Silent Titles: C. Gardner Sullivan
Adaptation: Raoul Walsh Maxwell Anderson Producers: Raoul Walsh/ Lewis Milestone/ Gloria Swanson Joseph M. Schenck Cinematography: George Barnes/Robert Kurrle/ Oliver T. Marsh Oliver T. Marsh
Film Editing: C. Gardner Sullivan W. Duncan Mansfield Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies Richard Day Cast:
Sadie Thompson: Gloria Swanson Joan Crawford Alfred Davidson: Lionel Barrymore Walter Huston Mrs. Alfred Davidson: Blanche Friderici Beulah Bondi
Dr. Angus McPhail: Charles Lane Matt Moore
Mrs. Angus McPhail: Florence Midgley Kendall Lee
Sergeant Handsome O’Hara: Raoul Walsh William Gargan
Joe Horn: James A. Marcus Guy Kibbee Ameena: Sophia Artega Mary Shaw November 21, 2009
Tonight we are comparing two of the three film versions of the story Miss Thompson. Written in 1917 by W. Somerset Maugham, it was first published in April 1921 in the New York magazine, Smart Set and then adapted into a play by John B. Colton and Clemence Randolph which opened on Broadway at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on November 7, 1922. It starred the famous actress Jeanne Eagles who was born in 1894 and died of a heroin overdose in 1929 at the age of 36. It was a big success and played for a straight 648 performances which extended over an eighteen month period. The play was then published in 1923. The third but least (in my opinion) impressive film version was made in 1953, directed by Curtis Bernhardt and starred Rita Hayworth in the title role.
There is very little difference story wise between these two earlier film versions. They were made four years apart, one in the sophisticated era of silent films and the other in the pre-code talkie era. Before we get into the specifics of each film, there are a few interesting similarities and differences. Both films use the same cinematographer, Oliver T. Marsh and were shot on location in Santa Catalina Island, Channel Islands, California which explains the similar atmospheric visuals and feeling.
There are a number of scenes in Rain that are one long take. This is more like a play, where there is no cutting to and from each actor, or viewing the actors from a different angle. Instead the camera moves around in a 180 degree angle. One particularly impressive long take is when Sadie and Handsome go out on the porch to talk because Horn doesn’t want to get into any trouble with Davidson by allowing these two single people to be alone in her room. Yet, you don’t feel you are watching a play but a realistic life version of two people interacting with each other.
In the silent version there is a scene early on in the story where Davidson makes it his business to stop the fun that Sadie and the visiting Marines are having in her room because it is the Sunday Sabbath. You watch as he knocks the phonograph to the floor, bawls them all out and then tells them to leave the premises. Of course, a tough Sadie surrounded by Marines is not going to take any of his guff and he gets sent flying out of her room. In the 1932 version, the scene is much shorter and shot in an entirely different manner where instead of seeing what goes on in Sadie’s room, you sit with the other guests and listen to what is happening in Sadie’s room with the same end results.
In 1925, at the age of 26, Gloria Swanson joined United Artists (UA) and set up her own production company. She received much advice from Joe Schenck who also was the uncredited Executive Producer of Rain. Sadie Thompson was Gloria’s second film for UA. After living and working in New York for two years, she moved back to Hollywood to work at the brand, newly built UA studios. After seeing What Price Glory?, Gloria wanted to meet with its director, Raoul Walsh. Once discussing his ideas about films, she wanted to hire him for her next project and he suggested they should film Rain. Their talk centred on “The Formula”, the decency code drawn up by Will Hays and agreed upon by all the major film studios. Rain was at the top of the list the Hollywood censors felt the movie audiences should not see. Gloria and Walsh got around the code in a number of ways. First, The Formula said that only certain non-classic books and plays could not be made into films. Since Miss Thompson was a short story and arguably written by a great classic writer, it did not fall under that category. Second, the rules indicated that there was to be no profanity or ridicule of the clergy, so they changed the character of Reverend Davidson from an evangelical missionary into Mister Davidson, a misguided, overzealous moralist. Thirdly, Gloria Swanson Production (GSP) decided to buy both the short story and the play and because GSP was not a signatory to the code (The Formula), Joe Schenck, who was the president of UA would hold the rights and title to the play as protection for Gloria against any other studio making the film. As well, after meeting and getting an okay from Will Hays, the author of the Hays code, she was free to go ahead and make a picture based on the short story which in itself was not banned nor even mentioned in The Formula.
