Merry Christmas and welcome to our final ever Film Friday! We’re returning to one of our earliest spotlighted stars, Joan Crawford (1904-1977), and featuring some of the remaining Pre-Codes we’ve yet to cover. Elsewhere on this blog, we’ve covered Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Letty Lynton (1932), Dancing Lady (1933), and Sadie McKee (1934). So far in this final series we’ve covered Paid (1930), Laughing Sinners (1931), and This Modern Age (1931). We’re ending it all today with . . .
A missionary tries to reform a streetwalker trapped on a Pacific island. Starring Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, William Gargan, and Guy Kibbee. Story by W. Somerset Maugham. Based on the play by John Colton and C. Randolph. Screen adaptation by Maxwell Anderson. Directed by Lewis Milestone.
“A ship docks in rainy, tropical Pago Pago, discharging among others, Alfred Davidson, a self-righteous missionary, his prim, proper wife, and Sadie Thompson, a woman with an unsavory background. Sometime later, a cholera epidemic forces them to remain quarantined on the island, and Davidson decides he will reform Sadie and save her immortal soul. When she spurns his offer, Davidson has the governor order her deportation to San Francisco. She begs Davidson to allow her to remain a few more days, so she can sail to Sydney, Australia instead, but during the argument, she experiences a religious conversion and agrees to return to San Francisco and the jail sentence that is waiting for her there.
“The evening before she is to leave, Sergeant “Handsome” O’Hara, who has fallen in love with Sadie, asks her to marry him and offers to hide her until the Sydney boat sails, but she is under Davidson’s spell and refuses. Later, while native drums beat, Davidson succumbs to her beauty and accosts her. The next morning, he is found dead, a suicide. Now disillusioned with Davidson’s teachings, Sadie becomes her old self and plans to go off to Sydney with O’Hara to start a new life.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
This is the most faithful adaptation of the notorious 1922 play that skyrocketed its star, Jeanne Eagels, to legendary acclaim. The first screen version came near the end of the silent era with Gloria Swanson as the infamous Sadie Thompson, but with a story that centers around a prostitute and takes its drama from the proven hypocrisy of religious zealots, Rain is an ideal Pre-Code. At least, that’s what Joan Crawford thought when she begged to be loaned out to UA to tackle this iconic role. Unfortunately, if you’ve read anything at all about the history of this motion picture (which is now in the public domain and can be seen anywhere and everywhere — from YouTube to Netflix), you’ll know that following critical derision, the actress would come to cite this as among her worst motion pictures.
Obviously, Crawford’s far from objective about her work, and it’s disheartening to note that her self-worth is inseparable from public opinion. For in addition to being nowhere near her worst film (even excluding the post-MGM years), Crawford gives a surprisingly commendable performance. Well . . . kind of. The star is utterly committed to transforming herself into this Pago Pago tart, but there’s no doubt that she so desperately wants to be taken seriously as an actress. As a result, it’s difficult for the audience to accept her as Sadie Thompson, for Crawford’s own personal ambition eclipses even Sadie’s fire. And then, it must be noted that Rain came at the wrong time in her career, especially since her celluloid persona was already in such a state of flux (from flapper to shopgirl). Couple this with the indelible memory of Eagels (and even Swanson), and it’s understandable why her fans couldn’t appreciate this effort upon its release.
And this is a shame, because Crawford really can handle the role. Of course, the results only half-prove this, for her performance is plagued not only by our inability to believe the casting, but by the occasional choice – tantamount to a wrong note being hit on the piano – that strikes us as odd and pulls us out of the narrative. Thus, I put all of the blame for Crawford’s performance on the director, who imbues the film with its languidly insipid pace and denies its star the able hand that could have shaped her turn as Sadie Thompson into a triumph and changed the course of Crawford’s career. The film is lifeless, and although its theatrical origins necessitate a strong reliance on dialogue, if the film had any rhythm — any rhythm at all — the audience would have an easier time WANTING to invest in the story. And, naturally, if Crawford was more consistent, this film would be hailed as a Pre-Code classic.
Yet credit must be given where it’s due, and despite the poor performative direction, the film is shot gorgeously; from the beautiful images of the production’s titular downpour to the luminous shots of Crawford herself, Rain is a feast for the eyes. And also, many of the supporting players, though sometimes too interwoven into the awful pace, are well cast — particularly the always delightful Guy Kibbee as Horn the innkeeper and Walter Huston as the icy cold “reformer” who gives into red hot lust in the final reel, nevertheless managing to imbue his trite dialogue with just enough sense to make it seem as desirable to us as it does to Sadie. Sure, it’s a melodramatic portrayal, but it seems to honor the text, and it works. So despite the obvious flaws, Rain isn’t a deluge of disappointment. It’s wrong almost as often as it’s right, but due to Crawford’s unique turn and the story’s Pre-Code sensibilities, 1932’s Rain is an easy one to recommend.
Tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! Although this will be the last regular Film Friday post on this blog, I can assure you that we will still be covering Pre-Code films about once a month on upcoming Wildcard Wednesdays. And instead of featuring good films alongside mediocre ones, we’ll be turning our attention to the finest of the finest and the era’s most seminal. So, please believe me when I tell you that the best is yet to come — because it really is!