Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sally of the Sawdust

Sirkusilmaa / Cirkusluft. US 1925. PC: D.W. Griffith, Inc. P+D: D.W. Griffith. SC: Forrest Halsey - based on the musical play Poppy (1923) by Dorothy Donnelly. CAST: Carol Dempster (Sally), W.C. Fields (Prof. Eustace McGargle). Print: MoMA, 9615 ft /19 fps/ 135 min, original in English, e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Donald Sosin, vocals: Joanna Seaton. Viewed at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Cinema Verdi, 5 October 2008. - Brilliant print. Donald Sosin inspired at the piano. - Joyce Jesionowski: "a peculiar project for many reasons. Though it is not without pictorial scope, it lacks the grandeur of D.W. Griffith’s great epics. It is a comedy, a form Griffith apparently had consigned to the likes of Mack Sennett and Billy Quirk in the Biograph period. In addition to Griffith’s supposed lack of comic gifts, Sally of the Sawdust relies on the pairing of W.C. Fields, a clown fresh from the Ziegfeld Follies with an actress considered a lesser light in the great firmament of stars Griffith had bequeathed to the cinema. Carol Dempster had first appeared as an extra dancer in Intolerance (1916), and Griffith had been featuring or starring her in his films beginning with The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919). Yet, of Sally of the Sawdust’s leading lady, Frederick James Smith of Motion Picture Classic admitted: “it was not until Isn’t Life Wonderful that I thought Miss Dempster could act.”
Worst of all, the great director’s personal luster was beginning to tarnish. The box-office success of The Birth of a Nation (1915) turned into notoriety as well as fame, but did not assure Griffith the independence he craved. The failure of the Fine Arts studio portended future difficulties. In 1919, Griffith complained to Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic that because of studio interference at Paramount-Artcraft, “tender little scenes … were mercilessly cut [from A Romance of Happy Valley (1919) and The Girl Who Stayed at Home] to speed up the deluxe program”. Fortunes rose and fell after that, but whatever the reasons Griffith advanced for his perceived “failures”, by December 1924 critical opinion had become so harsh that Photoplay’s critic, James Quirk, was emboldened to exhort the erstwhile master: “the time has come … when you should take an accounting of yourself”. Thus skepticism flavored Griffith’s new association with Paramount from the first.
In fact, critical reception of Sally of the Sawdust was approving – if double-minded. In the same review that noted the improvement in Dempster’s acting in Motion Picture Classic, Smith praised Sally of the Sawdust for being “best in just the field that [sic] Griffith has been weakest – comedy”. In the November 1925 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, Laurence Reid countered that the film was “a most compelling story … in the director’s best manner, one saturated with pointed comedy which is always well-balanced with pathos”. It seems that to the evaluating community Sally of the Sawdust was a typical Griffith offering and a departure from it, at one and the same time.
Indeed, for all its apparent anomalies, Sally of the Sawdust bears the indelible stamp of Griffith’s thinking. Recognizing the need for a solid project to begin his work at Paramount, Griffith turned to a proven stage success. Dorothy Donnelly’s Poppy (1923) would provide the same security as Lottie Blair Parker’s Way Down East had in 1920. Each had enjoyed theatrical successes. But more critically, Poppy’s story could be exploited to express all the dramatic oppositions that typically interested Griffith. Country innocence is compared to city experience, freedom to constraint, respectability to disrepute, intolerance to open-mindedness, probity to love. And at Sally of the Sawdust’s core is the pervasive theme that formed the basis of drama in so many of the Biographs as well as in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and even Broken Blossoms (1919). The death or absence of a mother results in the relationship of a girl with her father or a male guardian who must raise her to the point of sexual awakening.
The emotional relationship between Sally and her “Pop” is centralized in their collaboration to create the film’s comic set-pieces. The smaller turns, the hobo train ride, and the confusion in the bakery are dominated by W.C. Fields, who exploits each of the situations in small gestures, comic displacements that cascade into larger and larger exaggerations. His body constantly in play, Fields finds the most preposterous postures in a given situation, no matter how small. When he and Sally hitch a ride on a train, for instance, his feet and legs are farcically crabbed up to protect their luggage even as he and Dempster huddle precariously on the train’s open platform. In each situation, Fields finds successions of inanimate objects – hat, cane, suitcase – and portrays them as conspirators against any possibility of situating himself comfortably in the world. His inventions are so integrated into his performance that they become the “natural” expressions of his eccentric character.
Dempster’s comedy is larger, broader, louder. Second banana to Fields in the smaller comic situations, she becomes his two-fisted partner in the film’s large-scale action sequences, the grand mêlée at the circus that resolves the first act of the film, and the race-chase-rescue that resolves the film as a whole. In the first mêlée, she energetically dives into the dirt under a circus wagon and hollers “Hey, Rube!” with a vigor that almost makes her silent voice audible. Boinking her Pop’s attackers with a plank, she generates the heat in the fray while Fields is charged with exposing the comic absurdities of battle. Just before the fight’s resolution, for instance, he fends off his assailants in the now-classic parody of fisticuffs: holding an opponent at bay, in this case hand to the man’s throat, while he swings vain punches in the air. The mounting mayhem is finally resolved by Sally’s arrival with Lucy the elephant. But the interior dynamic of the fight depends on the shifting registers between Dempster’s enthusiastic scrapping and Fields’ comic embroidery. The secondary theme of Sally of the Sawdust is the sexual awakening of a young girl. While the clowning between Dempster and Fields creates a central dramatic pairing, it also certifies the innocence of a relationship between a young girl and an older man who so often finds her arms twined around his neck and her body pressed tight to his own.
In the end, neither the critical appreciation [at the time of its release] nor its successful box-office have lifted Sally of the Sawdust into the pantheon of Griffith’s major films. It does suffer from a sort of flickering interest on Griffith’s part, a lack of engagement in some of its aspects. But Sally of the Sawdust demonstrates conclusively that Griffith’s talents for comedy were better developed than anyone would have thought. More importantly, the maturity of the film’s love scenes, the inventiveness of its unlikely comic pairing, and the liveliness of its final chase sequence suggest that Griffith was fully capable of “taking an accounting” of himself and finding powers that were by no means exhausted." – Joyce Jesionowski. - Remade as Poppy (1936). - I don't consider Griffith a great comedy director, although I like the sense of humour in several of his films. But he directed this good W.C. Fields vehicle, my favourite Griffith comedy.

No comments: