Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)

Miss Sadie Thompson was the third screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s classic short story Rain (originally published as Miss Thompson. The second adaptation, made in 1932 under the title Rain and starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston is in my opinion one of the great Hollywood movies. A remake of this movie in 1953 was always going to have problems, and Miss Sadie Thompson has a multitude of problems.

The plot remains substantially faithful to Maugham’s story. A steamer docks at a small South Pacific island. The passengers are expecting to stay for a day or two but one of the sailors is diagnosed with typhus and the island is placed under quarantine. The passengers will be stuck there for at least a week. The passengers include a doctor and how wife. The doctor represents a scientific, enlightened and tolerant view of the human condition. Also on the passenger list is a missionary Dr Davidson (José Ferrer) and his wife, on a tour of inspection of the mission hospital on the island. Dr Davidson represents an unscientific, bigoted and exceptionally intolerant view of the human condition.

And there’s one more passenger, Miss Sadie Thompson (Rita Hayworth). The marines stationed on the island immediately recognise Sadie as a girl who enjoys a good time. A good time with men. Lots of men. To say she’s an instant hit with the marines would be an understatement. As the doctor remarks, the situation has arrived and it has the marines well in hand.

Dr Davidson is alarmed at the threat that Sadie represents to the moral fibre of the island community, not to mention the effect she’s having on the marines. He has no doubt that wicked women like Sadie must be destroyed before they corrupt the morals of simple folk like the islanders and the marines. In fact the marines are practically queueing up to have Sadie corrupt the morals. The stage is set for a showdown between two mutually incompatible moral outlook, and Dr Davidson is convinced he knows enough about Sadie’s past to destroy her.

Surprisingly the problems are not what you’d expect. Given that the subject matter of Maugham’s story would be enough to give anyone at the Production Code Administration apoplexy you’d think the story would have been severely watered down. But that’s not really the case. For a 1953 movie it’s quite daring. The word prostitute is uttered more than once.

The next paragraph contains spoilers for this movie.

And it’s made very clear that Dr Davidson rapes Sadie. And while in the 1932 version you could argue that Sadie was deliberately provoking the preacher, you can’t make that argument in this case. He rapes her because she is powerless, because no-one will take the word of a known prostitute against that of a preacher, and he rapes her because he hates and fears her. Sadie has done nothing to provoke such a response. It’s hard to think of any 1950s movie that shows a clergyman in a worse light than this film.

The ending is a clumsy attempt to have it both ways, to satisfy the censor while still trying to have an ending that is both happy and moral. It is only possible because Sadie herself has been turned into an innocuous good-time girl who is really only waiting for a nice guy to come along to jump at the chance of marriage, respectability and babies.

End spoilers.

So why does the film fail? Partly because of a ill-advised attempt to turn it into a emi-musical, which is totally incompatible with the very dark plot. Partly because the role of Dr Davidson and his relationship with Sadie is poorly developed, and José Ferrer in nowhere near as good an actor as Walter Huston. And partly because Rita Hayworth is completely wrong for the role of Sadie. She was a fine actress but she was no Joan Crawford, and she is unable to explore the depths of the character the way Crawford did. Crawford’s Sadie is a much stronger character and the struggle between her and the preacher has a kind of epic quality to it. Crawford’s Sadie is both more conniving and more sympathetic, a degree of complexity that Hayworth simply cannot match (at least not given the rather unsatisfactory script that she has to work with).

The Technicolor photography actually works against the movie, robbing it of the claustrophobic feel that made the 1932 version so effective.

The Columbia Region 4 DVD is rather poor - it’s very grainy and the Technicolor cinematography seem rather drab.

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