Gloria and Raoul Walsh had already started working on a script based on the short story rather than the play weeks before she owned either property. Once GSP obtained the rights to both properties, Schenck arranged for the loan of Walsh from Fox Studios. It took only two days after secretly purchasing, for $60,000, these two titles for the word to get out. Everyone was in an uproar. The attorneys for Maugham, Colton and Randolph charged the broker who had made the purchase with misrepresentation and threatened to sue Schenck and Swanson to stop the picture from ever getting started. The heads of studios and theatre chains which also included an unknown Joseph Kennedy (whom Gloria later got intimately involved with) sent an ultimatum that the movie should not be made as it would destroy the relationship the studios had with the public and be held in disrepute by them. The real reason Gloria felt they were so upset was because she, a woman, had beat them to the punch by figuring out a way to film this banned play.
She personally wrote a reply to the studio and theatre chain heads and she received a reply back from one of the most important and influential studio heads at that time, Marcus Loew, chairman of the board of Loew’s Incorporated Theatres and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He said that since Will Hays gave his consent, then he would back up the decision. Loew and Hays were too strong a team not to have their way in restraining the rest of the studio and theatre heads. She appeased Somerset Maugham by asking him to create a sequel to the Sadie story. That way, if her film was a success, there would be much studio interest in producing a sequel. Later on, after her film was completed, she received a reply from Maugham and discovered that, although the last thing she wanted to do was make another film about Sadie, she was intrigued to learn that Maugham had already made arrangements with Fox to write a sequel to Rain prior to her ever purchasing the rights! However, once Fox learned that someone else had bought the film rights to the original, they preferred not to go on with the deal. Therefore, Maugham had already created lots of material and had asked Fox for $25,000, so was hoping Gloria would meet it. She sent a copy of Maugham’s letter to Will Hays to show him what hypocrites the studio heads were.
Hiring the crew and cast were the next items on Gloria’s list. This did not go smoothly. Walsh was the director but he and Gloria were worried that Fox Studios would order him off the picture. This didn’t happen. Both Walsh and Gloria wanted Rapley Holmes, who portrayed the fat storekeeper Joe Horn on Broadway, to play the part in the film but due to ill health they had to recast. Their first choice for cinematographer was George Barnes who was under contract to MGM but Goldwyn kept stalling. Happily, Lionel Barrymore, Gloria’s first priority, said that he would play Davidson even though he was not in good health due to an injured leg. In later years, Barrymore acted from a wheelchair. There was nobody in Gloria’s mind who seemed right for the role of Handsome O’Hara. It dawned on her that the best person for the role was the director himself, Raoul Walsh. He hadn’t been in front of a camera for eight years and it took her a week of much convincing that he would be perfect.
Finally Goldwyn committed to George Barnes as cameraman. American Express had offered to transport the cast and crew inexpensively to Samoa for location shooting which would have meant free publicity for the film but with half of July gone, GSP were unable to take them up on their offer. Instead they had to settle for Catalina Island off the coast at Long Beach where half the crew turned one end of the island into a South Seas outpost. The other half of the crew built William Cameron Menzies’ interiors on one of the new UA stages back in Hollywood.
One week into the picture, Gloria was told by her production manager, Pierre Bedard, that they had lost their cameraman George Barnes. Goldwyn had recalled him back to shoot a picture for him. Although Goldwyn was also a member of UA, apparently their written agreement stated that Barnes could be recalled on three days’ notice. When the contract had first been written up, Bedard had told Schenck to have that clause changed but Schenck said not to bother because “Goldwyn would never think of taking Barnes away from us in the middle of a picture.”
