Monday, June 14, 2010

Gloria Swanson "Sadie Thompson" (1928)

“Sadie Thompson” (1928) is a silent romantic drama starring Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore and Raoul Walsh. Directed by Raoul Walsh and based on Somerset Maugham’s story, “Miss Thompson,” this film is a social commentary on the hypocrisy and sexual mores of the day. The story begins on the South Pacific island of Pago Pago where San Francisco prostitute, Sadie Thompson, played by Gloria Swanson, seeks out a new life. However, Sadie makes little effort to curb her hedonism, especially when she becomes the plaything for U.S. marines stationed in the tiny island where she lives. Humble Sergeant Tim O’Hara, played by Raoul Walsh, woos Sadie, and she genuinely falls in love for the first time. This irritates visiting puritanical reformer, Alfred Davidson, played by Lionel Barrymore, who warns Sadie to repent or risk being deported to San Francisco where she will face her dark past. Terrified and overwhelmed, Sadie is seduced into redemption and reborn. Unfortunately, temptation is hard to resist.
Many film critics feel that “Sadie Thompson” (1928) is not only the best version of the Somerset Maugham story ever filmed, but also Gloria Swanson’s best performance. The last scenes are missing from the only existing print, but Dennis Doros of Milestone Films has restored and released the film using stills, remaining footage, and the original script to guide him. This enables today’s audience a chance to see the mature Swanson at the peak of her career and her beauty, performing confidently in a role that uses all her potential. Swanson was at this point totally unafraid to look and dress cheap. After all, Swanson had more than proved herself as a clotheshorse in the sophisticated comedies she had made with Cecil B. DeMille in the early twenties. Her expressive face is used equally well for scenes of flirtatious behavior, comic playfulness, desperate fear, and passionate anger. Swanson doesn’t vamp in her scenes as the sexy Sadie. Instead, she just moves forward as if she were an attractive woman who knows she is attractive and who likes men. When Sadie and Sergeant Tim O’Hara grow attracted to each other, their desire takes a playful form. Theirs is not steamy sex as depicted in “Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953) starring Rita Hayworth or “Rain” (1932) starring Joan Crawford. It is interesting that Walsh and Swanson create much of the film’s heat by their flirtatious behavior. Sparks definitely fly when Swanson and Barrymore fight throughout the film. However, when Sadie repents, Swanson just lets all the life go out of the character. It seems like the essence of who and what she was had been killed.

“Sadie Thompson” has excellent production values. One of Hollywood’s finest art directors, William Cameron Menzies, created the sets, and one of the cinematographers, George Barnes, went on to an impressive career that included Busby Berkeley musicals like “Gold Diggers of 1935” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca" (1940). Unfortunately, “Sadie Thompson” has some nitrate decomposition in some scenes. One of the things that impressed me the most about the film was the performances of Swanson, Barrymore, and Walsh. Raoul Walsh had begun his career with “Regeneration” (1915), an extraordinary film about slum life and redemption. Walsh went on to direct many major popular films of the sound era, including “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), "They Drive by Night" (1940), "High Sierra" (1941), "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941), and "White Heat" (1949). A passionate and beautiful production, "Sadie Thompson" would be Swanson's last great success in the silent era.

*It is interesting to note that Swanson was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in "Sadie Thompson" (1928).


  1. Silent, Awesome!! Pictures and movie review of Swanson, who has one of those on screen personalities who just jumps out at you.

  2. Another wonderful review of a silent movie that I have not been privileged to see yet. The story is so powerful, and it sounds like Swanson was up to it all the way. You forget just how beautiful she really was. So many people really know her only through her part as the aged actress in Sunset Boulevard. I've got to get hold of this one!

  3. Thanks Dawn and Becky, I think both of you would enjoy watching Swanson in her best performance of the silent era. Swanson delivered a very powerful performance, and she looked so beautiful in this film.


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