Griffith Movies: Mandatory Viewing + Excellent Carol Dempster & the American Kay Hammond

Sally of the Sawdust with Carol Dempster W.C. Fields: D.W. Griffith 1 comedy featureGriffith movies: Sally of the Sawdust with Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields. Once D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish parted ways after Orphans of the Storm (1921), Carol Dempster became the filmmaker's on-screen muse (e.g., Dream Street, America) – and off-screen companion. Dempster, however, was never either as popular or as well-regarded as Gish; partly for that reason, her Griffith collaborations were – and still are – considered below par. Sally of the Sawdust, in which she has the title role, is the director's one out-and-out comedy feature. (The now lost That Royle Girl, also with Dempster, seems to have been a heavier comedy-drama mix.)[1]

Griffith movies: 'Sally of Sawdust' is showcase for protégée Carol Dempster

(See previous post: “Griffith Cinema: Abraham Lincoln Biopic & Way Down East Among Five Box Set Features.”) The final disc of the Griffith movies' set contains Sally of the Sawdust (1925), a rare comedy feature starring D.W. Griffith protégée Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields.

The Sally of the title (played by Dempster) performs in the circus with her “pop,” Professor McGargle (Fields). Little does she know that McGargle came to be her guardian through an unlikely set of circumstances, and is not in fact her real father. As Sally nears adulthood, McGargle decides to bring her to her old hometown so that she might know the truth about her family; wacky hijinks ensue.

Sally of the Sawdust is a fine second-tier Griffith film, thanks mostly to the two leads. W.C. Fields displays gifts for physical comedy that were held somewhat in check in the later films for which he's known today. Since he first came to fame as a vaudeville comedian and juggler, it's good to finally get a look at him in a setting that's similar to where he spent most of his career.

'Excellent' Carol Dempster, but Griffith no 'natural comedy director'

And while Carol Dempster is the Griffith stock player that most cinephiles love to hate, she's excellent here, skillfully anchoring the film's blend of comedy and sentiment; she even gets the best gag in the film, involving a pair of stolen bread rolls.

Fields and Dempster more or less save the whole enterprise for, while Sally of the Sawdust is enjoyable enough on its own terms, it's clear that Griffith wasn't a natural comedy director. Few of the gags arise organically from the story, occurring more or less at random throughout the film.

Furthermore, Griffith isn't able to resist his melodramatic impulses, resulting in a film that feels slightly schizophrenic – although the melodramatic parts are quite good, e.g., a very well done midpoint scene where Sally meets her grandmother.

The year that Sally of the Sawdust was released also saw the debuts of Seven Chances, The Freshman, and The Gold Rush, so I can't help but wonder if Sally didn't feel a bit dated even on its release. Still, it's a worthy addition to the set, and a fine way to end your D.W. Griffith binge.

D.W. Griffith movies: Box set extras include 'Way Down East' bonuses + misspelled Edgar Allan Poe short

Several extras pepper these D.W. Griffith discs:

Way Down East gets the regal treatment here. Mounds of material about the original play – vintage programs, photos, press clippings and so forth – are included, as is the “souvenir program book” that the first viewers of the film received. A clever essay on the compilation of the musical score show an interesting perspective on the use of film music, and a comparison between the climactic scene on the river and a similar sequence from an older Edison production of Uncle Tom's Cabin tops off the package.

The Avenging Conscience disc, in a nice bit of thematic unity, also features Griffith's previous take on Poe, the 1909 Edgar Allen Poe (sic) Biograph short. As with Way Down East, insightful notes on the musical score are present here as well.

Griffith Movies Abraham Lincoln Walter Huston Kay Hammond: Good quality sound + imageGriffith Movies: Abraham Lincoln with Walter Huston and Kay Hammond. Good quality image and sound in this DVD transfer of D.W. Griffith's first talkie, the 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln. Usually confused with the British actress seen in David Lean's Blithe Spirit, the Kansas City-born actress Kay Hammond was cast as Mary Todd Lincoln – her best remembered role and likely the most notable one in her relatively brief film career (less than 10 movies between 1929 and 1935).[2]. Others in the Abraham Lincoln cast: Una Merkel, Jason Robards Sr., Ian Keith, Hobart Bosworth, and the star of numerous early Griffith movies, Henry B. Walthall.

Walter Huston interviews D.W. Griffith + Orson Welles on W.C. Fields

The Abraham Lincoln / The Struggle disc features the official press book for Abraham Lincoln (which is well worth a look for the hilarious, P.T. Barnumesque suggestions for theater owners looking to drum up more business) and a fascinating interview with Griffith (by Walter Huston!) that was used as an introduction for one of the Birth of a Nation rereleases.

Sally of the Sawdust contains only two extras, but they're great: the original theatrical trailer from 1925, and a filmed introduction from Orson Welles (from the early 1970s), in which he shares some little-known gossip about W.C. Fields.

The video quality, on the whole, is very good, certainly better than the crummy public-domain versions that have been littering retail outlets for years. The sound on the Abraham Lincoln / The Struggle disc is good as well, though, given that the source material for both films were primitively-recorded mono tracks, I certainly wouldn't expect demonstration-quality audio.

Though none of these films can quite stand up to those on Kino's previous set, any Griffith that is still salvageable today is mandatory viewing.

Alfred Lunt

[1] Besides Carol Dempster and former vaudevillian and future Paramount star W.C. Fields, the Sally of the Sawdust cast features Alfred Lunt as Dempster's romantic interest.

Lunt would become known as the male half of Broadway's legendary Lunt and Fontanne duo, co-starring opposite wife Lynn Fontanne in classics such as Design for Living, Idiot's Delight, and The Seagull.

Kay Hammond times two

[2] The American Kay Hammond (1901–1982), seen in supporting roles in The Trespasser, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry King's 1935 Way Down East remake, is frequently confused with another Kay Hammond (1909–1980) – the London-born stage, film, and television actress best remembered as the green ghost Elvira in David Lean's 1945 film version of Noël Coward's hit play Blithe Spirit.

Other movies appearances by the British Kay Hammond include supporting roles in Herbert Wilcox's Bitter Sweet (1933); Harold French's Jeannie (1941); and, in her final film, Mario Zampi's Five Golden Hours (1962).


“Griffith Movies” review text © Dan Erdman. “Griffith Movies” image captions & footnote © Alt Film Guide.

Kino International website.

Image of W.C. Fields and Carol Dempster in one of the lesser Griffith movies, Sally of the Sawdust: Kino International.

Image of Kay Hammond and Walter Huston in Abraham Lincoln: Kino International.

“Griffith Movies: Mandatory Viewing + Excellent Carol Dempster & the American Kay Hammond” last updated in March 2018.

Griffith Movies: Mandatory Viewing + Excellent Carol Dempster & the American Kay Hammond © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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