Sally of the Sawdust (D.W. Griffith / U.S., 1925):

W.C. Fields debuted onscreen the same year as Birth of a Nation, ten years later D.W. Griffith gives him a proper introduction to cinema, tripping over a pooch and greeting the tyke hugging his leg with a puff of cigar smoke, but not before melodrama lays the ground rules. A New England patriarch (Erville Alderson) kicks out his daughter after she marries a circus guy, she expires in the back of a tent as her mother (Effie Shannon) elsewhere holds one of her dolls to her bosom. Left orphaned is Carol Dempster, the Sally of the title, protected by Fields, a goodhearted carnival shyster -- she is "part tomboy, part woman," and the woman part, not quite hidden by her ballet tights, grabs the lustful gaze of acrobat Glenn Anders. Dempster and Fields amble over to ply their trade at a society event where Alderson, clueless to the return of his own granddaughter, brands them a "menace to the community," just as Shannon, lonely in the expanses of her mansion, feels drawn to the dancing waif. Fields juggling at the fair could be documentary footage from the Ziegfeld Follies, a pen is absent-mindedly dipped in coffee, a barstool (complete with spittoon) gets erected around a peanut cart: Fieldsian arias sowed early to flower later in sound pictures, punctuated midway with a vaudevillian exit in full Indian regalia and stogie, a gag in long shot. Griffith, meanwhile, leaves a goldmine of his own -- Renoir recalled the meadow wooing between the ingénue and Alfred Lunt in A Day in the Country, Fellini all but modeled Gelsomina on Dempster's clowning. An "inept Galatea" in "minor" Griffith?! Suffice to say that the actress miming yearning at a fancy ballroom (index finger pointed, eyes shifted, head tilted) gives you a distillation of the art of comedy, while Griffith uses the climactic chase to teach editing to Eisenstein in the year of Potemkin. From Dorothy Donnelly's play. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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