Schenck was out of town when this happened and a call was placed to him. Gloria, in a panic, also called Doug Fairbanks, one of the founders of UA, to see what he could do for her. She had over a hundred people waiting around and she could not afford to scrap the work Barnes had done in the studio or they would never be able to finish the film. She needed to find a cameraman who could film and blend to match Barnes’s work. They tried a couple of other cameramen but their work did not match. They were only two days away from going on location to Catalina and there was no way of putting off the departure and postponing the schedule as it would mean losing Barrymore and Walsh as both were committed to other projects.
Walsh next chose the cinematographer Robert Kurrle who had worked for D.W. Griffith and who was ready to do the location shoot. Mary Pickford, another UA founder, had her favourite cameraman, Charles Rosher, on standby in case Kurrle didn’t work out. Fortunately Kurrle’s location shots of Catalina were lovely but unfortunately Gloria found his interior work mediocre. Both she and Walsh felt that he would never be able to bring the picture together visually and began to feel that the entire venture was doomed. They sent for Charles Rosher to come immediately and although he was unmistakably a fine cameraman, his sharp, clear images didn’t blend with the shadowy, impressionistic style that George Barnes had created. If they kept Rosher, then the whole film would have to be reshot, which again was not an option. Gloria was at her wits end by this point, and after getting no help from Schenck, decided to call Marcus Loew who had saved her earlier from the wrath of the studio heads. He was very ill at the time but when he realized the trouble Goldwyn had caused for Gloria, he ordered MGM to give her anyone she wanted. They let her have Oliver T. Marsh and he saved the picture for her. Sadly, Marcus Loew died that September.
When they got back from location to reshoot the studio scenes, Joe Schenck set up an appointment with Gloria to ask her what she was going to do about being over budget. She knew that Schenck could get more money for her but she didn’t like how she was made to feel a failure. So she told her production manager and Thomas Alan Moore of Guaranty Trust in New York who was an officer of her company to put her farm in Croton-on-Hudson on the market to raise the capital.
Once the picture was finished the Hays office hired lip readers to scrutinize every frame of film. Although they didn’t mind that it rained in the film, they minded the word “rain” appearing in any title and asked that it be changed or deleted. They also asked that Davidson’s name be changed, but that request was ignored.
On November 10th, 1927 there was a sneak-preview in San Bernardino, California of the completed film. She asked that white cards be handed out so that the audience could write down their opinions. After reading them, Gloria realized that the great majority liked the film and she felt she had a triumph on her hands. She did and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress but lost out to Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven. George Barnes was also nominated for Best Cinematography but lost out to Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for Sunrise.
My last comment on Sadie Thompson is that when she wrote her biography, Gloria Swanson always hoped that the missing final reel would be found before she died. However, only the one surviving print, missing this footage, was ever found so stills and titles were used to help complete the story.
In pretty much all of the books and articles written about Joan Crawford and her films, it seems the consensus is that her performance in Rain was “lousy”. Of course, I and many others who have seen her in this film have the complete opposite point of view. She was being compared to Jeanne Eagles of the stage and Gloria Swanson of the earlier film and these comparisons would be difficult to live up to at that time.
A number of differences in Gloria and Joan’s life are of interest. They were both 29 and 28 respectively when they played the role of Sadie. Gloria had, by this time, much more experience in the business of “Hollywood”, having started acting in films in 1914 when she was 15. By the time Gloria did Sadie Thompson she was a film producer who ran her own company and had acted in 59 films to date. She only acted in two more silents and then was unable to retain star status when the talkies came. Joan, on the other hand, started out in silent films when she was 20, acting in 22 with Rain being her 10th sound film. It was just the beginning of her career and she would still make 48 more films over the next 38 years.
They were both married at the time they made their respective films, Gloria to her third husband, Henri de la Falaise, a Marquis, and Joan to her second, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 4 years her junior. At the time, Gloria seemed happy in her marriage, while Joan wasn’t. She was having an affair with Clark Gable, but since both were married, they had to keep it secret especially from Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who never allowed his stars to be publicized in any type of scandal. As an aside, MGM set up a trust fund for Gable which could be broken if his “conduct” (such as the above) caused his employment to be terminated.
