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POPPY (Paramount, 1936), directed by A. Edward Sutherland, stars WC
Fields as Professor Eustace McGargle, a role he originated in the 1923
stage production of the same name, and reprized in a silent 1925
adaptation retitled SALLY OF THE SAWDUST for United Artists, directed
by D.W. Griffith, starring Carol Dempster not as Poppy, but as Sally.
This 1936 version, which premiered June 25, 2001, on Turner Classic
Movies, is said to have been more faithful to the play than the
Griffith-directed incarnation. Aside from the usual Fields comedy
supplements, he also manages to show the sentimental side to his
character, as he did as The Great McGonigle in THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
(1934), where he also cheated suckers while finding time to be a loving
and caring father to his grown daughter. POPPY could very well have
been a sequel to THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY, considering the same time
period and Fields' character names in both films sounding identical,
from McGonigle to McGargle. However, I find POPPY to be one of Fields'
more quieter comedies. Host Robert Osborne of TCM mentioned prior the
presentation of the movie that Fields was quite ill and in great pain
during the making of the movie, but succeeded in finishing the film in
what might have been his farewell performance (which explains why WC
wasn't having his usual field day as he did in his past comedies). Had
Fields died following the completion of the film, what a fine
conclusion it would have been to his great career, with W.C. not only
reprising the role he made famous on stage, but in saying this
memorable line to his on-screen daughter, Poppy, as he gives her his
expert fatherly advice, "Never give a sucker an even break," before the
Set in 1883, Professor Eustace McGargle, a swindling carnival man wearing top hat, checkered pants and spats, comes to a small town with his daughter, Poppy (Rochelle Hudson) where he establishes himself as the prize medicine selling star of a traveling carnival, while Poppy wanders about and meets and falls in love with Billy Farnsworth (Richard Cromwell), a mayor's son, but because of Poppy's sideshow background, the Farnsworth family look down on her. Only Sarah Tucker (Maude Eburne), a matron woman, takes a liking to Poppy, and later discovers something about her true identity that makes things right again with the Farnsworths.
Aside from the romantic subplot between Hudson and Cromwell (who nearly resembles MGM's own Franchot Tone when wearing that derby), Fields manages to come off with some good comedy routines, such as cheating a bartender into buying his "talking" dog; purchasing frank-furthers (or better known to some as hot dogs) for himself and Poppy from a vendor (Tom Kennedy) with McGargle telling him that he will get paid at the conclusion of his engagement. The outraged vendor demands the money for his hot dogs, so McGargle and Poppy decide that since they cannot pay for them, they might as well give them back to him, half-eaten, ending with this funny exchange: Kennedy: "Listen you tramp, how am I gonna sell these again?" Fields: "First you insult me, then you ask my advice concerning salesmanship!" This amusing bit is soon followed by McGargle selling medicine bottles for one dollar. A naive patron (Bill Wolfe) acquires one and pays for them by giving McGargle a $5 bill, but never gets his $4 change. Instead, McGargle quiets down the customer by giving him four more bottles, and "No more!!"; followed by some amusing bits involving character actress Catherine Doucet as Countess Maggie Tubbs DePuizzi. When Fields is not on screen, Hudson as Poppy gets to sing one nice song, "Rendezvous With a Dream" (by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin) twice. The title tune of "Poppy" is sung by off-screen singers during its opening credits. Also featured in the cast are Lynne Overman as a hick lawyer; Rosalind Keith as the snobbish Frances Parker; and Granville Bates, among others.
In spite of some leisure moments, POPPY, at 73 minutes, is really worth viewing and rediscovering to fans of the Great Tomato Nose Thanks to TCM for bringing this rare gem back on TV again. Currently available on DVD. (***1/2)
It's 1883 and Professor Eustace P. McGargle, charlatan
extraordinaire, arrives in the bucolic berg of Green Meadow.
There he will attempt to deceive the local rubes into believing
beautiful daughter POPPY is heiress to an unclaimed
Once again, the inimitable W. C. Fields manages to merge the lovable & the larcenous into a highly amusing package designed to delight even the most jaded audience. Watching him perform his classic routines - the temperance lecture, the croquet game, the instrumental solo - is to be in the hands of a comic master. And has cinema produced funnier frauds than The Talking Dog or Purple Bart's Sarsaparilla? Probably not.
