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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It's not often realised how strong the links were between silent cinema and the theatrical entertainment world of Vaudeville. W.C. Fields, like many Vaudeville comedians started out in pantomime juggling, pratfalling and other staples of silent comedy. Fields would later add dialogue to his act and cultivate his now familiar persona, eventually progressing onto full-length comic dramas. Sally of the Sawdust, his first feature-length movie creates an odd shift in his career. It is adapted from his most recent stage hit Poppy, and yet the very different medium of pre-talkie cinema meant he had to rely upon the old routines from his pantomime days.
The picture sees him teamed up with pioneer director D.W. Griffith, now sadly long past his glory days. Griffith was never really much of a comedy director. He doesn't seem to have the confidence in his performers to let them do their stuff and allow the scenes to play out. Instead he seems stuck in the Keystone Cops mode of slapstick, which is always very frenetic, with lots of cuts. In a way this works out well because Griffith could at least direct a good action sequence, and scenes like the punch-up at the circus even if not very funny are at least nicely timed and escalated. Besides, even if the comedy fails the general air of irreverence stops the picture from getting too mawkish.
It is also rather nice to see Griffith returning to a simple, human story, as his usual epics with ride-to-the-rescue finales had been getting a little stale of late. Sally of the Sawdust more than any other harks back to the short films he made in the early teens for the way he focuses on individuals rather than wider social processes. There are some good examples of the way he builds up an emotional story. In the prologue, when the daughter is kicked out, we see the mother and father turn away from each other to face opposite walls, the camera well back in the large space, a perfect evocation of this cold, fractured household. And Griffith is still so good at expressing a feeling with the most delicate of close-ups, showing us for example Carol Dempster's hand clutching at the grass as she canoodles with Alfred Lunt. Acting performances vary immensely across Griffith's body of work, but the relatively restrained turns from Dempster and Elfie Shannon as old Mrs Foster add immensely to the poignant final scenes.
But what of W.C. Fields himself? We here and there see him going off into some bit of comedy business, but the truth is as a slapstick comic he is nothing really exceptional. He doesn't have the energy or flexibility to keep up with the wilder slapstick, and sequences like the one where he keeps knocking off his own hat just look out of place. Of course there is a lot more for him to do in Sally of the Sawdust, and Fields is at his funniest when simply acting out bits of the play (presumably kept intact from the original stage version) in his own characteristic manner. When trying to evade the police, he emerges from his hiding place wrapped in a cloak disguised as an Indian, and it is the way he strolls towards the camera, nonchalantly puffing on a cigar, that makes the moment funny. Still, there is clearly something missing from the act the delivery, the voice, not to mention the opportunity to develop a curmudgeonly character without having to occasionally play the clown. It is no wonder his screen career never really took off until the arrival of the talkies.
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