Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- “Your god and me could never be shipmates. Next time you talk to him, tell him Sadie Thompson is on her way to hell!”
- The adventures of a prostitute. One person intones to her, “Very pleased to meet a lady!” and everyone busts up laughing.
- Joan Crawford’s Sadie Thompson gets dressed down as “exceedingly common and looks fast.”
- Good ol’ Guy Kibbee plays a man married to an islander, and they have a litter of kids together. This implies a boatload of miscegenation.
- Kibbee’s character notes about the natives, “Thinking gives them a headache!”
- Reverend Davidson (Walter Huston) and his position as a Christian missionary who’s portrayed in an unflattering light here wouldn’t be allowed after the Code goes into effect.
- What he does at the end of the movie definitely wouldn’t be allowed after the code, but I’ll save that for now.
The Missionary’s Position
“What does Pago Pago mean?”
“I don’t think it means anything at all.”
“Then it’s certainly well named.”
Rain gently falling and then pounding on a tropical paradise. A barrel overflows. Welcome to the heady and unsubtle waters of Rain, one of those grandiose films that was crafted for awards and controversy but created neither.
There’s a lot of money put into this movie, and a lot to show off from it. Director Lewis Milestone has a wandering, energetic camera, that does an excellent job codifying the didactic world of the film. Especially impressive are several tracking shots that emphasize both the horror and righteousness of the warring sides of the moral coin throughout the film.
I should probably get to explaining that. Rain is set entirely on the tropical island of Pago Pago. Its main attributes are a general store owned by a horny old roustabout, a cadre of marine officers, and a sea of complacent villagers. It has the classical tribal mysticism mojo that old films like to harp on about, and the remoteness of distance to give it just the right tinge of exoticism.
A boat docks on the island and unloads four weary missionaries. They’re lead by the Reverend Davidson (Walter Huston), one of those men whose sense of righteousness is impeccably aggravating. Every word he said comes straight from his God, and nothing you can say would convince him otherwise.
From the same boat comes Miss Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). Milestone has some fun introducing her by her extremities first and then moving up to her face. First a hand, covered in gaudy fake jewels, then the other. Then one foot in heels, then the other, then both. Then Crawford’s face, dolled up, and a cigarette barely hanging on. She’s a femme fatale by way of being a prostitute with what looks to be a bird on her head.
Thompson bowls over the local contingent of Marines, and she’s escorted back to stay at the hotel run by the trader Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee).
A short aside here– I’ve seen Kibbee plenty of times before, from the dumb politician (The Dark Horse) to just a dumb guy needing to be seduced and robbed of his money (Havana Widows), Kibbee usually plays squarely, goofily dumb. In Rain, however, he plays the voice of reason and backbone of the film. This is by far the most naturalistic I’ve seen him play, as there’s little of his usual exaggerated mannerisms and more of a boisterous, thoughtful facade, even if Joe Horn is a drunk and womanizer.
“We live in the day of the new commandment– thou shalt not enjoy themself.”
Unfortunately, Horn is also stuck putting up the reformers at the same inn for two weeks as they wait for their boat to be cleared for cholera. Davidson at first tries to persuade the governor to get Thompson kicked off of the island, to little effect until he blackmails the man.
Sadie is horrified at being returned to the states, as she meekly claims that she’ll do time if she ever steps foot in San Francisco again. Her crimes aren’t specified, but the impression is that it isn’t for a dignified reason.
The two clash, and much of the middle film is spent between fights as Sadie turns over and over and over again the feelings of guilt and anger that result from her marginalization. It’s a lot like watching an alcoholic rationalize, and Davidson refuses to put up with her many tirades towards him and his institution.
Huston’s performance of Davidson is at once fiercely cold and calculated, like you’d imagine from a man so unwaveringly righteous, but also off by a hair. Davidson is a perfect tool of his own designation of divine wrath, but his weaknesses are too well hidden in the screenplay. By the third act, his climactic actions feel totally out of sync with the rest of his character from the movie. But I’ll get into that momentarily.
The Happy Ending
“Sadie Thompson, you are doomed!”
“Yeah, and you make me laugh!”
Sadie is being pursued by a Sargent O’Hara (William Gargan), who promises to take her to Australia and make her an honest woman. Much is made of this, and O’Hara relates a story about a friend of his who married an equally vivacious woman (hint prostitute hint) and how when she settled, she settled hard. Sadie seems to like this idea, and agrees to run away with him.
However, the film comes to a head when Davidson finally breaks down Sadie’s resistance with an unyielding recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, and earns enough sway to occupy her soul. She washes off her makeup and becomes a plain looking good girl, resigned to return to the states and serve out her penal sentence. Davidson, so completely intoxicated with the power he has over her, becomes obsessed with her.
