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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
This story, by Somerset Maugham, has been filmed many times in the last seventy-odd years, but this is the first. I cannot say that it is the best of all possible adaptations; a tacked-on sub-plot (involving a romance with an amorous quartermaster) helps the exposition but dilutes the icy cynicism of the basic story, the missionary and his wife are clumsy caricatures of hellfire and brimstone puritanism, while Joan Crawford's "low-class" accent is more irritating than it is believable -- one is relieved when she forgets to use it. Yet it shines.
The story is told only partially through the script, which seems less wordy than most early talkies: many important points are made purely visually, from the overflowing rainbarrel in the opening sequence to the high-heeled shoe that signals Sadie's return to her prior way of life. The camera *moves*: around tables, in and around groups of people, in and out of doors with incredible smoothness. Crawford's face is also a focus: from her initial "good-time gal" flirting with the sailors to the incredible sequence where she (apparently) converts, she leers, pouts, weeps, and more importantly, knows when to stop, in the three scenes she appears (seemingly) without makeup.
When Rev. Davidson soothes her in her extremis by telling her in a hypnotic voice (backed by native drums) that she is now "radiant, beautiful, one of the daughters of the King" (a moment of sheer unearthly poetry that verges on psychosis), we believe him -- and her. We also believe Huston's face a moment later, as he prays alone, grimaces unreadably, and suddenly resolves into a look of predatory lust just before slipping into her room, the drums implacably beating in the background.
Small excellences abound: the natives are portrayed sympathetically, and for the time, fairly accurately-- I especially liked the use of Polynesian music, which, along with the Sadie's hot jazz records, emphasises the sensual nature of life in the tropics. The subject of her profession is handled tastefully, but frankly and with humor: in referring to a friend's marriage to a sister fille de joie, the quartermaster remarks that they initally met "illegally" and goes on to say that since they met seeing each other at their worst, they can appreciate seeing each other at their best. A running counterpoint is provided by Dr. McPhail, a more-or-less neutral bystander, and Mr. Horne, the genial (and generally supinely drunk) innkeeper, who fusses, chortles, philosophizes, and gets most of the movie's best lines.
Perhaps the best of these occurs sometime after Sadie's conversion: lolling indolently, he reads from a small book something that sounds incredibly like Ecclesiates-- for a moment, we nearly believe that Davidson has converted him, too. Then, finishing the passage, he intones, "Thus spoke Zarathustra.... Good old Nietzche!"
Sixty-five years later, watching the film on a postage-stamp-sized screen of Real Video, I nearly fell out of my chair.
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