Fields had played the flimflamming professor before - on Broadway in 1923 and in D. W. Griffith's silent SALLY OF THE SAWDUST and he had made the role his own. But Fields' health was now at a low ebb after years of alcoholic overindulgence and he needed 10 months of rehabilitation and a sojourn in a sanitarium before beginning POPPY. And the filming itself was not without incident: his scene on the ordinary' bicycle - which could have been handled by a stunt man - resulted in a fall that broke a vertebrae, leaving him in much pain. This is not apparent in his performance, however. (Another accident after filming ended sent him back for a further stint in the hospital.)
Fields' co-stars also do much to add to the high entertainment level of the film: Catherine Doucet & Lynne Overman play a conniving countess & shyster lawyer who have their own plans for getting their greedy hands on the envied greenbacks; Maude Eburne is a fiercely protective old lady who befriends Poppy; and skeletal Bill Wolfe is very droll as a gardener who refuses to be cheated by one of Fields' scams. Movie mavens will recognize Dewey Robinson as the calliope driver who is one of Fields' early victims.
As the young lovers, you could scarcely have done any better than Rochelle Hudson & Richard Cromwell. Having both lit-up many a film during the 1930's, they bring a great deal of charm to their roles, even in scenes which spread on the sticky sentiment a bit too thick. And Miss Hudson supplies the film with its loveliest moment when she sings A Rendezvous With A Dream,' a tune which definitely deserves to be revived.
Fields, of course, dominates everything. Which is as it should be. However it is sad that the contributing factor to his eventual death - dipsomania - was already starting to destroy his body when he made this very funny film.
No it is not the greatest of W.C. Field's comedies - it does not rank
with THE BANK DICK or IT'S A GIFT or THE OLD FASHIONED WAY or even MY
LITTLE CHICKADEE. But POPPY is of considerable interests to the many
fans of the great misanthropic comic. In 1923 he appeared on stage in
POPPY as "EUSTACE McGARGLE". It was the first lead role in a play (as
opposed to one or two comic supporting parts, and his years of
vaudeville juggling/comic routines, or his years headlining in the
Ziefeld Follies) that FIelds had. Interestingly enough his performance
on stage enabled him to cross paths with another future movie comedian
(though a lesser one in retrospect), Robert Woolsey (of Wheeler and
Woolsey), who appeared as a rustic victim of McGargle. The play gave
Fields a "Fields" day as a carnival swindler, who was also the foster
father of a young woman who Fields/McGargle would try to pass off as an
heiress. The play was subsequently made into a silent film, "Sally of
the Sawdust" (Field's third silent movie, and first directed by the
great D.W.Griffith). The silent version was actually a vehicle for
Griffith's pitifully inadequate actress find Carol Dempster (who was
also his girlfriend at the time). It is also of interest because the
boyfriend of Dempster was played by a young Alfred Lunt (sadly Lynn
Fontaine was not in this film).
The 1925 "Sally of the Sawdust" had some good moments when Fields did his larcenous best - including a "heroic" scene at the end where he explains "Sally"'s true parentage at court, and saves her from prison. But Dempster's attempts at "gamin" like cuteness are tiresome to a viewing today. Lunt does well, but is a distinctly supporting actor here.
Fortunately sound came along, so that Mr. Lunt (now with Lynn Fontaine) would make THE GUARDSMAN and plenty of television appearances in the future to demonstrate their fine acting abilities. Ms Dempster, of course, just faded into oblivion. Fields too would benefit by sound, and would leave us that nasal twang that made us guffaw so much. And by doing "Poppy" as a sound film we were able to hear some of the dialog from the stage play that the silent film did not have. Mention has been made of three moments: the sale of the "talking dog", the business with the hot dog vendor (which is where the line at the start of this review comes from), and the business with the patent medicine purchaser ("No more"). A fourth one is the sequence (somewhat too brief) where "Professor" McGargle entertains the guests at a society party with some high sounding concerto on a strange looking stringed instrument. He ends up playing "Pop Goes the Weasel". At the end, when "Poppy" is revealed to really be the lost heiress, McGargle takes leave of his adopted daughter in a quiet, dignified way - not quite as tragic as a similar sequence in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, perhaps, but equally not as tragic and total as his leaving her in the radio version of "Poppy" that was made within two years of the film. That version was put out on records about 1970, and keeps to the story, but seems sadder than this movie or the 1925 silent version.
