Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sadie Thompson (1928)

To modern eyes, Sadie Thompson looks like a drag queen. Her lids and lashes are black. Her lips recall cherry tomatoes, even in black and white. She is, in the best tradition of silent archetypes, the Fallen Woman. She’s also the heroine of this film.

Sadie Thompson tells us what a lady-of-the-evening’s life is like during the day. Like night, it has its ups and downs. Sadie (Gloria Swanson) is lovely and fun and always up for a party, and because she is lovely and fun, she always finds one. This is particularly easy to do on the Samoan island of Tutuila, where the weather is always warm, even when it rains, and the members of the local military detachment are most hospitable to a young lady, even if she seems to be running from something.

Sadie is stranded on Tutuila until her passenger ship is again ready to sail. The enlisted men hope that’s none too soon, and in the mean time, she’ll be their chief source of entertainment, though the movie never tells us precisely how. It does, however, imply a great deal. There’s that turnstile that marks the entranceway to the inn she’s staying at—for example. And then there’s her drinking, and smoking, and gum-chewing, and her graceless way of stomping through a room as though she has no idea what it means to be a lady. And of course, there’s her makeup.

For the soldiers, this is all gravy. Director Raoul Walsh, to the movie’s aesthetic advantage, but general discredit, makes sure every one else on the island, native or otherwise, is downright off-putting. Sadie could be below average and still have her pick. If she’s hot (and loose), it’s almost overkill.

This was certainly no visual leap for Gloria Swanson. Swanson was a talented actress who could be mis-cast because of her look, most memorably (for me) in Beyond the Rocks (1922)—a film that challenged us to imagine the smoky starlet as third daughter of an impoverished fisherman in a nowhere seaside village. Swanson was, of course, naturally beautiful, but her Sadie getup is more a caricature of her standard film appearance than a costume. In its way, it’s perfect.

Unfortunately for Sadie, her passenger ship also deposits Mr. Davidson (Lionel Barrymore), a self-righteous moralist of enormous political influence. Davidson is quite happy to stick around Tutuila, since there’s so many hell-bound natives to convert. In Sadie he sees an opportunity, though precisely what kind of opportunity she is to him becomes the meat of the flick.

The last of the major players is Sergeant Tim O’Hara (Walsh, also in front of the lens), whom Sadie nicknames ‘Handsome.’ O’Hara is a big-hearted, inexperienced goof who falls for the Fallen Woman the way big-hearted goofs in earlier silent films always did. It’s hard to guess what a woman like Sadie would see in Handsome (who’s not even that handsome), unless he represents stability for her. F.W. Murnau built a whole movie around that idea: the deeply cynical drama, City Girl (1930). Sadie Thompson, however, isn’t cynical in the least. It is, in fact, as straightforward and shallow a morality play as anything by D.W. Griffith, only with the possessors of righteousness reversing their roles. This film is as uncompromising in its defence of Sadie as earlier films, such as The Mothering Heart (1913) or The Busher (1919), were in flaying their versions of the whore.

The key to the movie’s success isn’t Sadie’s relationship with Handsome, since we don’t trust his judgement in complex matters. Nor is it Sadie herself. It’s a fact that audiences usually sympathize with the screen character they see most and know best, viewing even upstanding supporting characters as intrusive. Happily, we don’t require our friends to be perfect, either. So Sadie gets our love. That leaves us with Davidson.

Like Swanson, Barrymore is particularly well-cast in his role. The elder brother of John and Ethel Barrymore (and great-uncle of Drew) was a fine actor with a notably uncharitable face. He looms tall and stiff over the rest of the inn-keeper’s guests and never cracks a smile that doesn’t seem rueful. But ‘rueful’ isn’t the right word—not if you really study his face. There’s less sorrow than sadism in the way Davidson looks at people, as though their moral failures please him. He’s iron-willed, and they aren’t. His snippy little wife (Blanche Friderici), with whom good sex must have been impossible, spends her afternoons reminding people how correct her husband is on all matters. She’s no challenge for him, and challenges are what he lives for.

Sadie Thompson was the first film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, Rain. The story would be adapted again, only four years later, as Rain, a talkie starring Joan Crawford. I prefer Crawford’s Sadie to Swanson’s, but I’ll take Barrymore’s Davidson over the remake’s version, as played by Walter Huston. Huston was, of course, another talented actor, and he approaches Barrymore’s feat of bringing further, forbidding weight to an already awful man. However, Huston must talk a great deal, and although Davidson would be the type prone to speeches, it is not his words that reveal his character. To see what does, watch an early scene in Sadie Thompson, as Davidson, Sadie and other guests share a table at the inn. Barrymore fixes his gaze upon Swanson and with his squint and grin tells us how fascinated he is by her. Not intrigued by the opportunity to help—no, more by the opportunity to gain, as one might apprehend a silver-mine, or a well-cooked free dinner. The silent medium gives Barrymore the advantage of a long take, uninterrupted by chatter, and he uses it to forge a character far more terrifying than Huston’s.

Note: The last reel of Sadie Thompson is lost. Kudos to the restoration team, however, for making the best of it. Be assured the film remains coherent through to the end.

My thanks to Caren Feldman, of the Toronto Film Society (TFS), for screening this film.

Where to find Sadie Thompson:
Sadie Thompson occupies disc five of The Gloria Swanson Collection, a set that includes a number of rarities and several of her films with director Cecil B. DeMille. Swanson and DeMille were good friends in real life, and appeared together in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), starring Swanson. The Gloria Swanson Collection is produced by Passport Video USA and can be ordered through


  1. Love your review Chris! You are so dead on with your observations. Made me laugh.


  2. Caren! You're not anonymous to me! ;)

  3. hey there-- don't know if you're still here, but i have a question for you if so! i had the pleasure of watching st last night, but had a small disagreement with some friends afterwards. there were a few scenes in the movie that seemed to be sort of whited out, especially when sadie is praying and becoming religious near the end. my friends an i disagree over whether this was an intentional effect to show spirituality, or damage to the film. do you have any idea, or know where we could find out?

  4. I don't remember anything being whited out (assuming, of course, that we even saw the same print). However, the ending of the film is lost and many silent films show signs of wear and tear throughout. That's the easiest explanation.

    There is a history of censorship behind both the stage and screen versions of the story. I guess something could have been obscured due to that, but not in my version. Beyond IMDB, or maybe the Library of Congress, I'm not sure how you could find out the truth.