September 3, 1923 was an important date. It was opening night for the Broadway show Poppy, written by Dorothy Donnelly and starring Madge Kennedy as the titular New England heiress, and W.C. Fields as the colorful con man who adopted her when her mother died working in a circus. The show is significant for providing the final piece in the puzzle of the Fields persona we now know and love. Earlier pieces had emerged in the classic sketches he had written and performed in in Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and others since 1915. But it was with Poppy that he introduced the florid-tongued, top-hatted 19th century mountebank, Eustace McGargle, the lovable snake oil salesman. Already a star of vaudeville and revues, Poppy now brought Fields to the attention of serious and important critics like Alexander Woolcott, George Jean Nathan and Robert Sherwood.
Fields’ performance also turned the head of D.W. Griffith, who brought Fields back to pictures for the second of his three movie careers. (Many commentators at the time erroneously reported the 1925 screen version Sally of the Sawdust as Fields’s “screen debut” but he had actually made two slapstick comedies a decade earlier.) Griffith did to Poppy precisely what you would expect — he concentrated on the melodrama aspects and focuses mainly on the travails of the young girl, unaccountably renamed Sally. Although Griffith genuinely loved Fields’ comedy and acting, he reduced his role somewhat to a colorful supporting part. Still, Fields got to squeeze in much impressive business, including a couple of juggling routines, and familiar little turns we recognize from his talking films. Sally of the Sawdust, too, was a hit and launched Fields on a career as a silent comedian –he was to make 8 more silents through 1928.
Fields’ 3rd movie career begins with talkies in the early 30s. When he made the sound film version of Poppy in 1936 he was at death’s door; people thought it was his last film. (Fields was suffering from several different conditions, all of them exacerbated by his two quarts of liquor a day habit). Clocking in at one hour 15 minutes, it is vastly shorter than the two hour silent version and the three hour stage version. Apart from a hilarious croquet routine copped from one of his Follies appearances, it cleaves closely to the plot. We get the pleasure of hearing Fields speak many of his hilarious lines from the original show, although there’s no juggling in this one, and a double steps in for most of his long shots.
In 1938, he did a radio version which resembles the stage version even more. It is available to purchase here.
Now, the occasion for this post? On Tuesday, I had the magical treat of hearing the original script to the 1923-24 show read aloud by a cast that included Todd Robbins (in the Fields role), Gilbert Gottfried, and sundry other talents.
The exhumation was Todd’s work: he not only found the original book, but also Fields’ own working copy, including his notes (as you can imagine, Fields not only ad libbed but substantially rewrote his own part). Todd then adapted the script, trimming it down some, tweaking some lines, and replacing juggling bits with magic turns. He’s trying to gauge interest in a revival of the show, which is a very good fit for him as it showcases not only his skills as a comic actor, but as a magician and all around sleight of hand man. (There are generous comic interludes in dumb show).(By the way this is not the first time someone besides Fields has stepped into the role. The 1924 London production starred musical comedy star W.H. Berry).
It was very interesting to see the original vehicle. There’s a presentationalism to it missing in all subsequent versions. McGarrgle is the narrator, which gives the show a feeling not unlike Our Town). In addition to the magic tricks and stunts, there are several charming musical numbers. Todd appears to have rewritten the lyrics to a couple, and added “The Fatal Glass of Beer”, well known to comedy lovers from the sketch and short film of that name. (Rachel Kaufman, musical director for our 2008 show No Applause at Theater for the New City, did musical chores here. She understands this idiom intimately.) As long as this show runs (almost three hours) I wanted even more songs. “It’s the Old Army Game” is still in my head.
This is a show that’s stuffed to the gills with good material. No doubt if it goes into development, the necessary process of trimming it down to assuage modern sensibilities will be painful. The 1935 film gets it down to less than half the current length, including two songs. Add the rest of the songs, and that’s probably about the right length.
And Robbins in the role of McGarrgle? I think that’s something audiences will line up to see! At present he is conceiving the part as a sort of Fields/ Robbins hybrid; the feeling is somewhat similar to Keith Carradine in Will Rogers Follies. His reverence for the Great Man is more than evident, he seems to be channeling him as a spiritualistic medium might. And I like to think that is literally what he has done! Anyway, it’ll be an exciting day indeed to see a full production; I hope it comes to pass!