A film that is graced by a few poetic touches, Rain is not to be confused with the celebrated film, one of the ten best films ever made, also called Rain (1929)—or, to be precise, Regen, which means Rain in Dutch. We are not talking here about that unassailable masterpiece, directed by Joris Ivens and Mannus Frånken—a documentary following the course of an Amsterdam rain shower. I am talking instead about a minor piece of work, made four years after Raoul Walsh’s popular silent film Sadie Thompson (1928), starring Gloria Swanson in the title role: an obscure early sound remake, also based (by way of a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph) on W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson.” The director is Lewis Milestone, who, rather than making an honest film of Erich Remarque’s brilliant World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, made instead a sentimental travesty of it (1930), winning an Oscar scarcely less ridiculous, I am sorry to say, than numerous other Oscars won by “directors,” producers and studios. Rain is not quite cut from the same wet cloth as Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front,* but the screenplay is again written by playwright Maxwell Anderson.
Those who remember this nearly forgotten film do so, likely, on two grounds: its bravura opening; its lead performance. This time out, Joan Crawford plays Sadie Thompson, the prostitute quarantined with others docked on a Samoan island following an outbreak of cholera on their tramp steamer. There, Reverend Alfred Davidson, another docked passenger, attempts to convert Thompson into a righteous Christian. Davidson, who is accompanied by his wife, temporarily succeeds, but, faced with his sexual obsession with the girl and the adultery he commits with her, commits suicide, causing Thompson, faced with the religious zealot’s Christian hypocrisy, to revert to her old ways. Crawford would go on to play other Sadie Thompson-types (for instance, in Frank Borzage’s 1940 Strange Cargo), while Rita Hayworth would have her own crack at the part, opposite José Ferrer’s Reverend Davidson, in Miss Sadie Thompson (Curtis Bernhardt, 1953). Legendary Jeanne Eagels had famously played the same character on stage.
The film opens on Pago Pago Island in the throes of a nighttime rainstorm. Shots of rain falling on various surfaces—for instance, leaves, sand, water in an overflowing pail—are intercut with shots of the dark, stormy sky. This is a visually impressive passage, as is another, capturing the stoppage of the rain, but both passages are cribbed; they plainly—and rainly—derive from the film by Ivens and Frånken. Milestone “borrows” the concept of these shots and the impressionism created by the style of the editing—brief shot after brief shot after brief shot—from Regen. Alfred Newman’s rich music adds to the moody power of these sequences. Another brief passage, showing native men singing as they fish in a shallow part of the sea with an enormous net, belongs to the same expressive batch of visual material that elevates Milestone’s film, interrupting the melodramatic story, stagy scenes, profuse dialogues. In effect, this worthwhile material lends poetic punctuation to an otherwise prosaic piece.
On the island, Davidson opposes both the natives, whom he believes to be “lost souls” who worship the false gods of “wind and waves,” and Thompson, whom he confronts in her quarters, interrupting her meal, telling her she can choose one of two paths: redemption, destruction. When Thompson refuses at this point to submit to his lead (she tells him later, “Your God and me could never be shipmates”), Davidson petitions the governor to have Thompson deported to San Francisco, where she will face a three-year stint in the state penitentiary for a crime for which she was framed. But Thompson has an ally in Sergeant O’Hara, one of the contingent of American military stationed on the island. Moreover, we glean a truth about Davidson that will prove to be his unraveling. Davidson credits his wife with sustaining his faith. Therefore, his later marital betrayal of her with Thompson will strike him as being tantamount to betraying his faith. Also, Davidson’s remark shows his reliance on women—a disastrous streak of dependency beneath his show of resoluteness and strength. Davidson’s dedication to the cause of leading Sadie to redemption, reminscent of Aschenbach’s fatal tarrying in Venice because he is drawn to Tadzio, in Thomas Mann’s 1912 Death in Venice (which Maugham may indeed have had in mind when he penned his story, which was published in 1921), suggests he is in the grip of his unconscious attraction to the prostitute even as he seems to hold her in his grip. The fine scene in which Davidson’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer finally subdues Thompson, who begins in defiance but ends up on her knees reciting the prayer along with Davidson, is, at one level, a moment of sexual sublimation, in which Sadie appears to be following the holy man’s lead. The higher position of Davidson vis-à-vis Sadie, with him on a staircase and her below, standing and then kneeling on the floor, suggests his power over her; but, after Sadie’s “conversion,” a two-shot emphasizes the level plane they inhabit—with one decisive, undercutting exception: Davidson’s face appears in shadow, while Sadie’s lit face draws the lion’s share of our attention. A spiritual aura now seems to highlight Sadie Thompson’s face. All this visually suggests that Sadie, not Davidson, now holds the upper hand in their relationship. The insistent beating of native drums—a blatant sexual suggestion—leads Davidson to Sadie’s quarters, where he finds bliss as brief as Sadie’s religious conversion, and seals his own doom.
Milestone’s pre-Hays Code Rain is indeed full of sexual images and devices, among them, the beating rain, at least in retrospect, once the beating drums revive our memory of it and come to symbolically incorporate it, and the brandishing of an upright corkscrew by a male character—symbolically, an erect phallus. During the early part of the film, although no sexual intercourse is shown, the suggestion hangs in the air that Sadie is “keeping company” with O’Hara, who comes to love her, and several other members of his platoon.
Joan Crawford’s Sadie Thompson was critically disparaged at the time, but it is now rightly regarded as one of her greatest performances. Crawford is raw, vibrant, touching, riveting; the nuanced vocal variety she brings to the role is highly unusual for Crawford. Curiously, the actress was enormously helped by her own deep insecurities. Crawford dreaded comparisons with Eagels and Swanson (her terror proved prophetic), and she did not get along with such experienced stage actors as Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi, who (well) play the Davidsons; nor did she cotton to the director, whose many rehearsals warred with her intuitive approach to acting. Sadly, Crawford accepted the critical judgments leveled against her brave, terrific performance; and, while her insecurity actually helped in this instance to bring Sadie’s appealing vulnerability to full view, those critical judgments perhaps joined with her insecurity to affect adversely a number of subsequent performances. Only near the close of the decade did Crawford do work somewhat comparable in quality—in Borzage’s Mannequin (1938) and as Crystal Allen, her bitchy, hilarious, curiously affecting contribution to George Cukor’s all-female The Women (1939).
William Gargan is excellent, also, as O’Hara.
* See my piece on Pork Chop Hill (1959), elsewhere on this site, for general remarks on Milestone’s life, career and limited filmmaking abilities.
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