Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson Pictures/United Artists, filmed 1927, released 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched one of those legendary movies that I never thought I’d actually get a chance to see: Sadie Thompson, Gloria Swanson’s 1927 production of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” and the resulting hit stage adaptation, Rain. (It would be filmed twice more: in 1932 as Rain, with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston under Lewis Milestone’s direction; and in 1953 as Miss Sadie Thompson, with Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer.) Unfortunately, as Gloria Swanson noted in her 1979 autobiography, the one extant print of this film is missing the last reel (and suffers from a lot of nitrate deterioration even in the parts that do exist, especially — peculiarly enough — during the rain-soaked exteriors; at times the rain seems to be composed as much of nitrate as it is of water), which in this version (a 1987 video release from Kino International) was reconstructed from production stills and a few fragments of film that survived in Swanson’s own archives. Despite the deficiencies of the extant print, however, enough survives to establish the film as a masterpiece, with tight, atmospheric direction by Raoul Walsh (who also played the part of Tim “Handsome” O’Hara, the Marine whom Sadie Thompson finally ends up with at the end — this may be the only movie in Hollywood history which shows the producer and the director making love to each other![1]) and (even through the nitrate burns) beautiful photography by George Barnes, Robert Kurrle and Oliver Marsh. The acting is quite good; Swanson occasionally lapses into the highly gestural, stylized overacting that abounded in the silent days, but for the most part her performance is marvelously intense, and as usual while watching her in silent films I couldn’t help but think of the great line Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman gave her in Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue — we had faces!” Lionel Barrymore as Davidson (in deference to the Hays Office Swanson couldn’t outright say that Sadie Thompson was a prostitute or Davidson a minister, but she left in enough implications that any audience member over the mental age of about 10 could figure out what the story was really about) was chillingly understated and devastatingly effective — he’s one actor who, reversing the usual trend, got more hammy, not less, when talkies came in — and Raoul Walsh proved surprisingly effective as an actor, looking oddly like a young Humphrey Bogart in his role as O’Hara. (Alas, his acting career was cut short while he was making his first talkie, In Old Arizona, in which he was slated both to direct and to star as the Cisco Kid; a stray bullet took out one of his eyes and forced his replacement by Irving Cummings behind the cameras and Warner Baxter in front of them.[2]) Sadie Thompson proved a surprisingly sophisticated film, ably capturing the moral ambiguity of Maugham’s original story and creating characters multifaceted enough to be acceptable as genuine human beings. — 12/15/97


The film was Sadie Thompson, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson in her second film under contract to United Artists, filmed in 1927 and released in 1928 — and, alas, extant only in a heavily nitrate-damaged print with the last reel missing completely (the version in circulation today attempts to reconstruct the last reel from production stills and fragments of outtake footage found among Swanson’s effects after her death). Ironically, it was one of the movies I recorded on VHS the very first day we had Turner Classic Movies on our cable menu, as part of a program about movies that had troubles with the censors — and it was immediately followed with the 1933 film Baby Face, which though starring my all-time favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, seemed to be meretricious and dull, full of too many of Hollywood’s favorite teasing cop-outs whereas Sadie Thompson had dealt honestly with issues of sex, morality and religious mania. The tale began as a short story called “Miss Thompson” by W. Somerset Maugham, one of his South Seas-set tales in which a free-living prostitute named Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson) ends up stranded on the island of Pago-Pago by a driving rainstorm and a smallpox-related quarantine that delays for 10 days the ship that’s supposed to take her to Apia for an unspecified “job.” While there she’s assailed by Reverend Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore), who loathes her and her lifestyle and is determined to “redeem” her for Christianity and moralism. There are other characters, including Davidson’s wife (Blanche Friderici); another American couple, Dr. and Mrs. MacPhail (Charles Lane and Florence Midgley), a pair of middle-aged white people whose relative tolerance is contrasted with the fierce moralism of the Davidsons; trader Joe Horn (James A. Marcus), whose inn is the center of the action because it’s where all the other characters are staying, and his Polynesian wife Ameena (Sofia Ortega), who comes off on screen as a prototype of Bloody Mary from South Pacific; along with Marine sergeant Tim “Handsome” O’Hara (Raoul Walsh) and a company of Marines who are interested in Sadie both because she’s fun to party with and they’re potential customers for her services. Eventually Davidson worms out of Sadie the information that she’s wanted for an unspecified but serious crime in San Francisco, and he determines not only to reclaim her soul but to have her deported back there to serve her sentence even though she insists she’s innocent (of whatever the original charge was). Only in the meantime Davidson has started to have lustful dreams about Sadie himself, and eventually he tries to rape her; she fights him off, and in a daze of self-loathing and guilt he kills himself and Sadie, once the rain clears and ships can go in and out of Pago-Pago again, goes off to Australia to wait for O’Hara, who’s fallen genuinely in love with her and wants to marry her, to join her there once his enlistment ends in four weeks.

