By Dean Thompson (no relation, thank you kindly)

Gloria Swanson Productions, Inc.

CAST: Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson), Raoul Walsh (Sgt. Tim O'Hara), Lionel Barrymore (Alfred Davidson), Blanche Friderici (Mrs. Alfred Davidson), Charles Lane (Dr. Angus McPhail), Florence Midgley (Mrs. Angus McPhail), James A. Marcus (Joe Horn), Sophia Artega (Ameena), Will Stanton (Quartermaster Bate)

Gloria Swanson's autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, (1980), is an exhilarating read: frank, funny, wise, always pulsing with energy. We get an especially gleeful vignette near the end of the book, when Swanson calls her old co-star and director, Raoul Walsh. Has the boisterousness of two lifetime friends in their eighties ever been more endearingly captured?

It was eleven o'clock, but I wasn't tired. Eleven o'clock -- that was eight o'clock California time. Time for one more call before I went to bed. I direct-dialed Raoul Walsh's house, and he answered the phone.
"Handsome!" I cried in the tough voice of Sadie Thompson, as I had so many times with Raoul through the years.
"Sadie!" he yelled back.
"How are you all?"
"Fine, just fine! And you?"
"Fine." . . . Then I said, "Listen, I want to straighten one thing out in these memoirs of mine. The day we met in my garden . . . the first day . . . Henri was there . . . do you remember? -- who first suggested making a film of RAIN? Did you? Or did ?"
"We both did," Raoul said. "We were thinking like one person, don't you remember? You couldn't separate it."
"That's what I thought," I said, "but I wanted to check with you."
"When are you coming back out here? We're dying to see you."
"Soon," I said. "As soon as this book is finished. Good Night, Handsome."
"Hey, wait a minute! Let's hear you say it."
"All right," I said. Then I gave it to him the way I had given it to Lionel Barrymore when Raoul was directing me in 1927: "You'd yank the wings off butterflies and claim you were saving their souls, you psalm-singing son of a bitch!"
"Ha, Ha!" Raoul shouted. "That's it! Good night, Sadie."

How can the reader not grin from ear to ear? One thinks of Kevin Brownlow's words in his introduction to his book Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979): "It is impossible to listen to these people without marveling; they are so extraordinary in their old age . . . what must Hollywood have been like when they were all young?"

Sole Surviving Print

Well, we have the films, hundreds of them -- a feast for which Heaven make us thankful. But one pearl of great price nearly got away. Had the sole surviving print of "Sadie Thompson" (1928) continued languishing in Mary Pickford's private archive, we would have no living record of the extraordinary picture that Swanson and Walsh recalled more than a half-century later; by the time that print was donated to the George Eastman House for preservation, the final reel had already crumbled into dust, and other sections of the film were in the beginning stages of decomposition. Swanson surely knew that it was a priceless part of her legacy, for in her book she ruefully asked, "Does anyone have a complete copy, including the last reel of 'Sadie Thompson'?"

No one stepped forward during Swanson's lifetime, alas. But silent-film aficionados everywhere can send hosannas to Dennis Doros, who in 1987 reconstructed the closing minutes of the missing reel with still photographs from the production, intertitles, a clip from the 1932 sound remake, and the original script. Kino International, which had commissioned Doros's restoration, then hired Joseph Turrin to compose an orchestral score, and -- voila! -- Sadie Thompson once again stepped out in all her finery to titillate a new generation.

Hot Mama Redux

Yes, you heard me: "titillate." And "exhilarate." Need we add "intimidate"? With all due respect to Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, who starred in the sound versions of W. Somerset Maugham's well-known story, Miss Thompson, no one has come close to matching Swanson's pinwheels and Roman candles as she swaggers about the screen. There's nothing of the elegant clotheshorse of the early De Milles ("Male and Female" or "The Affairs of Anatol") or the maddened grande dame of "Sunset Boulevard"; whether calcareous or contrite, this scarlet woman, all of five-foot-two and eyes of blue, is riveting.

