August 2 is the anniversary of the release date of W.C. Fields’ first silent feature Sally of the Sawdust (1925). The film was based on Fields’ hit Broadway stage musical Poppy, in which he created the role Eustice McGargle, the florid-tongued, top-hatted 19th century mountebank, variations of which he would play to his dying day. His performance in that show had garnered the attention of critics like Alexander Woolcott, George Jean Nathan and Robert Sherwood. It had also turned the head of D.W. Griffith, who was just then leaving United Artists to begin working for Paramount. For his first project on the new contract he chose to adapt Poppy into Sally of the Sawdust.
In Sally, Griffith did to Poppy precisely what you would expect — he concentrated on the story’s melodramatic aspects and focused mainly on the travails of the young heroine (Carol Dempster). 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 was a hit and launched Fields on a career as a silent comedian. He was to make eight more silent features through 1928, and dozens of talkies after that.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcFor more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.