“A woman without shame. A woman without soul.”
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, Beulah Bondi
Synopsis: A prostitute finds redemption in Pago Pago thanks to a hard missionary man.
It’s inevitable that an early talkie based on a stage play (which was itself based on a W. Somerset Maugham story) is going to contain a lot of dialogue and little action, but the fluidity of Oliver Marsh’s camera work comes as something of a surprise. At times, his camera glides around the players, circling them like a predatory animal, mimicking perhaps the nature of Walter Huston’s self-righteous man of God whose determination to ‘save’ brassy prostitute Sadie Thompson is undermined by an unsuspected human frailty that proves the downfall of them both.
The story takes place in Pago Pago, an island upon which US marines are stationed, and on which the passengers of a steamer find themselves temporarily stranded when one of the ship’s crew is found to have cholera. There enforced visit coincides with a lengthy rain storm which prevents the ship from disembarking, meaning its passengers must reside at the hotel-cum-store run by Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee — 3 Godfathers). The passengers are Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston — Abraham Lincoln, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and his wife (Beulah Bondi — Make Way for Tomorrow, It’s a Wonderful Life), Dr. McPhail (Matt Moore — The Front Page, Mystery Street) and his wife (Kendall Lee), and Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford — Dancing Lady). Thompson is introduced to a group of marines — and to us — limb by limb. First we see net-stockinged feet in high heels, then arms adorned with cheap bangles and jewellery. Sadie wears more make-up in a day than most women wear in a month, and her dress and manner leave us in no doubt that she is not only a prostitute but a girl who enjoys a good time.
Sadie quickly sets up a party for the marines in her room, from which loud music blares on the Sabbath much to the annoyance of Davidson and his wife. When Davidson’s complaints to Horn are met with an amiable refusal to do anything, he tries to confront Sadie, but is forcibly evicted from her room by her guests. A visit to the Governor initially proves equally futile, but Davidson is nothing if not a persistent man, and he eventually harangues the governor into issuing a notice preventing Sadie from re-boarding the steamer upon which she arrived and ordering her to return to San Francisco, where it becomes apparent a three-year prison sentence awaits.
Lewis Milestone makes much of the heavy rain that forces this disparate group of people to spend an inordinate amount of time in one another’s company, using it as a metaphor for the oppressive attitude of Davidson towards Sadie. Davidson is the type of zealot who misinterprets (deliberately or otherwise) the teachings of the bible in order to impose his puritanical beliefs on those he believes don’t conform, and Sadie was always going to become a target. Rain does well in establishing the manner in which Davidson uses his skill with words to impose his inflexible arguments upon those who try to stand in his way, but in doing so it renders the film’s conclusion a little too obscure. Davidson’s faith never seems to be under the slightest duress throughout the picture, which makes his ultimate fate somewhat mystifying, as does the sudden reversion of Sadie to her old ways.
Despite this rather confusing ending, Rain is a wonderful example of the skill and craftsmanship of old Hollywood. There’s an assurance in both Milestone’s direction and the performance of his cast which is invigorating to watch, even if the style of acting comes across as somewhat archaic. The sultry Crawford, her face slathered in make-up for most of the movie, is beginning to acquire that hardness about her which was absent in her earliest performances but which became her trademark in the 1940s. Walter Huston matches her line for line in their scenes together, creating in the intractable Davidson a frighteningly believable human monster. Unfortunately, the fireworks between Crawford and Huston means that William Gargan (The Canterville Ghost), as the shy marine who catches Sadie’s eye, struggles to make any kind of impression.
(Reviewed 2nd February 2014)