Wednesday, August 31, 2016

MISS SADIE THOMPSON: Blu-ray (Columbia 1953) Twilight Time

William Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘Rain’ (1921 and later to be renamed by Maugham as ‘Miss Thompson’) generated quite a lot of heat when it was first published; the moralists quick to condemn; the flapper age, eager to embrace it, at least, as salacious bedtime reading with the book and a flashlight tucked under their pillows. ‘Rain’ – the tale of a fallen woman brought to heel by exactly the sort of pulpit-pounding evangelist now condemning the publication of Maugham’s book, served a twofold purpose for the author; not the least, adding to his considerable cache as one of the glittering literati of his generation. As with all Maugham’s more prolific writings, Rain did more than merely tread on the tantalizing particulars of the clichéd bad girl out to get all she can. It also explored the hypocrisies in the seemingly clear-cut duality between good and evil; Sadie Thompson, actually more put-upon than self-indulgently a wanton; the holier-than-thou Reverend Davidson, exploiting the promise of salvation to mask his own libidinous desires, ditching his tight-lipped wife to possess the harlot for his own. Under either title, Miss Thompson proved an enduring and impressive critique of the foibles befallen human (im)morality. We are, after all, imperfect creatures, struggling with fallible misinterpretations of the gospel. How best to serve God in a thoroughly godless world? The irony, of course is it takes a great deal of effort to be good, and, not all that much temptation to slip into the inequities of life-altering mistakes, ultimately destined to prevent our ascendance to divine perfection.    
Maugham, perhaps better than most understood how ‘almost accidental’ sin comes upon every life – even when the participant resists its sway. He might have also harbored a little guilt over being a practicing – if closeted - homosexual; having seduced Syrie Wellcome, the wife of a prominent pharmaceutical giant, later to marry her and sire a child.  Little, in fact, was known about Maugham’s own ravenous sexual appetite then outside his close-knit circle of friends. To the world outside, he remained an erudite bon vivant, maintained an enviable lifestyle (rumored to be the highest paid author of the 1930s) and proving – as though proof itself were required – a self-made, cultured and exceptionally well-read gentleman. However, just like the character of Sadie Thompson, the minutiae of Maugham’s life were deliberately kept cloudy.  While Maugham was born to privilege, he also was orphaned at the age of ten and thereafter raised by his father’s emotionally remote brother. He shied away from entering ‘the family business’ as a prominent attorney, but completed medical school, before ditching the profession of doctoring after his very first novel, 1897’s Liza of Lambeth proved a runaway best seller. As with all good Brits, Maugham did his part in WWI, and in 1916 was recruited into British Secret Intelligence, flying under the radar in Switzerland and Russia shortly before the 1917 Revolution. Well-traveled, Maugham’s experiences would later inform his best literary works. It has since been suggested his 1922 short story compendium, Ashenden, about a gentlemanly sophisticate/spy, inspired Ian Fleming to later create the James Bond franchise. 
Director Curtis Bernhardt’s 1953’s adaptation of Miss Sadie Thompson – in 3D no less, is thrice removed from Maugham’s source material; Harry Kleiner’s screenplay a somewhat watered down affair, distilling the potency of Maugham’s rather unvarnished prose to satisfy the stringency of the reigning production code, but further hampered as it is expressly tailored as a Rita Hayworth vehicle – a sort of ‘welcome home’ comeback, for which Columbia Studio’s chief, Harry Cohn pulled out virtually all the stops to will a Technicolor spectacle shot partly on location in Kauai and interpolated with musical numbers to add tropical splendor to the exercise. The problem herein is ‘Rain’ is a rather claustrophobic story about a down-and-out trollop, whose last lifeline is about to be severed by a religious zealot; hardly the sort of breezy ‘star-making’ vehicle audiences expected from Hayworth, particularly after a nearly four year absence from the screen, thanks to Hayworth’s much-publicized and equally as disastrous marriage to Prince Ali Khan. Regrettably, Hayworth would follow up Miss Sadie Thompson with an even greater martial miscalculation to crooner, Dick Haymes and another semi-retirement from the movies – and this, at the height of her allure as a box office sex bomb. 
In more recent times there has been sincere speculation about the parallels between the fictional Sadie and Hayworth’s own life.  Lest we forget Rita, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, began her career as part of rather sultry adagio act that featured her own father, Eduardo – a professional dance instructor. While Rita’s mother, Volga, candidly yearned for Rita to someday become a great actress, Eduardo diligently put his thirteen year old protégée through the paces of a rather sexualized dance routine. The moves were so suggestive, in fact, the audience assumed Rita was Eduardo’s wife despite the fact he was nearly forty; an assumption Eduardo did not discourage. Did Eduardo Cansino sexually abuse his own daughter? Hmmm.  While there is no definitive proof of this, the veneer of a rumor begun long ago has since remained very thin and highly suspect. For certain, Rita’s first marriage, at age eighteen, to Charles Edward Judsen – a mysterious jack of all trades, though arguably, master of none, helped both to wipe the bloom off Rita’s fledgling womanhood and, in tandem, launch her movie career. Did she marry Judsen to escape her father’s domineering personality? If so, it was one of the most egregious cases of the tired ole cliché about ‘jumping from an overheated fry pan into the raging fire’.      
