SALLY OF THE SAWDUST is famed director D. W. Griffith's adaptation of Poppy, the Broadway show that starred W. C. Fields as a circus and carnival barker. Unfortunately, Griffith's version of the show concentrates more on the character of Sally (Poppy in the show and later sound film) rather than on Fields' Professor Eustace McGargle. This decision would have been more palatable had Griffith cast an actress who could play the role properly, but unfortunately he insisted on using his long-time girlfriend Carol Dempster, whose characterization of an innocent, tomboyish waif too often comes off as mentally handicapped. I may sound too harsh about an actress and a performance filmed eight decades ago, but I find her utterly charmless.
Meanwhile, Fields is relegated to doing some minor comedy bits here and there, the kind of stuff that would be throwaway gags in his later sound films. Even when we are treated to some vintage Fields juggling, Griffith either cuts away too soon, films it at an awkward angle or both. You would think that a man who was known as the world's finest comic juggler would deserve a little more time to show off that skill, but Griffith, who reportedly got along well with the comedian and vice verse, seems to have little interest in highlighting the star comic. Instead, we get endless scenes featuring Sally and her bad eccentric dancing, while Fields has to contend to shoehorn his comedy in short cutaways, some of the comedy bits so short they hardly feature comedy at all. Griffith's editing is often clumsy too, with cuts from medium shots to closeups often repeating the same bit of action, or else showing characters in positions they weren't in the previous shot. I have the utmost respect for Griffith's contributions to the art of the motion picture, but later journeymen directors like Eddie Sutherland, Eddie Cline and Norman Z. McLeod knew instinctively that when you have W. C. Fields as your star, you merely need to point the camera in his direction and sit back in your canvas chair while he does his stuff.
Fields still does fine work in what is more of a character part than a lead comedy role. Having spent much of his early stage career as a silent juggler on stage, Fields is perfectly suited for the silent screen, and his voice is missed only because we are fully aware of how much Fields's unique voice would bring to his screen character. In 1936, Fields would star in POPPY, the sound version of the same show. Despite Fields's slightly subdued performance - he was ill and suffered back problems during the filming - the 1936 film is much preferable. - JB