Naturally, the Hayes Office grumbled. A film about a scarlet woman? Fie! But Swanson managed to override Will Hays' objections by persuading him that changing the title from "Rain" (as the popular Broadway version with Jeanne Engels had been named) to "Sadie Thompson" and changing the character of a lustful clergyman into a religious fanatic would make the work more palatable to mainstream audiences. We may wonder now if anyone was fooled. The plot was certainly well known: a fun-loving woman of easy virtue, on the run from the law in San Francisco, stops by an island in the South Seas. She runs into both a boisterous Marine, who offers her marriage, and a controlling, self-appointed reformer, who threatens her with jail and damnation before -- no, see the film and find out.

For there is much, so much, to enjoy. The steamy, erotic ambience of the tropics is beautifully evoked by art director William Cameron Menzies and photographer Oliver March (who also shot the 1932 Crawford remake), and in its review of the film, the New York Times noted that patrons leaving the theatres were stunned to find themselves walking into a bright day, so pervasive was the damp, sultry lushness of the picture. Sweaty faces and clothes abound throughout, and the frequent shots of rain pounding the palm leaves and boardinghouse roof serve to underscore the oppressive passion and tension as the walled-in characters battle for supremacy.


The interesting thing is that Walsh and Swanson, as Sgt. Tim O'Hara and Sadie Thompson, create much of the film's heat, not with the heaving chests and undulating smooches of bad soap operas, but with the sheer playfulness of two adults galvanized by animal magnetism. Watch how they wrestle as Sadie holds O'Hara's hat out of his reach; watch the piggyback ride he gives her later in the film; watch in particular a scene at Sadie's windowsill, with Walsh's and Swanson's teasing faces and hunger-filled eyes signaling more attraction than pages of dialogue could ever do. The erotic tension that these two enormously attractive actors create is electrifying. (In hindsight there's a sad note here, for Walsh was to lose of his eyes in a freak accident a few months later.)

Let's stay on the subject of eyes for a minute. One of the extra features of this DVD is a comparison of scenes (Sadie's entrance, her ensuing wrath at Mr. Davidson, and the ending) from the 1928 and 1932 versions. Now, what energizes the last quarter of each film is the debased fascination that Mr. Davidson feels for the humbled, repentant Sadie who has become putty in his hands. In the sound remake, as Walter Huston steels himself for what will be his final showdown with Joan Crawford, his eyes are hooded by his strong brow. But go back to Lionel Barrymore in the Swanson version. Huston is the more subtle actor of the two, no doubt about that; but Barrymore's eyes are even more arresting than those of Swanson and Walsh: when he stares at Sadie, his gleaming orbs signaling a fervor both ecclesiastical and sexual, the man's inner torment is just as believable as is the magnetism of the lovers who both disgust and lure him.

Diamond Cut Diamond

You can imagine, then, how the sparks fly when Swanson and Barrymore fight throughout the film. Trust me: it's diamond cut diamond, a far better show any day than World Championship Wrestling. Barrymore's livid eyes, his hand raised to strike at the worldliness he finally cannot repel, his gaunt jaw thrust forward -- all go toe to toe with the volcanic Swanson, all flashing eyes and teeth and sharpened claws. And mouth. Ooooo-wee, that mouth. Done much lip-reading lately? Ready to fasten your seatbelt? Kevin Brownlow notes that "lip-reading became obligatory for full enjoyment of [the film] . . . . Gloria Swanson was able to ride all her censorship problems and still give a down-to-earth realistic portrayal . . . by sandwiching discreet titles between honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon, delivered silently -- but scorchingly for lip-readers. The new sport became known as the 'cuss word puzzle'." Yessiree. You'll find yourself growling at the Listerined titles, brushing them aside so you can get back to grinning like a little kid at the knock-down drag-out cussfight barreling across the screen. And people who don't know any better think the silents were always sweet!

But enough. The point should be clear by now: "Sadie Thompson" is a wonderful, gripping, pulsatingly real, rip-snortin', alive film; no wonder Swanson, whose performance was nominated for an Academy Award, spent decades searching for the missing reel. We again can thank Dennis Doros, Joseph Turrin, and Kino Video for protecting, reconstructing, and presenting this marvel with all the trimmings. Viewing it and bracing ourselves in our seats as it blazes forth, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the final reel decomposed: after all, celluloid, like Lionel Barrymore's Davidson, can take only so much heat.

Copyright 2003 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved.

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