much going with either Fields or with the young Alfred Lunt, playing a rather disinterested beau. True to form, Griffith tosses in a ride-to-the-rescue for his climax, and seems to be enjoying himself. With a bit of indulgence, you will, too.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Playwright Dorothy Donnelly, who wrote POPPY, had her biggest hit with operetta composer Sigmund Romberg on THE STUDENT PRINCE. Even showing up in his bio-pic (DEEP IN MY HEART/’54), played by Merle Oberon, and getting the big death scene! Griffith smartly moved the play’s setting to the present and also changed things so that Fields knew about the grandparents. (The sound remake, POPPY/’35, is also quite different.) But why didn’t anyone think of having Fields plan to fleece the family with his secret knowledge only to be held back when tru-love calls?

CONTEST: The KINO DVD has the fullest cut (113 min), the best image and a neat EXTRA with Orson Welles doing an intro. (It’s culled from ‘70s tv series of Silent Films.) Welles loved Fields as a theater-going kid (he once got booted for laughing too hard) and chummed around with the great, impossible man much later in Hollywood. But a more direct link exists between this film and filmmaker Welles. Find the link to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

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