Sadie Thompson had the great Raoul Walsh as director and costar, but studying the history of the film leaves little doubt that Gloria Swanson has a strong claim as its auteur. She jumped through hoops to acquire the property, fought the censors to get it produced, cowrote the script with Walsh, chose the cast largely herself, sold one of her houses to keep it going, helped finish the editing when Walsh had to leave for another project, and, above all, gave a sensational performance in the title role. There is symmetry in Swanson’s dominance of the Sadie Thompson saga, for the movie is the evergreen story of a woman who must fight her way through a world that’s been rigged from top to bottom by men.
Swanson’s Sadie washes up on Pago Pago in the South Pacific, on the lam from the police in San Francisco. Her raucous sex appeal bewitches the local Marines, and she falls for one, Sergeant Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), whom she calls “Handsome.” (Swanson called Walsh “Handsome” for the rest of their lives.) But Sadie is nearly brought to ruin by the self-styled reformer Davidson (a chillingly sadistic Lionel Barrymore). Davidson is the ultimate mansplainer, a bully whose moralizing covers up a degenerate nature. He threatens to send Sadie back to the States to face a murder rap. Desperate and vulnerable, at first Sadie converts to Davidson’s pitiless form of religion, even rejecting Handsome’s marriage proposal—until Davidson’s true nature reveals itself.
In 1928, Gloria Swanson was married to Henri de la Falaise, Marquis de la Coudraye. She lived in a lavish mansion in Beverly Hills and had a wardrobe and jewels that were the envy of every fan-magazine reader from Bangor to San Diego. But when Swanson sashays down the gangplank to meet a slavering crowd of men at the beginning of Sadie Thompson, it’s one of the biggest “Hi, Sailor” moments in movies. Four-foot eleven in her stocking feet, Swanson teeters on her high heels. She’s wearing a too-tight jacket trimmed with an incongruous white fur collar, a matching skirt, a picture hat with a foot-long feather, and over her shoulder she’s slung a parasol that she hasn’t bothered to unfurl, yet. When we get a load of the rear view, we see the jacket’s piping forms two arrows pointing straight down to the main attraction. Her walk starts at the ankles and shimmies right up to her shoulders. And those big, glorious, paper-white Swanson teeth flash again and again like the sign over an all-night bar.
She’s bubbling over with life, bringing the party with her wherever she goes. When Sadie’s light is almost snuffed out by Davidson, a “psalm-singing son-of-a-bitch” (as Swanson snarls at him in a memorable gift to lip-readers), the audience yearns for revenge.
It was Walsh who suggested they take on the play Rain, based on the short story “Miss Thompson,” by Somerset Maugham. Jeanne Eagels, probably the most worshipped Broadway star of her era, had played Sadie Thompson in the triumphant New York run of Rain, and later a tour. But the play was so scandalous that when Walsh and Swanson began work on their adaptation, the censors at the Hays Office wouldn’t even permit them to use the title.
But “what Gloria wanted, Gloria got,” as Walsh put it in his autobiography, and she made a plan. Swanson met with Will Hays himself and talked to him about “Miss Thompson” and the greatness of Maugham, without mentioning the play. Hays, possibly not connecting the dots with the notorious Rain, agreed that it sounded like a fine property, provided they changed the Reverend Davidson to a layman. Thus encouraged, Swanson bought the movie rights to the original short story, and, in a complex series of maneuvers that take up a good many pages of her own autobiography, she bought the play rights, too, anonymously through a broker. She then had to weather the wrath of multiple studio chiefs who were both concerned about censors’ retribution and peeved that she’d found a way to film a massive hit previously deemed off-limits.
The censors relented but monitored the film closely and scissored several scenes. Despite the tropical downpours that drench the picture, Swanson later recalled that nearly every time the word “rain” appeared in an intertitle, out it had to go. (Perhaps keeping such a close watch for any reminder of the play title was why the censors failed to lip-read the four or five times Swanson clearly repeats “son-of-a-bitch.”)
Troubles multiplied. With Pago Pago an impractical location shoot, they settled for Catalina Island, where master production designer William Cameron Menzies created a striking series of sets. Midway through, Samuel Goldwyn used the fine print in a contract to call back cinematographer George Barnes; Robert Kurrle was tried, but his interiors were deemed inferior. In the end, Swanson used the versatile MGM cinematographer Oliver Marsh, “and he saved the film for me,” said Swanson in her autobiography.
The film was being produced under United Artists, where Swanson had her own production unit. Studio head Joe Schenck called Swanson on the carpet for being behind schedule and over budget, and, as Swanson recalled in her book, got an earful of his old friend’s frustration: “When Irving Thalberg reshoots a third of a picture, you call him a genius. When Sam Goldwyn does it, he’s maintaining his reputation for quality. But when I do it, you treat me like a silly female who can’t balance her checkbook after a shopping spree.” Rather than have Schenck pick up the costs and wind up beholden to him, Swanson sold her house in Croton-on-Hudson.
In the end, the film was a triumph. Walsh had resisted playing Handsome, but he has delicious chemistry with Swanson. He admitted to having a crush on her at the time, and she was attracted to him as well, although they both swore no affair ensued. Barrymore gives a surprisingly subdued performance, focused mostly on his burning stares and alpha-male body language. (“Am I eating up the scenery?” asked Barrymore, according to Walsh. “Menzies can build more,” was the director’s riposte.)
Walsh was one of the finest action directors who ever lived. Sadie Thompson offers a chance to see what he does with a dialogue-intensive play. Walsh finds his action in his performers: in Sadie fighting the mosquito-netting in her room as she tries to go to sleep; as Handsome stands in the rain to talk to Sadie who’s dangling through her window; as Davidson watches Sadie and the drum of his fingers on the table echo the rain outside; even in the occasional bits of slapstick such as when English actor Will Stanton drunk-walks his way home.
As with many silent movies, the story of Sadie Thompson has a coda. The last print was discovered in Mary Pickford’s collection, and nitrate decomposition had already claimed its last reel. In the late 1980s Kino International reconstructed the final scenes using a montage of stills, and damage is visible in other scenes as well. Still, Sadie, like its heroine, has endured, proving what Swanson told Walsh when he doubted she could pull off the part: “How do you know I wouldn’t make the best chippie who ever swung a hip?”
Presented at A Day of Silents 2016 with live music by Donald Sosin