When POPPY was filmed, W.C. Fields was in poor health. Suffering from back
pain, he had to wear a kind of corset to keep his back straight. His
condition was aggravated when he fell off a bicycle during shooting,
fracturing a vertebra. This apparently accounts for Fields' relatively
limited screen time, despite his top billing. But when he does appear, he
shows no signs of illness. Indeed his humorously iconoclastic personality
dominates the film.
It is a blessing that Fields is in this film at all. Without him, POPPY would be forgettable. The late 19th century settings, particularly a carnival locale, are pleasing to the eye. Director Edward Sutherland imbues this milieu with pastoral charm, evoking a nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time. Never mind if that time wasn't actually as rosy as this film indicates.
Alas, the charming period atmosphere cannot enhance the tired scenario. The romance between Poppy (Rochelle Hudson), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and Billy Farnsworth (Richard Cromwell), a boy from a wealthy and prestigious family, was old hat even in 1936. Hudson is bland and Cromwell is wooden, so one feels little empathy toward them.
Fields rescues POPPY from tedium. As Poppy's guardian Professor Eustace McGargle, he flimflams his way through everything. His larcenousness provide for some wonderful routines that elevates the film to classic comedy such as when he cons a bartender (Wade Boteler) into purchasing a "talking" dog and when he tries to get hot dogs for himself and Poppy without paying. These bits remain in one's memory after the love story is forgotten. Fields also reveals a tender, avuncular side in his intimate moments with Hudson. One understands her dedication to him, despite his crookedness.
POPPY does not rank among Fields' best work. But it demonstrates his greatness not only in that he rises above ordinary material, but that he vigorously soldiers throughout his scenes despite his real life ailments.
The devoted daughter is the only Fields stock plot left from previous films It's A Gift , You're Telling Me, there's no nagging wife and annoying in-laws here. For that reason the film suffers slightly in comparison, it really drags when Fields isn't in it and the audience is left with his daughter's romance with a local schmuck, or worse the same waltz song sung twice. Also it is clear as others have mentioned Fields isn't completely on his game due to back problems which may have led him to drink more. Still, for Fields fans there is plenty to enjoy here especially the croquet sequence, his recurring encounter with a previous dupe, and an attempt at playing a kind of violin. Enough laughs to make up for the lulls.
WC Fields stars as a circus performer whose daughter claims to be heir to a small-town fortune. A sentimental comedy with music and schmaltzy love story (Rochelle Hudson, Richard Cromwell), Field is--as always--watchable and quite good in a fairly straight role. However, character actresses Catherine Doucet and Maude Eburne steal the film as a fake countess and Hudson's benefactress. Fields film regular Bill Wolfe is also fun. This old-timey comedy has a Chaplin-like feel in its blending of humor and pathos. A near-miss for Fields but still worth watching for his good performance and a couple of classic routines.
In this film, W.C. Fields who was one of the great elder comedians of his time plays a carnival performer. He and his daughter, Poppy, arrive in town. It's there that Poppy falls in love with the town's most eligible handsome bachelor. It's a mutual attraction but her breeding and heritage is not attractive. Poppy is a carnival girl who was raised by her father and traveled from town to town with the carnival. She certainly wouldn't get approved by the local society. Anyway, there are tricks and turns that changes everything without spoiling it. W.C. Fields was a comic genius on stage and in film before television. He was one of the great legends that came to film in his winter of his career. Even though, the cast is first rate but the writing is weak. Anyway it's entertaining and unforgettable. Watch W.C. Fields performing is a timeless treasure.
POPPY is an atypical W. C. Fields film even though this was the second
time he filmed the story (earlier it was the 1925 D. W. Griffith silent
SALLY OF THE SAWDUST with Carol Dempster and Alfred Lunt as the young
lovers). This gentle little comedy/drama, originally a turn of the
century stage melodrama, casts Fields as a carnival con man with an
18-year-old daughter Poppy (Rochelle Hudson). While in a small town,
Hudson falls in love with the mayor's son (Richard Cromwell) and
Fields, thought to be a distinguished lecturer, attracts the attention
of the presumably wealthy Madame DePuizzi ("Madame DePussy" according
to Fields!!) deliciously played by Catherine Doucet. Seems the Mme. is
quite a con herself - she is only a presumed heiress, being the former
mistress of a now deceased wealthy man of the town whose only actual
heir, a daughter mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago. Fields with
the help of shady attorney Lynne Overman concocts a story that he is
the widower of the daughter, making his own daughter the heiress of the
estate. Meanwhile Mme. "dePussy" starts to show her claws and is in
cahoots with Cromwell's old girlfriend and others to shame Hudson for
her carnival background and disprove Field's claims.
