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Judge Foster throws his daughter out because she married a circus man. She leaves her baby girl with Prof. McGargle before she dies. Years later Sally is a dancer with whom Peyton, a son of Judge Foster's friend, falls in love. When Sally is arrested McGargle proves her real parentage. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
Fields, Griffith, Dempster, and the divine Alfred Lunt
The plot of "Sally of the Sawdust" is the usual melodramatic stuff-- an orphan, rags-to-riches-- but the film rises above most silents thanks to four people:
This is not, of course, D. W. Griffith's masterpiece, but it does showcase his film-making savvy in full maturity. He uses all his innovations, which are techniques we take for granted now: close- ups, cross-cutting, a mobile camera, and the ability to modify acting from theatrical exaggeration to cinematic subtlety.
W. C. Fields also showcases his skills-- not his signature gruff delivery, but his remarkable dexterity as a physical comedian. He does a few inventive juggling acts, cut too short to be fully appreciated, and some very deft pickpocketing, but it seems that every prop that comes within reach gets manipulated for comic effect-- hat, cane, car roof, dog, cash. He's a joy to behold.
Much has been said against Carol Dempster as an actress, but her performance here is also richly comic. She was 22 at the time, playing a teenager, and her approach to the role is a combination of grace and awkwardness that may not be wholly convincing, but she truly engages the eye when she's on screen-- particularly when she's dancing. She's not a beauty--though she's positively luminous in the one scene where she's gussied up like a Talmadge sister-- but her plainness only adds to Sally's character, especially in the many moments when she shows very obvious affection for Fields as her guardian/"father." Few, if any, Hollywood performers could compete with Fields when it came to comedy, but Griffith gives his leading lady every chance to match her co-star, and Dempster absolutely holds her own.
Finally, there is Alfred Lunt in one of his extremely rare film roles-- a handsome, even dashing leading man. Wisconsin-born Lunt and his British wife Lynne Fontane made one talkie together-- a wonderfully funny one, THE GUARDSMAN, in 1931-- after which they quit movies forever for the Broadway stage, where they reigned for most of the 20th century. So famous and powerful were they that they would only accept theatrical contracts which allowed them to work together. As for Hollywood, Fontanne wrote to the producer who tried to lure them back with huge flippin' wadges of cash, "We can be bought, but we cannot be bored."
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