Friday, May 12, 2023

Rain (1932), Blu-Ray review

Lewis Milestone’s tropical melodrama Rain (1932) was based on a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, which in turn was based on an excellent short story by W. Somerset Maugham. The story had been filmed in the silent era as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. In 1953 would come Miss Sadie Thompson, a disastrously sanitised squeaky-clean version with Rita Hayworth.

It’s the story of a power struggle between a prostitute and a preacher man.

The steamer has just arrived in Pago Pago. The passengers include Dr Macphail and his wife and hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) and his malevolent wife. And also among the passengers is Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). Davison and his wife were intending to leave on the following day on a schooner for a voyage to a remote island but a cholera outbreak among the schooner’s crew means they will be stuck in Pago Pago for two weeks. Sadie is leaving as soon as she can, for Apia.

It is raining. The rain is relentless and demoralising.

They are all stuck in the town’s only hotel, which is also the general store, run by the genial Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee).

Davidson and his wife are scandalised by Sadie’s behaviour. She entertains men (Marines from a nearby base) in her room. They listen to music and they dance. Even worse, they laugh. Davidson and his wife know sin when they see it.

Davidson is determined to save Sadie’s soul. If he can’t do that he intends to destroy her. Sin must be rooted out. There is an easy way to destroy her - by persuading the governor to deport her back to the United States. Sadie cannot go back to the States. We assume that she may have had an unfortunate misunderstanding with the authorities there.

At first it seems that Sadie is hopelessly outgunned. Davidson is a fanatic and he has powerful backers so he can force the governor to do his bidding.

This being a pre-code movie we can of course never be sure how the story will end. After 1934 virtue would have to triumph over vice and Sadie would have to suffer some suitable punishment (death being the preferred punishment for immoral women under the Production Code). But in a pre-code move anything can happen.

There are some good supporting performances. Guy Kibbee is as delightful as always. Beulah Bondi as Mrs Davidson gives us a creepy portrait of savage religious bigotry.

But this movie belongs to Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. It’s a joy to watch these two facing off. Both had immense screen presence and charisma. There is some subtlety in the characterisation of Sadie. She has her vulnerable side. She was not the aggressor. She just wanted to be left alone. She just cannot understand the determination of Davidson and his wife to destroy her. But Crawford shows us plenty of Sadie’s fun side as well. She’s a very good-natured bad girl. Crawford’s performance is a times just a bit mannered.

Walter Huston captures the chilling quality of the pious fanatic superbly. Huston was always at his best playing driven obsessive characters with an edge of fanaticism. Mr Davidson has no redeeming qualities. He is incapable of admitting that he could ever be wrong and he is merciless when he decides that someone is a sinner who must be destroyed.

It’s interesting that at no time is Sadie actually described as a prostitute, and we never see her engaging in prostitution. We assume that she has been earning her living for most of her life as a prostitute and it’s clear that every other character in the movie makes the same assumption. But the word is not used. I’m inclined to think that this wasn’t entirely due to timidity of the part of director Lewis Milestone or writer Maxwell Anderson. It’s necessary for the audience to be totally on Sadie’s side and it’s significant that we never actually see her commit a single immoral act. The audience is therefore primed to see Sadie as being a totally innocent victim of Davidson’s persecution.

This is contrast to both the short story and the play in which Sadie is openly plying her trade as a prostitute in Pago Pago. And it gives the movie an added punch. Sadie is being punished by Mr and Mrs Davidson for sins which exist only in their fevered repressed imaginations. And these are sins that are all the more heinous because they’re imaginary.

The theme of the movie is clearly the conflict between those who wish to control other people’s lives and those who want to be free to make their own choices. There are also internal conflicts within Mr and Mrs Davidson. They not only seek to control the lives of others, they are also subjecting themselves to rigid control. They are, if you want to get Freudian, repressed. They are so obsessed by sin that they will not allow any joy into their own lives. They are horrified by sex but it goes beyond that - any kind of fun is something for which they torture themselves with guilt.

There’s a certain inevitability about the ending and it’s an ending that would have been impossible two years later under the Production Code.

There are two crucial scenes in the movie, one of which is the key to Sadie’s character arc, the other being the key to Davidson’s character arc. If a viewer doesn’t buy these scenes then the movie won’t quite work for that person. Both scenes have been criticised for coming out of the blue, without a sufficient groundwork being laid. I don’t entirely accept those criticisms, although perhaps the groundwork needed to be laid a bit more thoroughly. I can’t say any more without giving away spoilers but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll find to which scenes I’m referring. Those two scenes are also crucial when it comes to judging the performances of Crawford and Huston.

Rain is an incredibly interesting movie. Whether you think it’s a great movie depends on the extent to which you enjoy Crawford’s performance (I did enjoy it). It’s one of the must-see pre-code movies. Very highly recommended.

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