“Young Fellah” was Cecil B. DeMille’s pet name for his star, Gloria Swanson, whom I recently enjoyed and “got” for the first time in Raoul Walsh’s SADIE THOMPSON.
Here’s the thing — Swanson’s self-parody in SUNSET BLVD is so dead-on accurate and unsparing, it might seem to serve as a tombstone for her whole career. There was nothing left afterwards but self-parody, inadvertent this time. And everything before seems to be dismissed by the portrayal of Norma Desmond as a deluded egomaniac.
But I was judging way too soon when I thought along those lines. I’d only seen BEYOND THE ROCKS, a mediocre Sam Wood melodrama with a preposterous, meandering plot, in which Rudolph Valentino and Swanson strike no sparks, and almost seem to be trapped in different dimensions. SADIE THOMPSON is Swanson unleashed, and she has a leading man she relates to, in the unlikely form of the film’s director, Raoul Walsh himself.
I’m a huge, idolatrous fan of Lewis Milestone’s pre-code RAIN (1932), one of the most cinematically exciting films of its age, in which Walter Huston is impeccably awful as Davidson the reformer, playing without any of the usual disguise that actors use to say “Don’t worry, *I’m* not like this really!” Joan Crawford is incredible as Sadie, another performance slightly tainted by Billy Wilder — Tony Curtis’s lipstick in SOME LIKE IT HOT echoes Joan’s to an alarming degree. So the Walsh film had to really work to win me over. And despite the fact that the film’s last reel is lost, which ought to considerable blunt its power, I found it an incredible experience, probably on a par with its illustrious successor.
Lionel Barrymore makes a very sound Davidson, hinting at the man’s inner depravity far more than Huston does (maybe Barrymore just has that kind of face, but the script also foreshadows more heavily than the Milestone), but its Swanson who makes the difference. Boisterous, boyish and sometimes mannish, she explodes into the film with slapstick excess, showing that while she may not have enjoyed working for Mack Sennett, she still picked up invaluable lessons in knockabout. Swanson is blessed with perhaps the unloveliest smile ever to disfigure a leading lady, but it works beautifully here: Sadie’s glamour derives from being the youngest white woman on Pago Pago, and she’s a tramp. An excess of charm would be counterproductive. All Swanson’s potential defects work to her advantage here: dumpy build, sausage arms, thin lips, horsey face. There’s no attempt to conceal them, they’re all useful elements of Sadie’s lusty, unselfconscious appeal. It took nearly the whole movie to find Swanson in any way physically attractive, but she started to appeal as a personality immediately.
Swanson’s helped by Walsh, who’s wonderfully unaffected. His characterisation was probably the same as his direction: appreciating Gloria for everything she could do. She gets all the pyrotechnics, while Walsh appears laid-back, even when squaring for a fight. Sleepy-eyed, with an odd smile that appears crooked without being asymmetrical, and appears bashful without coyness.
My experience of early Walsh is limited, but there’s certainly a world of contrast between THIEF OF BAGDAD and this. I haven’t seen enough to know if this is a result of Walsh’s technique leaping forward in the intervening four years, as many filmmakers’ did, or if THIEF was deliberately retro in style (I suspect in part it was).
Designer William Cameron Menzies makes the usual atmospheric use of bead curtains and mosquito nets, but the big effect is the way Trader Horn’s whole establishment seems to sag under the continuous downpour. A subtler kind of expressionism than his big effects in BELOVED ROGUE or whatever, because you believe it on a naturalistic level. The turnstile made from a tree stump and a broken oar is a nice touch too, and in the scene where Barrymore makes Swanson kneel, the window behind him is a writhing morass of waving foliage and rain: looks like a Japanese tentacle monster attack, which is not inappropriate for the scene’s true meaning.
By the end, I was enjoying the film so much I was terrified that the truncated ending would ruin my pleasure, but the restoration, though it’s unable to do much about moments of severe nitrate decomposition along the way, cobbles together a satisfactory patchwork finish that at least wraps the story up in a way that’s as smooth as one could hope for, considering. So that the impression that remains is that of a mature film of the late silent era, showcasing a strange and dazzling performer.
Nitrate decomposition as poetic commentary: Sadie kneels to pray, and dissolves in a heavenward spray of beam-me-up-Scotty effulgence.
Americans, buy this sucker –
Sadie Thompson (Silent) [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]