Joan was considered for the role because Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s Inc., was specifically asked for her on a loan-out basis by his brother Joseph, who was president of UA, which, as you know, produced the Swanson film. Monetarily, this was a very good deal for MGM. UA paid MGM $12,500 when the contract was signed by both studios, and then $3,500 a week for a minimum ten-week period ($35,000). This was Joan’s weekly salary. MGM would also participate in the profits after UA paid the cost of distribution, which was usually around 30% of the gross, and could be up to 50% in Europe, making it very lucrative for both companies.
Joan first felt complimented but soon was reluctant to be loaned out to a studio where she didn’t know anyone, but Joseph Schenck was very persuasive as the payout to the studio was too good to pass up. She started to develop an inferiority complex knowing she would be compared and have to live up to the Eagles and Swanson performances. Schenck told her not to worry and persuaded her to take the role by promising her that he would assign the celebrated director, Lewis Milestone who would take her under his wing. He had just finished directing the Academy Award winning All Quiet on the Western Front and The Front Page.
However, Joan lost confidence right from the start for it turned out that Milestone had no faith in Rain. He thought it badly dated and, sure enough, thought no one could touch Eagles’ performance. As well, Eagles performance was so popular that there wasn’t a vaudeville house that didn’t feature an act making sport of Sadie Thompson.
It appears that Joan had problems right from the start to the finish of the film. It was the first famous role that she had been given and she thought she could bring fresh insight to Sadie Thompson. But unfortunately terror overwhelmed her and her good friend, the actor William Haines, told her that attempting to play Sadie “you couldn’t find a sharper razor to cut your throat with.” This only made Joan fearful of unfavourable comparisons. She was also frightened of working away from her “home”, MGM. Instead of working with her “family” of crew members who would give her their sympathy and support to help her overcome her feelings of inadequacy as an actress, she was plunged into a company of strangers. To help assuage some of these fears, Schenck hired one of her favourite cinematographers, Oliver Marsh. Schenck convinced her she could and would create a new and original Sadie Thompson all her own. Once on the set her problems continued. She knew that her acting was more instinctive than calculated and that usually her first take of any scene was her best and that rehearsals robbed her of spontaneity. Lewis Milestone’s technique was to rehearse each scene numerous times. The New York actors seemed aloof to Joan and she felt no rapport with Walter Huston. At the welcoming dinner on Catalina Island, where the film was shot, Joan was seated between William Gargan and Walter Catlett. Gargan, who played her love interest, responded to Joan’s conversation of her roles in recent movies with “I’ve never seen you on the screen in my life.” When she started talking to Catlett, who played Quartermaster Bates, about her interpretation of Sadie, the acidic comic who was enjoying a supply of bootleg rye, responded with “Listen, fish-cake, when Jeanne Eagels died, Rain died with her.” Joan ended up isolating herself in her cottage every evening, playing Bing Crosby records over and over until the other members could scarcely stand them. During her emotional scenes, Joan asked Milestone to erect black-cloth screens to shield the set from outside viewers. When the company returned to MGM for interiors, Joan felt like she had won a reprieve from hell. Except for part of a review I read in Photoplay, the other critiques were poor. Even Joan was convinced that she did the job “badly”. And sadly, her fans not only agreed but let her know through the most explicit letters that she had thoroughly disappointed them. They repeatedly wrote her that they thought her portrayal of Sadie Thompson was “vulgar” and “cheap” and to her this could mean only one thing—that she was no longer a star!
However, in retrospect, when we review Rain now, we can see that the film was severely underrated by the critics of the day and that Joan was—perhaps unperceptively conscious—creating her own unique and formidable interpretation of Sadie. Sadie’s first appearance is one of the most exciting entrances on the screen: first a right bangled and be-ringed arm and hand, then a left, next the white, high-heeled, FM shoes, and suddenly, THERE SHE IS, cigarette parting her pretty, over-painted mouth, leaning against the doorway with the casual, negligently provocative posture of a woman thoroughly sure of what men want from her. And knowing what she can expect and get from them. You’d never think someone who looks like that and with her life experiences would ever feel much in the way of insecurity! So much for perception versus reality.
Bibliography: Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson Crawford’s Men by Jane Ellen Wayne Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star by Alexander Walker The Films of Joan Crawford by Lawrence J. Quirk Joan Crawford, a Biography by Bob Thomas