What happens when you put together a silent film director famous for historical epics with a comedian known primarily for his vocal inflections?
You get 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), a silent comedy/drama directed by none other than D.W. Griffith and starring none other than W.C. Fields.
This hybrid production is the next feature in our summer silent film series at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit Maine. Showtime is Thursday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m. By 'historic,' I mean the Leavitt has been showing movies since—well, since before 'Sally of the Sawdust' was released. (Since 1923, to be exact!)
And yes, it's thatW.C. Fields—he of the nasally twang and the racy byplay with Mae West.
But Fields had a long career as a vaudeville performer who specialized in comedy juggling and pantomime, so he had the chops needed to do the job in motion pictures before dialogue carried the day. Plus, he'd been a headliner all over the country for decades. So for most movie audiences, at least in the United States, he would not have been a complete stranger.
So it makes sense in that way, anyway. Besides, at the time, people didn't think of them as silent movies, but simply as the movies. No one would have expected to hear Fields' voice on the screen.
And D.W. Griffith directing a comedy? Well, why not? In some ways, comedy can be even more demanding that large-scale historical epics such as 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1922). So don't dismiss it as a day off.
And turns out this is related to the stage as well. I read recently how Griffith's own failure as an upscale stage actor led indirectly to his later success in this kind of storytelling. Unable to make a living playing Hamlet, so to speak, Griffith was reduced to playing roles in lurid melodramas craved by small-town audiences.
No pretensions in this theater—if you didn't deliver, you'd be pelted with vegetables or run out of town on a rail. So anyone working in this environment honed an ability to know what satisfies an audience.
This experience gave Griffith an instinct that served him well when it came time for motion pictures to develop a mass audience. In his bones, Griffith knew what most people really expected from a night's entertainment. And he was able to transfer this knowledge to the motion picture screen at exactly the time (the 1910s) that the business was ready to flourish on a large scale.
Griffith's brand of moralistic storytelling went out of fashion as the 1920s progressed. But his melodramatic story-telling instincts never left him, and are on full display in 'Sally of the Sawdust,' carrying the tale along and leaving us helpless to resist.
And it says something about the universality of these skills, and about what audiences want, that a film such as 'Sally of the Sawdust' is constructed in such a way that we still respond to it as Griffith intended, even in this age of iPads and smart phones and hybrid cars.
See for yourself at our screening of 'Sally of the Sawdust' at the Leavitt Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets $10. Here's the text of the press release below...
TUESDAY, JULY 30, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Leavitt Theatre to screen rare silent film
starring comic icon W.C. Fields
'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), comedy/drama on tap for Thursday, Aug. 15, shows legendary comedian in earlier prime
OGUNQUIT, Maine—He was a performer who could be recognized just by the sound of his voice. But prior to reaching iconic fame in talking pictures, comedian W.C. Fields starred successfully in silent feature films for Paramount Pictures and other studios in the 1920s.
See the non-talking W.C. Fields for yourself in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), one of Fields' most popular silent pictures, in a screening on Thursday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.
Admission is $10 per person. Live music will be provided by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire resident and one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.
W.C. Fields remains famous for his comic persona as a misanthropic curmudgeon with snarling contempt for dogs, children and women. Fields achieved lasting fame as a movie star in talking pictures of the 1930s, but his long career encompassed decades on the vaudeville stage as well as a series of silent film roles.
In 1925's 'Sally of the Sawdust,' Fields plays Professor Eustache McGargle, a good-natured circus juggler and con man who finds himself responsible for Sally (Carol Dempster), an orphaned girl whose mother has died. Raised by McGargle, Sally grows up to become a popular performer in the rough-and-tumble world of the circus. But when the show arrives in the town where her mother's relatives now live, Sally is forced to choose between the man who raised her and the wealthy family that wants to reclaim her as their own.
'Sally of the Sawdust,' based on the 1923 stage musical 'Poppy,' gives Fields ample opportunity to display his juggling talents, a staple of his vaudeville act. The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, a rare detour into comedy from a filmmaker known for pioneering epic dramas such as 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).
"People find it hard to think of W.C. Fields as a silent film performer, but he was quite successful," Rapsis said. "As a vaudeville performer and juggler, Fields specialized in visual comedy and pantomime that transferred well to the silent screen. Also, as a middle-aged man, he was able to play a family father figure—the kind of role that wasn't open to younger comic stars such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
In all, Fields starred in 10 silent features in the mid-1920s. Several of these films are lost; in those that survive, Fields sports a thick mustache, part of his vaudeville costume as a "vagabond juggler" which he dropped in later years.
The Leavitt, opened in 1923 as a summer-only seaside resort silent film house, now offers a wide variety of programming, including first-run films, live comedy, open mic nights, and more.
The Leavitt Theatre's silent film series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored prints projected on the big screen, live music, and the presence of an audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.
"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."
Music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films, including 'Sally of the Sawdust,' were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.
"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."
Other upcoming features in the Leavitt Theatre's 2013 silent film schedule include:
• Thursday, Aug. 29, 8 p.m.: 'Grandma's Boy' (1922), starring Harold Lloyd. Comedian Harold Lloyd's first starring feature finds him playing a mild-mannered young man forced to confront his chronic cowardice, with a little help from his beloved Grandma, who has a few family secrets up her sleeve. A delightful romp from one of the silent film era's most popular comics.
• Thursday, Sept. 19, 8 p.m.: 'Show People' (1928) starring Marion Davies, William Haines. A silent film about the silent film business! Young Peggy Pepper ventures to Hollywood to make her mark in drama, but finds an unexpected (and unwelcome) flair for slapstick comedy. King Vidor directed this entertaining valentine to a form that would soon be superceded by talking pictures.
• Saturday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Just in time for Halloween, see the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still spooky after all these years—in fact, some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time. See for yourself, if you dare!
The next installment in the Leavitt Theatre's silent film series will be 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit, Maine. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com. For more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.