Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sadie Thompson

Format: Internet video on laptop.

I don’t watch a great deal of silent film, and when I do, I tend to prefer comedies over dramas. When I decided to give Sadie Thompson a go, it was not without some reservation. Part of the reason I was doing this more out of obligation than desire is that silent dramas are so often heavy-handed when it comes to the meaning. Part of it was the knowledge that the original last reel of the film has been lost, meaning that what is there at the end is stills, with the best approximation of the story available. The chance to see Gloria Swanson as a young actress was a draw, though. I really only know Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, so seeing her at the height of her career got me interested.

Sadly, Sadie Thompson is pretty standard fare when it comes to silent dramas. Everything is played larger than life and people are their character traits to an extreme. We start with the arrival of a boat in Tutulia in the south Pacific. Our title character, played by a young Gloria Swanson, is a woman of questionable virtue headed for the island of Apia where she claims to have a job waiting. Also on board are the Davidsons (Lionel Barrymore and Blanche Friderici) who are renowned as reformers of the old school. In other words, they are religious zealots who want to save the pagan natives from their pagan-y ways.

It’s no surprise that Sadie runs afoul of the Davidsons right away. However, she also attracts the favorable attention of a soldier named Tim O’Hara (director Raoul Walsh) who isn’t troubled by the fact that she was likely recently a prostitute in San Francisco. The two eventually agree that she’ll head to Sydney and when he’s done with his military career, he’ll head there and they’ll get married.

None of this sits well with Davidson, though, who demands that Sadie return to San Francisco immediately. Because of his reputation as a reformer, the governor of the island agrees, then relents, saying that Sadie can indeed go to Sydney if Davidson agrees. He doesn’t of course, demanding instead that Sadie repent for her sins, confess everything to Jesus and be washed in the blood of the Lamb. And, this being a film made in the late 1920s, of course she eventually succumbs and comes to think that the only way out for her is to return to San Francisco, where she will be arrested for a crime she didn’t commit and sent to prison to serve out a sentence she doesn’t deserve. Ah, but this is the penance that the self-righteous Davidson requires of poor Sadie, and the girl has fallen under his spell.

And…the last reel is missing, dammit. Hollywood has never really liked the self-righteous or hypocritical, though, which means that the last reel can’t be anything good for Davidson, who is obviously attracted against his will to the sexy Sadie. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone of a dogmatic religious bent was overreacting to cover for his own carnal desires, after all.

My biggest issue with the film is the bulk of the second act, although I can’t say I’m terribly surprised at the way it plays out. This part of the film is filled with hyper-religious moralizing, which I found incredibly unpleasant. The thing is this—it makes sense that a heretic like me would find the proselytization to be ugly, but this is done in a way that I think even the most dedicated believer would find that sequence equally unpleasant. Davidson is a moral thug. While I find this part of the film distasteful for what I consider a fairly accurate portrayal of religious dogma taken to its logical extreme, those of a more religious bent will no doubt find this to be a merciless antithesis of what they feel their religion should be.

I can’t claim to have enjoyed this film because I didn’t enjoy it. It’s openly manipulative, although that’s not a terrible shock, since it comes close to the dawn of the film industry. It is interesting to see Gloria Swanson at this stage in her career, though, and I did enjoy it for that. It lends a whole new perspective on Sunset Boulevard for one thing.

It’s also worth noting that in addition to the missing last reel, there are large sections of this film that have deteriorated badly and are in desperate need of repair.

Why to watch Sadie Thompson: Gloria Swanson in her heyday.
Why not to watch: It’s preachy and melodramatic, even for a silent film.


  1. Interesting post! Besides Sunset Blvd. and Airport 1975, shockingly, I haven't seen any other Gloria Swanson performances. Just looking over her filmography, apparently 15 of her 50 feature films are also considered lost. As you, i'm definitely interested (feel obligated) in taking a look at her silent film work.

    1. A film like this one puts perspective on Swanson's performance in Sunset Boulevard. When you realize that in a lot of ways she was Norma Desmond, that film becomes even greater.

  2. I just caught up with this thanks to TCM and I agree it's all you say. Of course without the over earnest preaching there wouldn't be much of a film and the Joan Crawford remake "Rain" followed this pretty closely.

    Not long after sound came in Lionel Barrymore's health declined sharply so he always seemed rather decrepit, it was interesting to see him as a younger vibrant handsome man even it he was a bit overemphatic. But the main inducement for me was seeing Swanson in her first nominated performance. I've seen a few of her other silents, and her first talkie The Trespasser, and she's almost always without reservation the best thing in them. It's easy to see why she did well in silents, her eyes are huge and very expressive and for a small woman she owns her space-her force of personality is strong. So she enlivens this film and it was also was cool to see Raoul Walsh in a different capacity than directing but I can't imagine watching again. The loss of that final reel is also a letdown.

    In regards to those other silents of hers there probably aren't any that you'd enjoy since her main venue was drama in what at the time were fancy clothes and now look like drapes. Avoid Beyond the Rocks at all costs!!-I watched it because it had been lost for decades then a print was discovered in Sweden and it was a costarring vehicle for Swanson and Rudolph Valentino (a star whose appeal has not translated across time) but it was dull and static.

    1. I've seen a couple of Valentino films. I agree his appeal hasn't translated well, but viewed through an old lens, I can see why he was such a huge star. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one I've stumped for to be on the 1001 Movies list, and it would have been a better choice to represent Valentino than the rather stiff and ludicrous The Eagle.

      Swanson was absolutely deserving of her star status. I can't imagine I'd want to watch Sadie Thompson again any time soon, but she'd be the reason to see it again. If only silent dramas weren't so consistently goofy I'd be more likely to spend more time with them. Comedies and horror tend to be the silents that translate to the modern day the best, at least for me.