Wednesday, February 20, 2019
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Sadie Thompson (1928) Review

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Starring:

Gloria Swanson; 

Raoul Walsh; 

Lionel Barrymore; Blance Friderici; Charles Lane; Florence Midgley; Sophia Artega; Will Stanton

Sadie Thompson (1928)

    Sadie Thompson is one of those silent films that make enthusiasts cry in utter anguish and despair, for not only does the one known existing print have quite a bit of damage including the total loss of picture during some of Swanson’s most pivotal scenes (and generally during her close-ups), but, (and this is where it really gets bad), the entire climatic ending of the film is missing!  This is akin to having, say, the only surviving copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth be one with badly watered damaged spots throughout the text and with the final ten pages (or so) completely gone!  You think I’m over-reacting?  See the film, and find out what you’re missing!

Sadie Thompson contains what may be Gloria Swanson’s greatest performance (it’s either Sadie Thompson or Queen Kelly).  She shines as the San Francisco prostitute who finds herself on a tropical island in the South Seas, trapped between her love for a roguish marine and the bible thumping reformer who threatens to send her back to California and the waiting prison cell.  Sadie pleads with the reformer to allow her to take the next boat to Australia where she’ll wait for her marine, but the reformer will have none of that.  She’s not only got to reform, she must also repent for her past sins, and that means jail…or does it?  It seems the reformer has developed some feelings of his own for Miss Thompson, feelings, which could mean her salvation without prison.  And the rain just keeps falling…

Okay, so I hate when movie reviews give away too much so I’ll tell you here and now that I’m going to discuss the ending of Sadie Thompson, or rather, the missing ending of Sadie Thompson.  Just as the lecherous reformer makes his play for Sadie, we loose the film.  The Kino Video restoration (which is fabulous given what they had to work with) finishes the movie with stills, titles and a (very) few fragments of film.  Through these we learn: that the reformer is found dead; that his throat has been cut; that it is an apparent suicide; and that Sadie and the marine are going to live happily every after.  What we don’t know is: did the reformer commit suicide; or did Sadie murder him?  Important questions, which probably where not “answered” in the film either, but were “answered” through the performances in the film, those same performance, which have not survived.  See what I mean about the silent film enthusiasts despair?

Whatever the shape of the film, Sadie Thompson is simply a wonderful movie.  As mentioned Swanson was never better.  But equally great is Lionel Barrymore.  His performance as Alfred Atkinson, the reformer, is fantastic, imbuing the bible thumper with so much intolerance and out-rite evil that you can barely be in the same room with him, even though he’s on the screen.  It’s Barrymore’s best villain (short of Mr. Potter, of course).  Also marvelous is Raoul Walsh as the love interest Sgt. Tom O’Hara.  There’s quite a bit of warmth and humor in his performance, and he and Swanson make a very believable couple.

Walsh is, of course, also the director of the film and as a director he is also first rate.  Close-ups abound in the film, and Walsh uses them expertly, allowing them to at times further the love story, but also using them to invoke the claustrophobic feelings Sadie starts to have while being cooped up in her hotel room while outside it continues to rain.  The art direction by William Cameron Menzies is remarkable, allowing one to participate in the utter dampness of the place (both during all of the rain, or just in the sweltering heat).  One needs to continue wiping one’s brow with a cool handkerchief while watching this film.

As stated the DVD is available from Kino Video and the quality of the print is, unfortunately, as good as possible given the state of the existing source.  Helping to bridge the problems of the print is the wonderful orchestral score by Joseph Turrin.

Kino has also included a number a very interesting extras.  There is an essay discussing Somerset Maugham’s story and how it was turned into first a play and then film.  There are also some interesting scene comparisons where one can read a section of Maugham’s story, read the text of the play, see the silent film scene and also included are the similar scenes from the (horrible) 1932 remake Rain staring the wonderfully overacting Joan Crawford.  The most interesting comparison involves the ending, as it is here where we get to find out “what really happened” to the reformer.  Since much of the text is similar in the play, Rain and the title-cards in Sadie Thompson, the reformer’s demise seems explained.  While I would give anything to see the last reel of Sadie Thompson, I kind of like the ambiguity that the “restored” ending gives, allowing as it does, for some interpretation.  Be that as it may, the Kino extras go a long way in helping Sadie Thompson shine as a first rate silent film.

Kevin M. Wentink

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