W.C. Fields reaped his first starring role in a feature-length motion picture when D.W. Griffith hired him to repeat the part he had played in the popular 1923 stage piece "Poppy." Ads for the movie described it as a "laugh classic" in which an "adorable circus kid and lovable circus
faker take you through the sawdust ring and juggle their way straight into your hearts."
Judge Foster (Erville Anderson) banishes his daughter from the family bosom in Green Meadow, Connecticut, when she marries a circus man. Both the girl and her husband die young, leaving behind a child named Sally, who is unofficially adopted by Eustace McGargle (W.C. Fields), a veteran circus
performer and con artist.
Years later, Sally (Carol Dempster) has developed into a spunky, attractive teenager and a seasoned trouper. When Sally and her "Pop" find themselves stranded one day in Green Meadow, McGargle, undecided whether to keep the girl in his care or turn her over to her grandparents, determines to look
them up and look them over. Neither the Fosters nor Sally are aware of their relationship. The snobbish Judge Foster becomes alarmed when a romance develops between the lowly circus girl and Peyton Lennox (Alfred Lunt), the son of a wealthy friend and colleague (Charles Hammond). Resolved to break
up the affair, Foster arranges a gambling raid, during which Sally is arrested in the process of defending her guardian, McGargle, who flees.
After being told by Judge Foster that he intends to send her to a home for wayward girls, Sally makes a daring escape from the courthouse, but is immediately pursued, recaptured, and brought back to trial. At this point, McGargle suddenly appears and announces that Sally is the judge's
granddaughter. The case is dismissed; Sally and Peyton are united; and McGargle becomes a successful, if not scrupulously honest, local real estate man.
Griffith and his screenwriter, Forrest Halsey, modified "Poppy" considerably by updating its setting from the 1870s to the present, by diminishing its comedy quotient in favor of more drama, and by making Eustace McGargle less of a swindler. Fields appears to be somewhat uncomfortable with
Griffith's sanitized McGargle. Never convincing, here or subsequently, when called upon to display affection for anyone, he is most himself when at his meanest and most devious, such as the scene in which McGargle somehow succeeds in picking the pocket of his opponent in a fistfight.
SALLY OF THE SAWDUST contains tantalizing samples of the skills that justified Fields's self-billing as "the World's Greatest Juggler," though not enough of them to please the Fields student of today or, undoubtedly, Fields himself. Biographers of Fields and Griffith have speculated about clashes
between the two legends--in light of their radically contrasting temperaments--but when it came time to talk to the press, each was lavish in praise of the other. "Never have I directed a more charming person nor a harder worker," said Mr. Griffith about Mr. Fields. "He gives actors credit for
having some brains. He is one of the finest men I had ever met," said Mr. Fields about Mr. Griffith.
SALLY OF THE SAWDUST is a victim of the same sloppy editing (by the same sloppy editor) that had marred Griffith's WAY DOWN EAST five years earlier: people enter scenes twice, hats pop on and off heads, etc. Carol Dempster, with whom Griffith was reportedly in love at the time, tries very hard to
make Sally feisty and cute and succeeds in doing so intermittently. Broadway star Alfred Lunt barely registers as Peyton. It's difficult to determine whether his soft and rather lumpish portrayal was the result of conscious characterization or simple inadequacy.
Possibly the movie's most evocative sequence is one that obviously did not appear in the play and is totally irrelevant to the progress of the plot: the pursuit of Sally through the streets, alleys, and fields of Green Meadow following her flight from the courthouse. Shot not in Connecticut but on
Long Island, New York, this extraneous insert provides modern viewers with an interesting glimpse of what small northeastern towns looked like in the 1920s.
Fields repeated the role that made him famous in POPPY (1936), a more faithful screen version of the Dorothy Donnelly play. (Violence.)
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