BR: Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)

August 26, 2016 | By

MissSadieThompson1953Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  July 12, 2016

Genre:  Musical / Drama

Synopsis: Somerset Maugham’s classic tale of a brutalized prostitute in the south seas comes to 3D with Rita Hayworth playing soul-searching Sadie Thompson.

Special Features: Audio commentary track with historians David Del valle and Steven Peros / Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / 2010 Intro by actress Patricia Clarkson (4:22) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

In 1949, Rita Hayworth retired from Hollywood to marry Prince Aly Khan, but when the marriage began to fracture (due in part to Khan’s affairs with other women), Hayworth began to return to acting, and the pair formally divorced in 1953. Columbia’s goal was to bring back the Love Goddess in a series of vehicles tailored to her known, branded screen persona. The three pictures in that initial comeback wave consisted of the pale Gilda knock-off Affair in Trinidad (1952), re-teaming Hayworth with Glenn Ford; the exotic period drama Salome (1953), and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), one of four film versions of Somerset Maugham’s popular take of a prostitute whose search for a new life is brutally shattered by a religious fanatic in Samoa.

Maugham’s tale began as a short story in 1921, then a 1922 play, and a 1928 silent drama, Sadie Thompson, starring Gloria Swanson. Joan Crawford tackled the role in Rain (1932), and a ‘race film’ variant called Dirty Gertie from Harlem (1946) followed, and although tweaks were made to the original story in each version, according to historians David Del Valle Steven Peros, the 1953 version is reportedly more faithful to Maugham’s short story.

The resulting version was so racy, it was banned in several states which to some extent probably helped the film’s box office allure, but Harry Kleiner’s adaptation also needed to play up Hayworth’s better-known abilities, mandating singing and some dancing; Thompson isn’t a musical per se, but the three moments of overt signing make it a schizophrenic movie, giving audiences the Rita they know and love with song and dance before changing gears and heading to the meat of Maugham’s story.

Thompson may be one of those Hayworth pictures that divides her fans into specific camps, with maybe a third group being just plain frustrated with this hybrid that doesn’t really satisfy. Del Valle and Peros are very respectful of this vehicle – it has many positives that outweigh the glaring flaws – but it feels too packaged, trying to give audiences aspects of Hayworth’s skills without judicious editing at the pre-shooting script stage.

Hayworth plays Sadie Thompson, a dancer from Honolulu on her way to a nearby island for a fresh job, now stranded on a smaller isle beset by a missionary colony whose dominance tends to overshadow aspects of U.S. civil law. Among the fellow travelers are two couples, both of whom are visiting to check out the status of the mission’s progression in transforming Samoan culture into something more ‘civilized.’

Alfred Davidson’s father founded the whitebread colony, and although Dr. Robert McPhail (Russel Collins) disagrees with Alfred’s extreme black / white views on good and evil, the pair maintains a strong friendship that seems governed by Alfred’s glaringly domineering personality. On this particular island, Alfred (Jose Ferrer) is God, and he loves the power plays within his grasp.

Sadie’s loose and loud in her hotel room, and is perpetually surrounded by adoring, boozing marines (Aldo Ray, Henry Slate, Rudy Bond, and Charles Bronson!), and her image isn’t improved when she goes out to a pub with her boys and is the sole woman; she’s apparently at ease with cat-calling boys, and relishes the attention and drooling that makes up the raucous night.

When things come to a head with Alfred’s meddling, Sadie’s forced to follow a deportation notice and return to home base San Francisco, where she’s wanted on murky charges tied to prostitution at a known whorehouse frequented by furloughed navy men, but a brief moment of pause comes from Alfred, who instigates a meticulously choreographed salvation, transforming the bad girl into good, but his lust for badness ultimately wrecks the whole conversion project, ruining his life, and sending Sadie potentially back to a life of hardship unless one man – O’Hara (Ray) follows through with his promise of marriage.

Maugham’s tale is lurid, but it’s also a tragic story of ideological clashes, and the extremes that duke it out onscreen make for some stark dramatic moments, but while portions are conveyed through song, the film’s stronger sections lie in the end third where Hayworth is allowed to react to looming confrontations, such as an emotionally horrific argument with O’Hara.

Kleiner’s script has a lot of harsh exchanges as well as innuendo, of which the latter is exploited by director Curtis Bernhardt who uses selective edits and sustained reaction shots of the actors. Del Valle and Peros’ commentary is first rate – their defensive stance of the actress, her career, and where this film sits ensures a lively discussion that isn’t as one-sided as feared – and they pack a lot of info into this unusually short 91 min. A-level picture.

The film is very efficient, but it’s still an uneven experience that may improve with further viewings, and it’s to Bernhardt’s credit that what was billed as a sexy Hayworth ‘experience’ in 3D is really a more restrained attempt to add visual depth to a saucy tragic tale without shoving gimmicky images in the laps of hungry (mostly male) audiences. Yeah, Rita’s gorgeous in 3D, but there are no trick shots a la 1953’s House of Wax, where Charles Bronson has a significant supporting role in that production, his second in 3D.

Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), cinematographer Charles Lawton concentrated on creating layers that make us feel like we’re peering into a tragic tale unfolding in the most gorgeous place on Earth. Foliage, hotel clutter, and applauding horny marines are at the peripherals or make up layers leading towards central screen action, but all shocks come from language and cast reaction shots (or stealthy close-up where the lack of emotion reveals longing or deep pain).