The atmosphere for this 1880's tale is quite charming and effective and there are several wonderful Fields comic bits, particularly his barter of a "talking dog" although I found his croquette travesty a misfire that didn't work. His performance is top notch however and the charming young Hudson and the equally adorable Cromwell are very appealing. Maude Eburne stands out among the supporting cast in a delightful role as a local matron who takes an interest in Rochelle and becomes her only friend in town. POPPY is perhaps a bit too genteel for W.C.'s biggest fans who like him best in a wild comedy but it's still a pleasing and successful albeit modest picture.
I left this one for last from the films in the W.C. FIELDS COMEDY
COLLECTION VOL. 2 because it's always been reported that his
contribution is swamped by the plot; I ended up enjoying it more than I
had expected to and, in fact, consider this an underrated star vehicle.
It's true that the sentimental narrative, romantic subplot and even a couple of songs get in the way of the comedy highlights, but Fields himself is in fine form here (he originated the role of Professor Eustace McGargle on stage and had already appeared in a Silent version of the Dorothy Donnelly play called SALLY OF THE SAWDUST  - directed, of all people, by D.W. Griffith and, for this reason, making it one of the very few Fields Silents released on DVD!). Incidentally, the star was seriously injured during the making of POPPY - not that his performance is effected in any way. Here, also, we're treated to the same kind of period atmosphere as in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934): Fields, however, is a sideshow performer instead of the manager/lead actor of a theatrical troupe and has exchanged the awkward golf practice of YOU'RE TELLING ME! (1934) for the game of croquet - at which he's equally inept (besides playing an instrument called the kadoola to replace his memorable juggling act in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY). As in MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935), too, here we get various instances of Fields' unique and hilarious shriek whenever he takes a fall.
Among the film's best gags/lines are the following: the 'talking' dog scam; Fields berating a hot dog vendor for 'seeking his advise' in the sale of two half-eaten loaves, after the latter insulted him by suggesting that Fields couldn't afford to pay for them; he keeps running into a cadaverous fellow he swindled and who relentlessly asks for his money back; Fields mistaking a helpful gesture as to his presumed wife's distinctive features (the man indicated a mole under her ear, but Fields thought he meant she had sideburns!); his remark about the horse he was fleeing on dying out on him right in front of the police station. By the way, the last line of the film, "Never give a sucker an even break", gave the name to one of Fields' most famous vehicles (also included in the set and which I watched earlier this week).
Now I need to pick up the four remaining Fields films that are available on DVD - the afore-mentioned SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, SIX OF A KIND (1934), David COPPERFIELD (1935) and THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 (1938) - all but the first of which have been issued as part of some collection or other. Incidentally, there are still enough unreleased Fields movies from the Talkie period to compile yet another Universal set; so, let's hope they deliver sooner rather than later...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The great W.C. was at the height of his film career when he remade the
silent movie "Sally of the Sawdust", loosely based upon the 1925
Broadway musical, "Poppy". The sound version added on a few songs as
well although it is questionable if they were in the stage production.
The story however is basically the same, focusing on the lovable
con-artist devoted to daughter Rochelle Hudson who may be entitled to
an estate. The main plot line concerns Hudson's insecurity of moving
into society, falling in love with handsome Richard Cromwell, and being
constantly reminded of her not so honorable beginnings as a carny girl.
Loosely remade by RKO with Robert Woolsey (who appeared in the original stage production) in 1931. this version had some of Fields' old routines including a delightfully funny croquet sequence with dowager Catherine Doucet standing by. Fields makes use if every prop on every scene, taking simple every day chores (such as getting dressed) and making them hysterical.
A fast moving and often poignant comedy, this holds up pretty well for being so old fashioned in plot. Fields obviously knew what type of comedy would stand the test of time. Hudson is lovely and is certainly a great heroine. This is classic in every sense and explains why the W.C. Fields cult exists to this very day.
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