Taking my life — or at least my reputation as a serious film scholar — in my hands, I’m going to admit that D.W. Griffith is high on my list of least-favorite directors. He was certainly a pioneer in filmmaking in that, at the time of his greatest successes, he used a lot of now-standard cinematic devices — close-ups, cross-cutting, etc. — more than did most of his peers. Whether he actually originated any of these is doubtful. Whether he used them well is, to my mind, less so.
I find his work ragged, awkward and frequently just badly edited — with occasional sequences that are undeniably brilliantly handled. And by the time he’d put out Sally of the Sawdust, he’d made and lost a fortune, was no longer a major force in film and had become obsessed with showcasing the marginal talents of his girlfriend, Carol Dempster, despite the fact that no one else seemed to recognize her gifts.
The funny thing is that Sally of the Sawdust is one of Griffith’s more enjoyable films. While this has as much — or more — to do with its starring W.C. Fields in his first leading role, the film is also a showcase for Griffith’s direction, making charming use of a good deal of beautifully pastoral location shooting that helps to give Sally an almost-luminous glow. The film is an adaptation of Fields’ stage success, Poppy (remade as a Fields talkie by A. Edward Sutherland in 1936) — and why Griffith bought a popular play and then proceeded to kill the built-in publicity by changing the title is anybody’s guess.
Griffith’s moralizing attitude was well-suited to the basic concept of the story: A con-man, Professor Eustace McGargle (Fields), is raising an heiress (Dempster) whose mother “disgraced” the family by marrying a circus performer and then thoughtlessly dying. Indeed, it’s the drama — or the melodrama — that seems to have most engaged Griffith. He even starts the film with a prologue that depicts the girl’s mother being thrown out of her familial home in the best barnstorming manner (see Way Down East), and much of the film is given over to Sally’s grandmother (Effie Shannon) grieving over the loss of her daughter.
The comedy of Fields is given much less attention, but it’s generally effectively handled, and it’s a delight to see a great many bits that would later become Fieldsian staples. Griffith mostly errs in grafting on a story about bootleggers kidnapping McGargle, which affords him the chance to stage a pretty-dull last-minute “rescue” with his trademark cross-cutting … well, that and casting the mature-looking, 24-year-old Dempster as the teenage heiress.
But as early Fields (despite that ghastly clip-on mustache that the comic didn’t ditch till 1932) and an example of Griffith in a more relaxed mode, Sally is essential.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park will show Sally of the Sawdust on Saturday, May 15, 2004 in downtown Asheville's Pritchard Park. Screening is at dark (about 8:45 p.m.), with musical accompaniment by Aaron Price and Friends.]