Saturday, August 21, 2021

Stubs - Rain (1932)

Rain (1932) Starring: Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, Matt Moore, William Gargan, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi Directed by Lewis Milestone. Screenplay by Maxwell Anderson. Based on the play Rain by John Colton and Clemence Randolph (New York, 7 Nov 1922) as adapted from the short story "Miss Thompson" by W. Somerset Maugham in The Smart Set (Apr 1921). Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Run time: 94 minutes. USA Black and White Drama. Pre-Code.

Hollywood loves to tinker with films and remake them, usually aimed at a new generation of moviegoers. Once sound had become the norm, silent films were considered passé and some of them were remade to take advantage of the “talkies”. Case in point, Rain. What had been a very successful silent film, Sadie Thompson (1928) starring Gloria Swanson, seemed ripe for a remake.

Based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, film adaptations had always been problematic. Even Swanson had to make changes to her film to get it past the Hays Office, even though there wasn’t yet an abiding Production Code. Swanson was able to get her film made by promising Will Hays that she would cut out anything that would reflect badly on the clergy. The same was true for this retelling as well.

In the original short story, Davidson is not a reverend and is referred to as Mr. Davidson and references to his sexless marriage were also dropped as well.

For the lead, Joan Crawford would seem to have been an odd choice, at least in retrospect. While her reputation has taken a tumble in recent years, in the early 1930s Joan was known for playing wealthy women in distress or hard-working young women who found romance and success. Prostitution was not something she was known for or which her considerable fan following was expecting her to portray.

Crawford also ran the risk of being compared to other actresses who had taken on the role, including Tallulah Bankhead, who had played the role on the London stage in the Play “Rain”, Jeanne Eagels who had played the role on Broadway and Swanson who had received an honorable mention at the first Academy Awards for her portrayal.

She was convinced to take the role by producer Joseph Schenck, the brother of Nicholas Schenck, whose Loew’s Inc. owned her home studio at the time, MGM. Schenck told her that the role would give her a chance to show that she was an actor, not just a personality. He also made sure to hire her favorite cinematographer, Oliver Marsh. It also didn’t hurt that Lewis Milestone, who had already won two Academy Awards as Best Director for Two Arabian Knights (1927) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), would be at the helm.

Production by the independent Feature Productions, Inc., with a budget of $591,000, got underway with Catalina Island as a stand-in for Pago Pago. United Artists would handle the distribution when the film was released on October 12, 1932.

The film opens when a passenger liner en route to Apia, the capital of Samoa, has to layover in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. There are concerns about cholera in the crew so the ship’s passengers have to stay until that can be sorted out. The layover is expected to last between 10 and 14 days.

Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) makes her entrance.

Those forced to depart are Mr. Davidson (Walter Huston), a missionary, his wife Mrs. Davidson (Beulah Bondi), Dr. Macphail (Matt Moore) and his wife (Kendall Lee). Also on board, and introduced by a series of close-ups of her feet and jewelry-laden arms before we see her face, Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). In contrast to her rather staid companions, Sadie is wild. She drinks, she dances and she openly flirts (and more) with men. She has already, it appears, made the acquaintance of Quartermaster Hal Bates (Walter Catlett), who had also been aboard and is stationed with other servicemen on the islands. Hal introduces Sadie to them, including Sergeant O'Hara (William Gargan), whom Sadie nicknames Handsome.

Quartermaster Hal Bates (Walter Catlett) introduces Sadie to his friends.

All five passengers take refuge with Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee), the owner of the local trading post. Joe, we will learn, left American 20 years before to seek freedom to do all the things that America was cracking down on, including drinking, and, as Dr. Macphail states it, “fun”. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by Sadie’s character or her apparent past.

Sadie, we learn, has come from Honolulu or, more exactly, from its red-light district, Iwelei. No one comes out and says it, but that’s supposed to mean Sadie is a prostitute. She wears very heavy makeup as if to advertise herself as one.

Sadie entertains the boys, including Handsome (William Gargan).

In her room, she plays gramophone records, drinks hooch, and entertains men, all of which rub Mrs. Davidson the wrong way. Rather than turn the other cheek, Mrs. Davidson would rather not look upon Sadie at all.

Mrs. Davidson (Beulah Bondi), center, encourages others not to look at Sadie.
Seated at the table are Dr. Macphail (Matt Moore) and his wife
(Kendall Lee). Standing is Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee).

Bothered by her presence, Mr. Davidson goes to talk to the island’s governor, who at first decides not to do anything about Sadie at all.

Handsome wants Sadie to go with him to Australia to start over.

Meanwhile, Handsome has fallen for Sadie and tells her to go to Sydney, Australia to wait for him. An old Army buddy, with a woman he had met at Iwelei, had gone there together and were supposedly very happy. He convinces her to wait for him there, as he will be getting out of the service in a month and a half.

But Sadie’s personality rubs the Davidsons the wrong way and after Handsome is arrested, leaving her room by the military police, Davidson goes once again to the governor. This time he decides, somewhat pressured by the power of missionaries, to have her deported, going back to San Francisco, which is the one place she doesn’t want to return.