In 1922 playwrights John Colton and Clemence Randolph adapted “Miss Thompson” into a play called Rain, which became an overnight sensation and made a star out of Jeanne Eagels, the tragically doomed actress who played Sadie in the Broadway production. In the normal order of things Rain was the sort of huge mega-success — it became so famous that even people who hadn’t got near enough to Broadway to see it nonetheless quoted its lines, and “You’re acting like Reverend Davidson” became an all-purpose insult directed at moralists of all stripes (including just about anyone who thought Prohibition was a good idea) — the film studios would have snapped up. But 1922 wasn’t a normal year in Hollywood; it was the year of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s three trials for the alleged rape and murder of starlet Virginia Rappé at a drunken party in San Francisco (Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, and most modern historians believe Rappé died of an infection from a botched illegal abortion, but he lost his Paramount contract and no other studio would hire him), and the mysterious, still-unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which took down the careers of Arbuckle’s former co-star Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter, both of whom had been acquainted with Taylor (though no more than “acquainted” because Taylor was actually Gay). So the heads of the major studios, fearing and wanting to forestall mandatory government censorship of movies (a real concern because in 1912 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that movies were merely “a business” and therefore films were not a form of “speech” protected by the First Amendment; this was eventually reversed, though not until 1953), hired Will B. Hays, former Postmaster General under President Warren G. Harding, and essentially set him up as Hollywood’s chief censor. Though a formal Production Code wasn’t enacted until 1930 — and it wasn’t all that seriously enforced until 1934 — Hays almost immediately started issuing lists of what he called “Don’t’s” and “Be careful’s” telling producers just how far they could go in treating stories dealing with sex, crime and other chancy themes.

In her autobiography Gloria Swanson quotes at length from a document written by Hays which shows all too clearly what she or anyone else was up against in trying to treat issues of sexual morality seriously on screen with any degree of honesty and fairness. “There has become prevalent of late a certain type of book and a certain type of play that deals in theme and situation with certain topics which in previous years were discussed only in whispers,” Hays wrote in the mid-1920’s. “Many persons have asked, ‘Why haven’t we seen these in the movies?’ The reason is very simple. We [the major studio heads that formed the Motion Picture Producers’ and Distributors’ Association, Hays’ employers] were determined that this type of book and play should not become the prevalent type of motion picture and to prevent that we set up what we call ‘The Formula.’ … When any member company is offered the screen rights to a book or play of a probably questionable nature, its representatives immediately inform the officers of our association, representing about 85 percent of the producing elements. If the judgment of the member company to the effect that the picturization of the subject matter is inadvisable is confirmed, a notice is sent to all the other member companies, giving the name of the objectionable book or play. Such company members, thus having their attention directed to the subject in question, have the opportunity of avoiding the picturization of the novel or play. More than 150 books and plays, including some of the best sellers and stage successes, have thus been kept from the screen. Our method, which is of course thoroughly legal and which has proved efficient, is not censorship in any sense of the word.” (One thing that struck me when I first read this was Hays’ blithe assumption that if sexually frank stories were allowed on screen at all, they would “become the prevalent type of motion picture” — and that this was the type of evil he had been hired by the studios to prevent.)