Here Sadie declines O’Hara’s offer, crushing him, and Davidson takes this as a sign of complete triumph. The boat to take her back to the states has arrived, and she’s set to board the next morning when Davidson, so overcome with seeing this woman whose will he’s completely defeated becoming so reverent, finds that he can’t help himself. Huston contorts his face in a a great deal of maniacal pain and slips into her bedroom.
The next morning his body is found on the beach; the film does the viewer a disservice by trying to make the body’s identity a mystery, and a further one by removing us from Huston’s undeniable torment. Instead we see Sadie again, back in her make-up, cheap jewelry and gear. From the dialogue, it’s pretty easy to understand what happened between Sadie and Davidson the night before. I think this line from Sadie kind of seals it:
“Killed himself? Then I guess I can forgive him.”
So we have a religious man killing himself after he rapes a prostitute. Yep. Pre-Code.
The rest of the missionaries are devastated, but Sadie remakes her plans to run off to Australia with O’Hara. It seems, the film implies, that a person’s faith in themselves is what makes them who they are.
Joan Crawford’s role in this film is a mixture of brilliance and horror. She’s an actress who I haven’t discussed much in this series, and that’s mostly because I, well, don’t really like her that much. I really liked the way that Mick LaSalle put it in his essential Pre-Code survey Complicated Women, with the emphasis his:
It is not just that Crawford found it hard to come into her technique as an actress. They all struggled, even Garbo, and they all had moments that they hit too hard or too gracelessly. Crawford’s problems went deeper. She had trouble coming into her authenticity. When Jean Harlow is bad in a film– and in her first films, she is as bad or worse than Crawford ever was– she still looks like a human being trying to act. Crawford looked like an act trying to impersonate a human being. (Pg 121)
That feeling of human unease permeates Rain. Crawford never manages to stop radiating feelings of discomfort as the happy-go-lucky Sadie Thompson, which kills a great deal of tension. It’s not that she’s a reluctant prostitute, she’s a reluctant everything. We’re never convinced that she’s truly as strong willed as her dialogue makes her out to be, and Crawford’s performance seems to underline that.
Director Milestone is definitely showing off his skills here, as he makes use of every camera trick that was available in the early 30’s. He does an excellent job of breaking the film out of its confining sense of space, making it seem less like a stage play than its often single set setting belies it to be.
However, he can’t do much with the story’s structure: there’s a lot of back and forth on nothing in particular, and while the film’s fans may suppose it to be about religious hypocrisy, the film’s ending robs the audience of much of that payoff. The hypocrisy is layered in blankets of questionable acting, and the film suffers for it.
I guess if I had to point out what really bugged me about the film, it’s not Crawford’s robot nature, or Huston’s inability to round out his character, but the film’s ending did get into my brain. As I mentioned before, Davidson ends up raping Sadie and then killing himself, which strikes the wrong note to me. Today, when we see someone so determinedly righteous as Davidson as so often we seem to, they wouldn’t kill themselves— we just would have found Sadie’s body in the sea instead.
It’s a sick thing, but it makes this film feel antiquated. It’s villain, a rapist and a hypocrite, just seems too noble for the modern world.
Trivia & Links
- The copyright on this one wasn’t renewed, so it’s readily available in the public domain. I caught it on Netflix Instant for those of you who have that service, and it’s a pretty clean copy there.
- The film’s source is a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. He’s most famous for his novel Of Human Bondage; we should be getting to the Pre-Code Bette Davis adaptation of that one coming soon.
- It looks like that particular short story, besides being adapted into a smash Broadway play, got adapted into film four separate times. The funny thing is that the short story was so controversial that only this Pre-Code version got away with actually being called Rain. Otherwise you had the silent, 1928 Gloria Swanson star vehicle Sadie Thompson, the 1956 Rita Hayworth 3D musical Miss Sadie Thompson, and the all-black version called Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. All of these sound fascinating in their own weird way (there was a 3D musical starring Rita Hayworth and I’m just hearing about this now?!), not the least of with is how many backflips they must have to do to deal with the story’s dark ending.
- The always excellent Film Threat did a post on this one for their Bootleg Files series. It goes quite a bit more in depth about the film’s reception and other versions. Their piece is infinitely more complimentary than mine, but I did like this bit, since we readily agree on this one:
Over time, Crawford would belittle “Rain” as being a mistake. One quote had her saying: “Oh who am I kidding? I just gave a lousy performance.”
- We’ve got Mordaunt Hall back on over at the New York Times, and he’s pretty far from a fan of this one. You know it’s bad when his description of the film itself is, “an audible pictorial conception of the play “Rain.”” Which is a pretty sick burn if you think about it.
- The best poster I saw for this movie is this one. I do like the duality of Sadie on both sides of the frame, but it sells Crawford as far more defiant than she ever manages in the film. A mixed bag, which at least makes it fit in with the film itself: