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Thursday, October 3, 2013

POPPY (1936)

A. Edward Sutherland first directed W. C. Fields in the silent feature IT’S THE OLD ARMY GAME/’26; remade in ‘34 as Norman C. McLeod’s far superior sound film, IT’S A GIFT/‘34. Here, the pattern is reversed, as Sutherland megs the inferior sound remake of Fields’ first silent feature, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST/’25, well handled by D. W. Griffith, a man not generally known for comedy. POPPY, staged in 1923, was Fields’ first big stage success outside of revue formats like the Ziegfeld Follies. With a lightly sentimental plot and a co-star from Hollywood (Madge Kennedy), it still had space to showcase Fields' specialty act and let him play an actual character. Griffith made any number of structural changes for his film version, mainly to highlight leading lady Carol Dempster. But he also clarified the backstory of a ‘wronged woman’ as well as her link to the Carny Con Man who, years later, hopes to use his informally adopted daughter to fleece some wealthy locals, passing her off as their long lost granddaughter. The gimmick is that she really is their long lost granddaughter. Griffith’s smartest move was also the simplest, moving it out of its period setting to bring in a livelier, modern pace. Sutherland’s film goes back to 1883, and lets everyone fall into Fields’ increasingly slow drawl. The film plays like an early ‘30s release from FOX, and never does get up on its feet. A possible explanation is that Fields was ill during the shoot (note all the lousy stunt doubling), but that hardly excuses the rest of the cast. While this obviously holds a singular trump card over the silent film just by offering up those dulcet Fieldsian tones, Griffith’s earlier version remains preferable in every other way, a real charmer.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As noted above, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST even with its silly ride-to-the-rescue finale; or IT’S A GIFT for a blast of Fields in his absolute Paramount Studios prime.

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