July 30, 2020
Sadie Thompson – US, 1928
I am always fascinated by people like Alfred Davidson. Davidson is one of the lead characters in Raoul Walsh’s exceptional Sadie Thompson, yet men like him have existed for millennia. They don’t have faith that there is a god – they have certainty - and that conviction has led many of them to venture to faraway lands, where they seek to stamp out traditions that they are certain God disapproves of. And the reward they offer for converting is a state of grace that will only be had if what they are certain of is actually true. It’s a tough sell, but one made much easier with the backing of the military or, in Davidson’s case, a like-minded local official.
In the opening scene of Sadie Thompson, we watch as Davidson (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife approach the capital of American Samoa, Pago Pago. He has come to rid the island of its moral failings, one of which appears to be the love of dancing. Also on the ship is a young woman from San Francisco named Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson), and she is an immediate hit with the American soldiers stationed on the island. She encourages their attention, openly flirts with a few of them, and is not offended by some of their more juvenile actions. She even invites them into her room to listen to jazz. In other words, she is the kind of woman that Davidson considers in need of either saving or punishment.
What follows is thoroughly fascinating, a game of one-upmanship, in which Davidson clearly has the upper hand. Soon his obsession begins to resemble road rage, for in his eyes, the ends – Sadie’s moral salvation – clearly justify the means, regardless of the trauma it inflicts. He is never a completely sympathetic character, yet I found it hard to cast his as a villain. True villains are usually aware of the destruction they seek to inflict; this description doesn’t quite fit Davidson. He just doesn’t know any other way, and there’s a satisfaction that creeps across his face when he begins to succeed which reveals an absence of malice. His enemy seems to be sin, not the individual. Well, at least for a while, that is.
Throughout her career, Swanson excelled at playing strong characters, and with Sadie, she hit the jackpot. Her body language exudes confidence, her facial expression early on is one of pure joy, and her demeanor reveals a character aware of the importance of making the most of each moment. Surrounded by adoring young men, she is in heaven, yet unlike so many later heroines, nothing indicates that she is looking for someone to save her. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sadie, it turns out, is on her way to begin a job on a different cruise ship. I guess you could call her an example of the modern woman, and Swanson is the perfect actress to convey this.
There is, of course, Sergeant Tim O’Hara (played by Raoul Walsh himself). In a movie like this, there almost has to be, but I find myself wishing that weren’t so. O’Hara is first introduced as shy and quiet, but we know it won’t be long before Sadie brings him out of his shell. The scenes with the couple are interesting, and they certainly make a good case for love eventually developing. However, if you think about it rationally, the timeline is ridiculous. A two-day courtship; three-day separation; a proposal on their sixth day of acquaintance. It’s the kind of set-up that makes a mother pull his son aside and ask him if he’s sure he’s given the whole thing due consideration. But there’s another reason why the inclusion of the romantic storyline seems unwise. If Sadie is truly an example of the modern woman and if the movie is advocating for acceptance of type of woman, it seems counterproductive for it to reward modernity with traditionalism.
In her later years, Swanson lamented that some of what she regarded as her greatest films no longer existed. Sadly, according to Wikipedia, 19 of her films have been lost, including Bluebeard’s 8th Wife and Madame Sans-Gene, and who knows what the conditions of her lesser-known films are. Thus, we are lucky to have Sadie Thompson, and it is one of the best showcases of Swanson’s talent, as well as a reminder of why audiences made her the second most popular actress in Hollywood behind Mary Pickford. However, it too is incomplete; the film’s finale, containing a dramatic interaction between Sadie and Davidson, no longer exists. I watched Kino’s DVD of the film, and fortunately, they have recreated the scene using new intertitles, stock photos, and a few moments from the 1932 remake, Rain. I’m grateful for the effort, even as I lament what once was.
I feel like I’m not fully expressing my admiration for the film. Here is a perfectly-paced film of great intensity involving two fascinating characters and the tragedy that ensues upon their chance encounter. It spotlights a time of great change in American culture, when the population was still coming to terms with the effects of technology, medicine, music, movies, psychology, and the right to vote on society. It is no surprise that the first reaction to a woman like Sadie is shock and disapproval. After all, just look at the difference between Sadie and Mrs. Davidson. One blurts out profanity like a sailor; the other covers her ears and runs out of the room. Guess which one Mr. Davidson married. Now guess which one he secretly pines for. (on DVD)
4 and a half stars
*Gloria Swanson was nominated for Best Actress for her work in Sadie Thompson. She lost to Janet Gaynor.