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John Francis Dillon
Robert Emmett O'Connor
Sadie Thompson arrives in Pago-Pago to start a new life, but when extremist missionary Davidson lashes out against her lifestyle and tries to force her back to San Francisco, she may lose her second chance. Written by
Mike Myers <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Piercing drama on an isle in the tropic South Seas! The star of stars in the picture of pictures! Gloria Swanson, glorious exponent of emotion, in the finest film of her career! "Sadie's" the lady you'll never forget! See more »
"No matter how tough it is today, it's bound to be worse tomorrow"
For those who would pigeonhole Raoul Walsh as an "action master" or "man's director", this small-focus drama with a female protagonist might seem at odds with his image. In fact, while he was a versatile director who could turn out a rousing action scene, it was the drama particularly in the relationships between individuals that was Walsh's greatest strength. Sadie Thompson in fact shows us his mastery of the technique in its purest form.
Walsh himself made the adaptation from the play "Rain", not as easy a task as it sounds a play has to convey action through dialogue, while a silent film does the exact opposite. Sadie Thompson begins with a series of autograph mottos from each character, a rather clumsy way to introduce character. This is immediately followed however with a particularly smooth bit of film-making. We are given a point-of-view shot, as Swanson looks down at the group of soldiers on the shore, then we cut back to her, and the camera pulls back as she descends the gang plank. A few shots later the camera is dollying forward, following Swanson and the soldiers hovering around her. In this handful of shots we are subtly informed of Miss Thompson's profession, but also with those attention-grabbing point-of-view shots and camera movements we, the audience, are placed into the position of the characters. Walsh has drawn us into the story at this crucial establishing moment.
Considering it only really revolves around two developing relationships that between Sadie and Tim, and that between Sadie and Davidson the main part of the film is like a tour-de-force of different ways to shoot interaction between two people. The scenes between Swanson and Walsh are given the customary tenderness of a regular romance, with some delicate shot compositions that give it a natural, harmonious feel. The relationship between Swanson and Barrymore in contrast is full of intensity lots of cuts, faces framed in stark close-up. What is particularly neat, is that all of the major dialogue scenes begin with a fair few title cards getting the unavoidable wordy bits out of the way first but then the dialogue fizzles out and the interaction continues with just the images, back and forth.
Of course, the effectiveness of the drama would be lost without great acting and, yes, this probably is Swanson's finest performance prior to Sunset Boulevard. I think Swanson was at her best when she was really allowed to let go, and put all her energy into a character, and to say she does that here would be an understatement. Lionel Barrymore is fine as the archetypal repressed Christian, a little hammy perhaps but then, he is a Barrymore. And Walsh himself absolutely acts his socks off, actually turning in the deepest performance of the picture, and the fact that his acting days were soon to be cut short is one of several tragedies regarding his career.
Speaking of tragedies, looming over Sadie Thompson is the unfortunate loss of the final reel, which has since been semi-reconstructed with stills and titles. While what we see today suffers from a very noticeable lack of a climax, the dramatic build up comes close to perfection. Considering its small scale and lack of action, Sadie Thompson was apparently a massive popular success. In his autobiography Raoul Walsh quotes several letters he apparently received from prostitutes of various nationalities which, while they may well have been fabricated or exaggerated slightly, are probably accurate at least in tone. By contrast the 1932 talkie version was a flop, despite an equally great cast, testament to Walsh's talent as a director of powerful cinematic drama.
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