Flash-forward to 1927; Gloria Swanson had turned down a million-dollar contract offer from Paramount, where she’d been under contract since 1918 and where she’d become a major star playing mostly upper-class women with fabulous wardrobes, and had signed a deal to become a producer-star with United Artists alongside the top luminaries in Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Though one of the things that had attracted her to United Artists was that she could pick her own stories and challenge herself as an actress instead of having to make cut-to-pattern formula pictures, for her first United Artists production she decided to play it safe and remake a Clara Kimball Young vehicle, Eyes of Youth, as The Love of Sunya. “After Sunya, I knew that an ‘easy,’ so-so picture took just as much out of a producer as a brilliant, creative picture did,” Swanson recalled in her autobiography; “therefore, I made up my mind that from now on I would settle for nothing but the best.” To that end, she first hired director Raoul Walsh, who was under contract to Fox but was allowed a loan-out to Swanson’s company for one film. Walsh was just coming off of one of the big hits of the silent era, Laurence Stallings’ play What Price Glory? — a World War I story in which, though the titles were bowdlerized, Walsh had had the actors onscreen say “son-of-a-bitch” and the other (mild, by today’s standards) obscenities Stallings had written in his script — and Fox had been flooded with shocked letters from audience members who had lip-read what the actors were saying. (Lip-reading became a common skill among movie audiences during the silent era, and frequently they noticed that what the actors were actually saying was quite different from what the titles said they were saying.) Walsh agreed to work for Swanson but the two were unable to agree on a story until, after a fruitless meeting in which they’d bandied various titles back and forth, Walsh sighed and said, “There’s always Rain” — even though Will Hays himself had put Rain at the top of his Index Filmum Prohibitorium. Swanson initially tricked Hays into giving her project his imprimatur by telling him she was making a film, not of the hugely successful and controversial play Rain, but of Maugham’s original story — of which Hays hadn’t heard — and by assuring him that she was going to change Davidson from an ordained minister to a free-lance reformer. Then she and Joseph Schenck, United Artists’ president, bought the rights both to “Miss Thompson” and Rain under almost cloak-and-dagger levels of secrecy, and once the deals were complete Swanson’s press office sent out a quiet little release to the effect that Maugham’s “Miss Thompson” would be the basis of her next film. “We never mentioned the words Sadie or Rain,” Swanson recalled, “but someone figured it all out soon enough, because two days later headlines screamed that Gloria Swanson was going to play Sadie Thompson in Rain, in defiance of the Hays Office ban.”

The result was threatened lawsuits from the attorneys representing Maugham, Colton, Randolph and Sam Harris, who had produced Rain on Broadway, as well as a ferociously worded telegram from the heads of all the MPPDA member companies demanding that Hays rescind his approval of Swanson’s project and ban the film. The two signatures that most worried Swanson and Walsh were those of William Fox, Walsh’s employer, and MGM founder Marcus Loew, since they wanted Lionel Barrymore, an MGM contractee, to play the defrocked Davidson. Loew eventually backtracked; “If Hays gave his consent, even though it were in error, I will use my utmost endeavor to see he is backed up by the organization,” he wrote. Even once she had the green light from both United Artists and Will Hays, Swanson had further problems, including an acute attack of appendicitis that laid her up just before shooting was to start (she went to a naturopath named Dr. Henry Bieler, recovered and acquired an interest in alternative medicine and health foods that lasted the rest of her life) and the loss of her chosen cinematographer, George Barnes, who was summoned back by his contract employer, Sam Goldwyn, in the middle of the shoot. Swanson replaced him first with Robert Kurrle, a nature specialist who shot stunning exteriors of Catalina Island (“playing” the South Seas, as usual in Hollywood films) but proved inadequate in the interior scenes; then with Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman, who was fine but whose clear, sharp, evenly lit work didn’t match Barnes’ proto-noir atmospherics; and finally with Oliver Marsh, an MGM contractee assigned to the film by Marcus Loew, who rarely interfered with MGM creatively but because he felt morally invested in the project “gave orders to MGM to give me anyone I wanted,” Swanson wrote. Even after the shoot was finished Swanson and Walsh had to fight the Hays Office virtually every step of the way over the editing, with the result that the film ran over schedule, over budget and wasn’t ready for release until early January 1928.

