Pordenone diary – day two

October 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

There’s a small conversation going on over at The Bioscope on how good, or how bad, Sally of the Sawdust was. Let me add one detail that’s a problem for the film: the now infamous Griffith titles.

a rich young man – a homeless waif – the eternal land of youth

is indeed bad enough, but

if the grandmother only knew that the judge was torturing their baby’s baby

is beyond caricature. And I’m afraid silent films have suffered from the perception that they engage in such schmaltzy over-the-top overt narration all the time, when they’re actually rather rarely this maudling. Here’s what the ever perceptive Robert Sherwood thought of the titles, back in August 1925:

There is [in the film] a fine collection of ham sub-titles, all bearing Mr. Griffith’s trade-mark, in several of which he comes out boldly for Mother Love.

Snap !

Those titles rather should be considered tell-tale signs that something’s going wrong with the narration: and indeed, there’s plenty of evidence here that Fields and Griffith don’t go together as Hazel and Bay Rum do in another Fields film screened later during the week. Take the lack of pay-off to important set ups, such as the court-room scene, or the Ford chase, or Dempster’s drop-dead gorgeous nightgown: it doesn’t mesh either with the rhythm of the film. It points to a later Griffith (the still to come Battle of the Sexes), and to an older (Isn’t Life Wonderful? or Broken Blossoms) Griffith. The incoherence was clear to Sherwood:

“Sally of the Sawdust” is inexcusable. It is absolutely incoherent as to story; its attempts at pathos are illegitimate; its characters-with one exception-are artificial. it is the work of a man who has become so completely soaked with theatrical trumpery that he wouldn’t recognize reality if it stepped up and slapped his face.

The one exception in “Sally of the Sawdust” is provided by W.C. Fields, who manages to inject some of his own matchless comedy, and some of his own human warmth, into this otherwise bloodless story.

I think this contemporary opinion sums up nicely the drift of the conversation going on over at the Bioscope. I’d add only this: Dempster, whose body language oscillates between “a very unconvincing counterfeit of Lillian Gish” (zinger! Sherwood!) and a sexed-out pre-Garbo (just as unconvincing, although more surprising), is the incarnation of this hesitation in the film. (This being said, Carl Sandburg had a much more favorable opinion of the film)

So what has the Bioscope not seen on day 2 of the Giornate film-fest? Well, charitably enough, it has left out a forgettable Renoir, Tire au flanc (1928), built in episodic fashion around the farcical–but not very funny, IMHO– figure of the ill-fitting poet serving in the military. Take that premise, think about 30 seconds about jokes built from that, and…they’re all in there. Contrast Fields’ Golf Specialist who piles up reason after reason for not hitting one simple golf ball (from the banal paper sticking to one’s fingers, to the absolutely irrelevant woman looking for her horse), to the girl every soldier wants to paw. Hmm…

Not that the film doesn’t have its moments of brilliance: the opening scene, with a Michel Simon possessed by an irrepressible urge to kiss his girlfriend as they’re setting up the table, the naughty camera movements, or, later, the march with gaz masks that becomes a huge collin-maillard party are good…but they’re only moments. The lack of a narrative arch is clearly a problem. While the first scene works because its main stated goal (the woman of the house wants to impress the invited Colonel) is smashed to bits, another scene such as the barrack scene has no clear narrative goal, and asks for our nostalgia for barrack life to function (along the line of “do you remember how droll army life was?”). And, let me tell you, that’s a non-starter: take it from one who’s been-there-done-that.

Next day: a lot of folks come to visit: Satan, Pickford, and American tourists — in that order.

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