Dr. Macphail goes to the Governor on her behalf, but the decision has been made.

Sadie confronts Mr. Davidson (Walter Huston).

With no hope, Sadie confronts Mr. Davidson, who is adamant that she has to return to San Francisco, even though it will mean she’ll have to go to prison for a crime she claims she did not commit. Davidson is firm that guilty or not, she’ll have to accept the punishment for her sins.

There is no reasoning with him, as he starts to repeat the Lord’s Prayer until Sadie herself joins in.

Over the next few days, Sadie changes. She no longer wears makeup and repents. Davidson is spending all his time with her, leading her in prayer and she is now reborn. She no longer fights deportation and feels she has to go back to save herself.

On the night before she's supposed to leave, Handsome tries to convince her to go with him.

On the night before she’s to be deported, Handsome gets out of prison. With a couple of his Army pals, they plan to put her on a junk until she can catch the boat to Australia. But Sadie is adamant that she doesn’t want to go.

Meanwhile, fearing something is wrong, Davidson leaves his wife and the Macphails at a dance demonstration to get a boat back to Pago Pago. He arrives just as Sadie is dismissing Handsome, who leaves to retrieve her belongings from his friends.

Sadie looks to Mr. Davidson for spiritual strength minutes before he rapes her.

That night, neither Davidson nor Sadie can get to sleep. She reaches out to him to give her strength to make it through the night. After he seems to have done it and she goes back to her room, he changes his mind.

While we don’t see it, Davidson goes into Sadie’s room and accosts her (rapes her).

The next morning, while the local fishermen are bringing in their nets, the body of Mr. Davidson is found, his throat cut in a suicide. Everyone figures out what had happened, especially when Sadie appears back in her heavy make-up ways. She is no longer repentant.

Handsome, who has come to see her off to San Francisco, is told instead that she’s going with him to Australia.

Joan Crawford did not receive good reviews from critics or her fans for her performance. Variety in their review noted, “It turns out to be a mistake to have assigned the Sadie Thompson role to Miss Crawford. It shows her off unfavorably. The dramatic significance of it all is beyond her range.” Her fans were likewise disappointed, seeing their favorite shopgirl dolled up as a prostitute. The bad press and fan reaction led Crawford to consider this to be her “worst film” and to later say, "I hope they burn every print of this turkey that's in existence...I don't understand to this day how I could have given such an unpardonable bad performance. All my fault, too -- Milestone's direction was so feeble I took the bull by the horns and did my own Sadie Thompson. I was wrong every scene of the way."

According to Crawford, Milestone didn’t give her any directions on how to play the character. Milestone, for his part, rehearsed every scene endlessly. Crawford, who was not a stage actor and was used to acting on instinct, didn’t take well to the director.

Not having grown up with Crawford playing good girls exclusively, it is possible to have a different point of view of her performance. From the outset, it seems like a no-win situation for the actress. It is hard to play a character that you aren’t allowed to really get into because of restrictions on what can and cannot be dealt with onscreen. The exaggerated makeup Sadie wears at the beginning, which Milestone used to show the difference in her character when she becomes saved, makes it hard to really take her too seriously. She doesn’t come off as clownish, but more unreal.

Given the choices available to her, I think Crawford does a good job with the material she’s given to work with.

The same is true with Walter Huston. Mr. Davidson is more of a one-note character. His transformation into rapist is handled very subtly to the point that you might not actually notice it. Since his change happens off-screen as it were, we don’t see any real change in Huston’s character.

A fine and versatile actor, Huston played a wide range of characters throughout his career, receiving Academy Best Actor nominations for his work in Dodsworth (1936), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and for Best Supporting Actor in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1941) before winning for Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Again, an actor is often limited by his material, which is true in the case of Huston in Rain.

Even though some of the action takes place outside and despite some interesting camera movements, director Lewis Milestone didn’t seem to be able to get past this feeling like a slow-moving stage play, the criticism leveled at the film when it was released. Milestone is said to have responded, “I thought [audiences] were ready for a dramatic form; that now we could present a three-act play on the screen. But I was wrong. People will not listen to narrative dialogue. They will not accept the kind of exposition you use on the stage. I started the picture slowly, too slowly, I’m afraid. You can’t start a picture slowly. You must show things happening.”

One thing that is consistent throughout the film is the namesake rain. Apparently, Pago Pago is known for its rain, as the local mountain is actually called Rainmaker Mountain and the average rain there is around 200 inches a year. The story was apparently inspired by a similar layover Maugham was forced to endure in American Samoa, so you have to imagine rain is a way of life there.

Rain proves that pre-code doesn’t equate to great, only that certain subjects were dealt with in a more open way than after the Production Code was in full effect. The other film versions, including Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) with Rita Hayworth, all had to deal with such restrictions. In this case, it was not a success. During its initial run, the film lost nearly $200,000.

I wanted to watch the film because of my general interest in films from this time period and this is not one that I would necessarily want to watch again. Once is enough for me and it may be one time too many for most. Unless you’re a major Crawford fan, this might be one to avoid. Even she would want you to.

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