Seen today — and even missing the last reel (the film breaks off just as Lionel Barrymore as Davidson is starting to register his temptation and lust) — Sadie Thompson emerges as one of the late masterpieces of the silent era, a brilliant, uncompromising film in which our sympathies are kept throughout on the side of Sadie: her love of life, her joie de vivre, her fearlessness and independence, and the way she’s living her life by her own moral code even though it’s at the opposite pole from that of the Davidsons. Gloria Swanson inhabits the role, turning herself into a force of nature and giving an irrepressible performance that nails the various moods of the character: joyous, free and impudent in the opening scenes as she plays jazz records on her phonograph (a major prop in the stage version as well) and the musical clashes become a metaphor for how much her freedom and indifference (not conscious rejection — she isn’t deliberately trying to be a “bad girl,” just living her life according to the hand she’s been dealt and enjoying herself as much as she possibly can) to his morality infuriates him. Lionel Barrymore is also excellent, looking oddly younger than he had in James Young’s film The Bells a year earlier (though that’s probably because he was wearing character makeup in that movie, itself one of the most interesting late silents and historically significant because Boris Karloff plays his first horror role in it) and contemplating Sadie’s extradition and impending imprisonment with the same vicious, self-satisfied smirk with which he rejoiced at the impending bankruptcy of James Stewart’s building-and-loan in It’s a Wonderful Life 18 years later. The process by which he wears Sadie down and gets her to “repent” — locking her in a room for three days and constantly praying with her — bears an odd resemblance to the way drug addicts were detoxed then and for years to come (it’s depicted in the 1956 film The Man with the Golden Arm and it’s the way John Coltrane got clean and sober for real in 1957) — and perhaps the cruelest joke on the moralists in this film is the glazed, almost zombie-like look Swanson as Sadie assumes after she’s supposedly been “saved.” I suspect the real issue that bothered the real-life Davidsons about this story wasn’t that Sadie was shown as a sinner but that her life as a sinner was so much more fun and more satisfying than her life as a saint, and that at the end she’s neither a prostitute nor a “good” girl but is heading for a new life in a new country with a man who truly loves her.

Sadie Thompson was formally remade twice — having bought the rights to the play Rain Schenck produced a direct adaptation of it in 1932, with Lewis Milestone directing and Joan Crawford and Walter Huston as stars (and my recollection is that Crawford and Huston acted the parts well enough but didn’t become them in the intense way Swanson and Barrymore did, and that there were other people around in 1932 who could have played Sadie better — not only Barbara Stanwyck, who’d have been my first choice here as in so many other movies, and who’d played a Sadie-like character in her breakthrough film Ladies of Leisure, but also Bette Davis and even Joan Blondell), and later Columbia picked up the rights for a musical remake in 1953 with Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer (which I haven’t seen and which is usually denounced as a simple-minded clean-up of the original material). In addition it’s been referenced in many other movies, including Vera-Ellen’s big dance number to Ann Ronell’s song “Willow, Weep for Me” in the Marx Brothers’ last film, Love Happy. Sadie Thompson is also one of only two films I can think of in which the producer and the director made love on-screen; Swanson said she tested various young actors for O’Hara, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (who was only 18 at the time), but then realized “that the person I had pictured in the role from the beginning was Raoul Walsh himself.” Walsh’s dual career as an actor and director (he had worked for D. W. Griffith as a directorial assistant and had played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation) ended abruptly during the shooting of In Old Arizona, which was supposed to be his first talkie and in which he was supposed to play the Cisco Kid as well as direct; alas, a charge in a prop gun shot out one eye and he was replaced by Irving Cummings as director and Warner Baxter as star, though once Walsh recovered he continued working as a director until 1964 and lived until 1980. The only other film I can think of in which the producer and director made love on screen was The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the first (and ultimately the only) film made by Marilyn Monroe Productions, in which she was the showgirl and Laurence Olivier was both the director and the on-screen prince. — 11/4/14

[1] — Not true: it happened again 30 years later in The Prince and the Showgirl (made in Great Britain but with an American star, studio and financing), in which producer Marilyn Monroe made love on screen to director Laurence Olivier. [M.G.C., 7/3/05]

[2] — The imdb.com Web site gives a different explanation for Walsh’s injury: “Raoul Walsh was cast as the Cisco Kid, as well as being the director; but during a return drive to Los Angeles from Utah, a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of Walsh’s car, with both the rabbit and the broken glass hitting Walsh in the face. (Safety glass was added to cars the following year.) The damage to Walsh’s right eye necessitated replacing him in the lead role, re-writing the script and re-shooting some scenes with a different director while Walsh recuperated; Walsh thereafter wore the eye patch for which he was known, and eventually lost the eye entirely. Some footage of Walsh, in chase scenes and long shots, remains in the film.” [M.G.C., 7/3/05]