Sadie Thompson (1928)

Director: Raoul Walsh

9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The world of cinema has lost a great many films over the years to decomposition. Sadie Thompson, a film that held such fascination for movie studios and fans alike that it was remade twice, nearly left us. The only surviving print was kept in the vault of United Artists partner Mary Pickford, whose company distributed the film, and it was badly damaged—nearly the entire final reel of the film disintegrated. Fortunately, Kino International restored and released the film on video in 1987, using still images from the private collections of the film’s cast and crew, as well as the scenario and notes from director Raoul Walsh to create intertitles. Kino also commissioned a score for the video release by Joseph Turrin. Roger Ebert chose Sadie Thompson as the silent film to be featured at this year’s Overlooked Film Festival.

The Somerset Maugham story of a prostitute on the run going head to head with a moral reformer certainly has spice, but the special attraction of this first and arguably best rendition is Gloria Swanson. This charismatic actress who became a huge star in the silent era, imbues Sadie with exactly the right degree of natural spunk, fear, and madness.

At the end of a long voyage from San Francisco to Pago Pago, a crewman asks passengers to sign his remembrance book. Reformer Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore) and his severe wife (Blanche Friderici) signal their characters by writing of damnation and the need for repentance. Another couple, the Angus McPhails (Charles Lane and Florence Midgley) temper this response with a plea for tolerance. Finally, Sadie gets her chance to crack wise to the crewman and write a defiant message of her own. In this humorous way, we know exactly who we’re dealing with.

At the dock, bored marines watch the new arrivals, brightening considerably when Sadie comes down the gangplank. The Davidsons are appalled as Sadie is swarmed by men, and head off to the guest house at which they normally stay on their visits to the islands. Davidson has made himself a very powerful man, and detours to the governor’s office for an update on the state of the natives’ souls. Sadie is waiting for a ship to take her to a job in Apia, Samoa, but learns the ship is quarantined for smallpox and will not leave for at least 10 days. Sadie runs from the ship and starts examining herself for spots, carelessly inviting the marines, particularly one named Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), to help her look. They return her to the guest house, owned by a trader named Joe Horn (James A. Marcus) and his hefty native wife Ameena (Sophia Artega). Sadie sweet-talks him into letting her stay just until the boat sails. The marines clean out a store room off the sitting room for her. To thank them, she invites them to listen to some jazz records on her victrola. The Davidsons, of course, are scandalized.

Naturally, Davidson decides to make trouble for Sadie, certain he has seen her in the red-light district of San Francisco. He uses his influence with the governor to have her deported. Sadie is panic-stricken at the thought of returning to San Francisco; she eventually confesses to Davidson that she is wanted by the law, though she swears her innocence. Tim proposes to Sadie and tells her to go to Sydney instead, where his friends will look after her until his tour is up. In a pure act of sadism, Davidson refuses to allow the change of destination. Panic and the incessant rain on the roof sends Sadie into a nervous collapse, putting her at Davidson’s mercy.

Swanson is absolutely perfect in every scene. She affects a jaunty walk that signals her sexual freedom and toughness, but we watch her prepare it every time she must confront Davidson. She’s actually fragile and certainly not the hardened prostitute Davidson would have us believe her to be. In fact, she probably just likes men, and the feeling is mutual. It’s not hard to see how Tim could propose to her, whether she has a past or not. She also has a believable temper. When Davidson tells her he is having her deported, she flies off the handle, unable to be stopped by a roomful of marines. She swears a blue streak, as evidenced by Mrs. Davidson and Mrs. McPhail running from the room holding their ears. The scene is funny but also intense. Sadie may be scared, but she doesn’t bend easily. Nonetheless, when her paranoia finally gets the better of her, we have been well prepared for her break in character by these small moments of uncertainty.

sadiethompsonstill.jpgWalsh is a perfect foil for Swanson, the two exhibiting chemistry and a playfulness that make us believe that their short romance could blossom into love so quickly. At one point, as Sadie wonders whether Tim could ever be serious about a good-time girl like her, Tim says his buddy married a girl from San Francisco. “Where in San Francisco?” Sadie asks. “Where they hang the red lanterns.” Sadie assumes a look of foreboding. “And are they happy?” Yes, Tim replies, and they have two kids. His lack of judgment reassures Sadie and brings out the softness in her. Therefore, when Sadie sends Tim away at Davidson’s instigation, it is a truly heartbreaking scene. And what of Davidson? Lionel Barrymore has a cunning face that makes this professional meddler into something quite twisted and evil. I thought he chewed the scenery a bit—a Barrymore family flaw—but his fall from grace, seen only in still photos and two brief film clips that survived from the last reel, is chilling.

The entire Turrin score was performed by the Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra and conducted with a sure touch for movie accompaniment—an art unto itself—by Steven Larson. This, my first film of the festival, was an absolute joy and revelation.

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