Netflix Update No. 81: “Sally of the Sawdust”
October 1, 2013
Watching silent movies always gives me a melancholy feeling. I think the sensation comes from a wistful and naive attraction to the era in which those films were made — an era that was gone long before I was born. The mood comes over me almost regardless of the film I’m watching, whether it is drama or comedy.
And so it was with a mixed response that I watched D.W. Griffith’s 1925 comedy Sally of the Sawdust, in which the leading players were W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster, and Alfred Lunt. This film, which is based on Poppy, a 1923 stage musical, is lighter fare than usually comes to mind when Griffith’s name is mentioned, but it has dark undertones as well.
Fields plays “Professor” Eustace McGargle, a circus juggler and con man who befriends a single mother and her daughter, Sally (Dempster). After the mother dies, McGargle briefly considers returning Sally to her grandparents in the fictional New York suburb of Green Meadows, but he has a genuine affection for the child and decides to keep her with him.
As Sally grows, McGargle also uses her as a dancing warm-up to his own act. When their fortunes are at a low ebb, the pair wind up in Green Meadow where they work at a charity carnival while McGargle prepares to finally restore the girl to her family, who have have benefitted financially from a real estate boom in the area. Although the handsome son (Lunt) of a local tycoon falls in love with Sally, his father is repelled by the idea of such a match and does what he can to prevent it by having McGargle and Sally arrested on the basis of the professor’s three-card monte operation. There are parallel frenetic scenes as Sally attempts to escape from custody and McGargle purloins a tin lizzy and leads a gang of bootleggers on a wild chase as he attempts to reach town and his distressed ward. To make a long story short, they all live happily ever after.
One impression I couldn’t shake is that this film, which appeared toward the end of Griffith’s career, was longer than it had to be. The story is thin and obvious, and the twin sequences of Sally’s escape and McGargle’s chase, go on too long by about a third.
Still, it was interesting to watch Fields, who in his later career made so much of verbal comedy, perform for an hour and a half in silence. Also, McGargle foreshadows other roles Fields would play but, except for Wilkins Macawber in David Copperfield, his characters didn’t face situations quite as grave as the one McGargle wrestled with. Fields would get to reprise this role in Poppy, a 1936 sound version of the same story.
I found Carol Dempster to be very appealing as Sally. She was one of Griffith’s discoveries and appeared in many of his films, and she was also for a time his lover. While I was watching Sally in the Sawdust, my wife came into the room and remarked that Dempster was kind of forlorn-looking. That struck me, too, and I read that Dempster attracted critical remarks on that account at the time she was making these movies. But I found that slightly hangdog quality both suitable and, in its own way, attractive. Evidently, at least some film critics now feel the same way.
A significant factor in my enjoyment of this film was the score that was written and performed, on a digital piano, by Donald Sosin.
I’m going to watch this film again and use the pause button several times. As with most silent films that were shot on locations, I often found myself transfixed by the background, by the storefronts and the signs and the cars and the structures that were serving their purpose on a long-ago day when Griffith’s camera happened to capture them.