Hayworth is perfect for the role because she’s always been adept in conveying a level of joy that seems too inflated, making small close-ups of a more serious visage hammer home that heroines like Sadie carry deeply disturbed pasts. There’s no doubt Sadie has been assaulted and degraded, and she puts on an air of fun because that’s the only coping mechanism she knows will work until trust and a decent guy will open the door to a second chance. In the script’s subtext, religion is bullshit, because its stark demarcation line between good and evil is illogical. Samoans are referred to as “natives” even after conversion to Christianity; and the Davidson legacy is crap, because the mission’s sociological nomenclature ensures whomever is colonized will always be regarded as lesser, wilder, and impure.

When Alfred attends joyful displays of Samoan culture (like a dance), he’s bored, if not discretely irked by the freedom and thousands of years of cohesion which his ideology can’t transform into staid, clothed, emotionally bridled, seated assemblies in a white painted edifice. Sadie herself is a stark, bristled wedge that proves being emotionally dead and intractable isn’t part of human nature, which explains his determination to break her with a deportation order.

SPOILER ALERT

 

In the finale, one wonders why does Alfred give in to bad vibes and assault her after she’s made both a religious conversion, and has agreed to return to San Francisco and face justice? That moment comes rather abruptly, and one can only deduce the Production Code may have found prior build-up scenes too lurid, so Bernhardt kept things efficient by emphasizing the tone of three key scenes: Sadie’s breakdown and Alfred’s consoling; her seaside admission to Alfred that he was right and is now her one and only savior; and the rape, which even in the build-up is ornately ugly as Alfred gazes, hovers, moves around, and finally pulls Sadie to the bed before a quick fadeout.

Alfred’s suicide seems to come out of nowhere – ‘it was the guilt that did him in’ – and then it’s forgotten; Sadie’s emotional horror is also over, and she’s all smiles again as she hops on a boat to Australia where she’ll wait for O’Hara to return. The tenor of that finale is designed like the closing act of a girl meets boy, girl loses boy, boy begs for forgiveness, and girl will soon be united with boy musical storyline, adding to the film’s schizophrenic genetics. Del Valle and Peros successfully argue it’s a shocking good end to a character that should’ve been punished according to Code rules, but it’s still weird to contemporary viewers because its emotional glee negates the ugly assault orchestrated by Alfred.

 

END OF SPOILERS

Overall the performances are quite strong: Ferrer is very potent in delivering cultural snobbery, white arrogance, and chilling cruelty, whereas Hayworth handles the unusual balancing act between song & dance, and being dramatic with potent dialogue. Aldo Ray manages to hold his own against Hayworth’s magnetism, and the film was among a series of military-themed dramas during his rising star period, including Battle Cry (1955), Men in War (1957), and the bleak The Naked and the Dead (1958).

Kleiner’s sharp dialogue (with some choice material reportedly coming straight from Maugham’s prose) grounds the film’s dramatic meat, and arguably eases the weird tonal shift from musical to melodrama. Columbia tapped him to write Hayworth’s Salome, but his writings include the noir dramas The Street with No Name (1948) and House of Bamboo (1955), and the Steve McQueen classics Bullitt (1968) and Le Mans (1971).

Director Bernahrdt, branded a ‘woman’s director,’ didn’t have a hugely prolific career after fleeing Nazi Germany for the U.S., but his Hollywood classics include Devotion (1946), Possessed (1947), and Sirocco (1951). From his European period, of note are the simultaneously shot German and French versions of The Tunnel (1933) which deserve their own special Criterion release.

Twilight Time’s Blu sports the much-heralded 3D restoration done a few years ago, which has been available to cinemas as a DCP. The 3D is respectful yet ornate in the spreading of peripheral information, but as some reviewers have noted, the print stock isn’t great – the colours are more muted than expected, and the grain is more pronounced. None of it’s objectionable, but perhaps Columbia rushed the developing process in 1953, and in the age of 2K and 4K projections, what’s more grain comes off as rather gritty.

The mono mix is fine (the IMDB lists the film as being originally exhibited in 3-track stereo, which could be erroneous) and George Duning did a nice job of stitching together main themes with the main three songs: “Hear No Evil, See No Evil (Speak No Evil)”, the lewd “The Hear is On!” and “The Blue Pacific Blues.” An isolated music & effects track offers previously unreleased underscore that wasn’t included on the song-heavy 10” soundtrack LP.

TT’s disc includes both the flat and 3D versions, and actress Patricia Clarkson provides an intro that’s been ported over from Sony’s 2010 The Films of Rita Hayworth set, which included Cover Girl (1944), Tonight and Every Night (1945), Gilda (1964), Miss
Sadie Thompson (1953), and Salome (1953).

Lastly, Julie Kirgo’s notes provide needed parallels between Hayworth’s own career struggles at Columbia, her character’s challenges, and the film’s own struggle to reach audiences after the much trumpeted 3D prints were reportedly pulled in favour of flat prints 2 weeks into its general release.

Hayworth’s second ‘comeback’ wave consists of Fire Down Below (1957), Pal Joey (1957), Separate Tables (1958), the dour They Came to Cordura (1959), and The Story on Page One (1959).

 

 

© 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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