Rita’s 1937 Vegas marriage to Judsen was abhorred by her parents. Indeed, the already twice divorced and very shrewd businessman was as old as Eduardo and would prove, with time and plenty of opportunity, to be even more intimidating in Hayworth’s Svengali-esque transformation. Hayworth would later describe the marriage as “sad”, adding, “…he helped himself to my money.”  While Judsen proved instrumental in orchestrating Hayworth’s first studio contract, over at Fox, the dissolution of their marriage in 1942 coincided with a cancellation of that contract after only a few film appearances. Left virtually penniless, this was also the beginning of Rita’s meteoric rise to prominence as Harry Cohn’s Columbia gal, slated to become the biggest female star on the lot and one of the biggest of all forties box office draws, bar nothing. Cohn reshaped Rita’s persona; shedding her ‘exotic’ Spanish look through painful electrolysis to remove a widow’s peak, dying her hair red, and renaming the girl after her mother’s maiden name, Hayworth; more pleasing to the Anglo-Saxon ear and a better fit for the marquee.  Although Cohn tried to seduce his new star Hayworth, no stranger to men by now, effectively sidestepped sleeping with the boss while maintaining her status as the ‘love goddess’; a moniker she absolutely detested, but simultaneously helped to promote in movies like Gilda (1946).
In hindsight, Rita was perhaps restlessly searching for a father figure after becoming estranged from her parents. Her failure to find such a surrogate speaks more to inner desperation than to the results; affairs with unattainable married actors like Victor Mature and later, brief unions to Orson Welles (arguably, the only man to truly love Rita for herself, but quite unable to manage her), then Ali Khan and Dick Haymes, suggesting an ongoing loneliness and isolation never to be fully satisfied. In varying degrees, all the men in Hayworth’s life were exploitive of her talents, their heads turned by the illusion of the sex bomb, prompting Rita to later admit, “They went to bed with Gilda, but they woke up with me.”  Undoubtedly, Hayworth brought a good deal of her own back story to her impressions of Sadie Thompson; a knock-about gal, using sex appeal to get by, occasionally to her own detriment. And indeed, of all the actresses to have played Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson in the silent 1928 original, and Joan Crawford in 1932’s scintillating ‘talkie’), Rita seems most comfortably to fit the role with a genuine sad-eyed clarity for the life lived by this alter ego; an assignation of two lives having met in the middle, the crosshairs yielding in a memorable musical number, ‘The Heat is On’; deemed a “filthy dance scene” by censorship mandarin, Lloyd T. Binford, who went on to describe the picture in totem as “rotten, lewd and immoral…just a plain raw, dirty picture!”  
The Heat is On’ was deliberately concocted (with music and lyrics by Lester Lee and Allan Roberts, and, Hayworth dubbed by Jo Ann Greer) to rekindle the elusive magic of Gilda’s ‘Put The Blame on Mame’. Alas, like the other numbers featured in Miss Sadie Thompson, this one merely intrudes on the dramatic intensity of Maugham’s story, and, in fact, takes the audience out of Hayworth’s otherwise finely crafted performance, forcing Rita to regress into the musical pantheon she already established in movies like Cover Girl and You Were Never Lovelier; infinitely better examples of her talents in this genre. Despite the inclusion of three songs, the most miscalculated of the lot, ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil’ – sung to a corps of bright-eyed native children (seemingly excised from an altogether different movie), Miss Sadie Thompson is not a musical. Yet, it repeatedly lacks the impetus to otherwise be considered a truly fine melodrama with songs thrown in, perhaps, because Hayworth’s galvanized on screen reputation is being pulled simultaneously in two diametrically opposite directions. There is the cinematic Rita, that fun-loving songstress, aiming to please local G.I.’s inside smoky canteens nestled in these sweaty south sea islands, and then there is Rita as Sadie Thompson; the tormented and put upon woman of the world, having run away from a sordid past in the sex trade, only to rediscover its specter looming large in the mind of an over-ambitious hypocrite, who cannot rid himself of her mystique, and, aims through abject humiliation and hell-fired damnation, to bring Sadie to her knees; though hardly for more altruistic ‘religious’ purposes.
