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For residents on the idyllic South Seas island of Pago Pago, life is simple until a boat arrives carrying two couples, the Davidsons (who are missionaries), the MacPhails and a prostitute named Sadie Thompson. Davidson is more than just a religious zealot; he's a mad man. When the boat, which was en route to another port, is temporarily stranded on the island due to a possible Cholera outbreak on-board, Sadie spends her time "partying" with the American soldiers stationed on the island. Her behavior, however, is more than the Davidsons can stand and soon Mr. Davidson confronts Sadie about her evil ways and offers salvation. When Sadie rebels and the attempted redemption does not go as planned, Davidson arranges to have her sent back to San Francisco, where she fled some years ago due to mysterious personal issues. Davidson soon becomes unhinged and thus begins a series of surprising events which culminate in disaster. Written by
RAIN (United Artists, 1932), directed by Lewis Milestone, from the short story about sex, sin and salvation by W. Somerset Maugham, stars Miss Joan Crawford (courtesy of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Company), in one of her most prestigious movie roles that stands in a class by itself. Originating as a 1922 stage play starring Broadway's legendary Jeanne Eagles, it first appeared on screen during the silent era as SADIE THOMPSON (United Artists, 1928), starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. Regardless of its then controversial subject matter, it did well at the box office, earning Swanson an Academy Award nomination. Four years later, it was remade as RAIN. Considering what might have been logical choice in having Swanson and Barrymore reprising their original roles with spoken dialog in place of title cards, Crawford and Walter Huston, forceful screen personalities, were fine substitutes. Unfortunately, lightning or heavy rains didn't strike twice, for that Crawford's sound adaptation reportedly became a box-office flop. The fault might have been for its bad timing, remaking a film so close to its original, and Jeanne Eagles still being in the memory of those who have witnessed her performance on stage, yet had RAIN been distributed a few years later, it might have met with problems with the censors and production code, thus, not having that spark of solid dialog that this version has, and yet, probably would not have had that "filmed stage play" appearance either. The camera does take time out for some location viewing of the Cataline Islands, where portions of the film were reportedly lensed.
For the benefit of those who are totally unfamiliar with the Maugham story and/or the movie itself, the plot is set in Pago Pago, the Samoan island where a group of steamer passengers are forced to remain because of a minor epidemic on board. And due to the heavy rains, they find they must stay a little longer than anticipated. Among the passengers entering the island's general store/hotel run by Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee) and his native wife (Mary Shaw) are Doctor Robert MacPhail (Matt Moore), a philosopher, and wife, Nina (Kendall Lee); Alfred and Martha Davidson (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi), a missionary couple, among others. Entertaining the Marines in her state room is Miss Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford), a prostitute, who enjoys the company of men, playing loud jazzy music and cigarette smoking. She quickly catches the eye of Sergeant Tim O'Hara (William Gargan) but the disapproval of Davidson, who objects to her immoral ways such as drinking and smoking on the Sabbath. At first Davidson forces himself upon her to reform. All he finds is that his religious persistence annoys her and that Sadie can be equally demanding and powerful as he. Sadie tries to meet him half way when she learns that she must return to San Francisco and serve a three year prison sentence, and becomes bitter when Davidson won't give in to her pleas. Eventually Davidson does succeed in saving Sadie's immortal soul by cleansing her from her sins, but in turn, Davidson soon finds himself being lead into temptation and unable to be delivered from evil.
For many years, RAIN has earned the reputation as being one of Crawford's mistakes. On the contrary, it's Crawford's performance that keeps the story together. For the first hour, she appears with cat eyes, heavy makeup, curly hair, cigarette, birth mark under the left side of her chin and wearing a tight checkered dress. Her transformation scene occurring later having Crawford's Sadie cleansed from her sins and appearing pure at heart, is surprisingly effective. Walter Huston almost upstages Crawford every which way he can. He, too, gives a solid performance as the Reverend Davidson. The famous scene where Davidson recites the Lord's prayer with the swearing Sadie suddenly reciting the prayer with him, is one of the film's true memorable moments. This scene itself became a clip used for the mid 1970s TV show, "Don Adams Screen Test," for young hopefuls to re-enact this particular scene and win a trip to Hollywood and a part in an upcoming TV show or motion picture. Up to then, RAIN was winning a new audience.
Director Milestone was given a difficult task in keeping the pace moving by circling the camera around, moving it at all different angles so not to focus on the central characters for any length of time. His directing technique might not meet with much appreciation today, but his overlooked method as to how to develop the story and characters on a set stage are evident here. Along with forceful dialog, Milestone full takes advantage of this new medium of sound with the use of repeated rain heard falling on the ground and rooftops. The Alfred Newman underscoring benefits the film as well.
I first came across RAIN when it made a special television presentation on WNEW, Channel 5, in New York City, June 10, 1973. Preceding the movie was a surprise presentation by Joan Crawford herself giving her profile about working in RAIN. Initially released at 93 minutes, a 77 minute print was presented during its 90 minute time slot with commercial interruptions. By the 1980s, however, RAIN became one of many public domain titles distributed to home video, mostly in full length. Cable television presentations shortly afterwards, ranging from Arts and Entertainment and the Learning Channel (1980s), American Movie Classics (1991-2000) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere March 8, 2007).
Columbia updated the Maugham story to post World War I as MISS SADIE THOMPSON (1953) starring Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer, with the addition of Technicolor and songs. Of the three screen incarnations of Sadie Thompson vs. The Reverend Davidson (The Prostitute and the Reformer), RAIN (1932) is the best known and revived, especially on rainy day. Although the film itself has aged, the story itself hasn't. (**1/2)
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