There is a point to be made about the picture and it is this. That of all three cinematic versions, only Miss Sadie Thompson dares to illustrate ‘the rape’ of our heroine; albeit, highly sanitized and achieved mostly through penetrating stares exchanged between Sadie and Davidson; cinematographer, Charles Lawton Jr. resorting to a few cutaways of flailing arms and legs and a groundswell of orchestral angst: about all the fifties censorship would allow without getting their knickers in a ball. It is rather effective pantomime; the impression of forcibly stolen sex doing well enough to establish the act without having to show us every distasteful detail. Alas, Davidson’s subsequent suicide, the other high water mark in dramatic suspense, is disappointingly handled. In Crawford’s 1932 remake, as example, Davidson’s body is gradually revealed in half shadow by director, Lewis Milestone, as having been caught in the submerged nets of native fishermen; a twisted leg and petrified dead hand disentangled. It’s odd, because moments of Miss Sadie Thompson just seem dashed off the cuff; the meticulous structuring of its first and second act inexplicably devolving into a series of not altogether prepossessing vignettes; stolen moments of regret between Hayworth’s wounded woman and co-star, Aldo Ray’s thick-necked, and as thick-headed lummox in soldier’s khakis.    
Fellow co-star, Jose Ferrer did not want to play the part of the villain or indeed any part at all in the making of Miss Sadie Thompson; a story he considered trash and a part he emphatically thought of as nothing better than a throw away. In fact, Ferrer had to be somewhat strong-armed by his agent to partake of the exercise. And while the picture certainly did no harm to his reputation, it also served to ease him back into the spotlight after being blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer. Part of Ferrer’s odiousness may also be attributed to the fact he was in the middle of his second – and rather messy divorce from actress, Phyllis Hill. Ferrer manages to capture all the hypocrisy of his character, though I would argue, without ever infusing it with the insidiousness required to truly make his penultimate off-screen suicide meaningfully tragic in any way. In the ’32 version, co-star, Walter Huston has a particularly effective moment preceding Davidson’s rape of Sadie; conveyed by one of the most erotically alarming looks of absolutely crazed lust ever subtly depicted by an actor. Ferrer refrains from reflecting virtually any emotion as he approaches Sadie in her bedroom; using the inflection of his dialogue to suggest the real reason for Davidson’s return.
Despite Harry Cohn’s sincere hope the picture would resurrect Rita’s career as Columbia’s greatest pin-up, the ole-time mogul had miscalculated on the grit and grime associated with the part; Hayworth, still looking every inch ‘the star’ but now, somewhat rough around the edges; less glamor queen and more a sex pot slowly going to seed. It works for the character she plays herein, but it also ostensibly redefined the parameters of Hayworth’s box office appeal in a less than flattering light; something Cohn was unprepared for and decidedly had not wanted to face. Undeniably, Rita is older and perhaps this too prompted Cohn to consider it high time for Columbia to pursue other starlets in the queue to eventually surpass her; chiefly, starlet Kim Novak, later to costar with Hayworth in 1957’s Pal Joey, further illustrating the superficial merits of youth over experience – at least, as far as the camera was concerned. Arguably, the actor who most benefited from his association with Miss Sadie Thompson was beefy and whisky-voiced Aldo Ray, as the rather brutish muscle head, Sgt. Phil O’Hara. Although Ray had already appeared in a handful of movies to limited effect, Miss Sadie Thompson would jet-propel his movie career, pitched as the fifties’ desirable ‘butch male’; husky, thick-necked, and raspy-voiced; the prototypical tough guy. Today, Ray’s brand of male machismo seems heavy-handed to say the least; a sort of Tab Hunter on steroids; a walking cliché of the uber-masculine iconography best eulogized in men’s magazines of a particular ilk and era when square-shouldered, and as square-jawed, men of decision were considered something of the aspiration, if never the norm.
Miss Sadie Thompson opens with a breathtaking travelogue of the island of Kauai beneath the opening credits; swaying palms and mountainous terrain sloping into gorgeous sandy beaches and perpetually rolling surf with a mild breeze blowing off the water.  The latest clipper from America has docked, the ferry bringing Alfred Davidson, his wife, Margaret (Peggy Converse), Dr. Robert McPhail (Russell Collins) and his wife (Francis Morris) to port. Davidson, vaguely referenced as some sort of evangelic missionary, arriving to inspect the progress made at a local hospital managed by McPhail, almost immediately comes into conflict with McPhail over his particular brand of hectoring Christianity. Those who ascribe to his teachings fly on the side of the angels, while those perceived as resisting are either meant to be converted by force or threatened with eternal damnation as sinners going straight to hell. McPhail does not see the point so cut and dry; ostracizing anyone who does not aspire to Davidson’s perverted and sanctimonious sense of morality. In McPhail’s view, no one is ‘beyond’ salvation, least of all the newly arrived Miss Sadie Thompson. Almost immediately, she has caught the eye of Sgt. Phil O'Hara and his underlings, Pvt. Griggs (Henry Slate), Pvt. Hodges (Rudy Bond) and Pvt. Edwards (Charles Bronson).  
But Davidson considers Sadie as a threat to the essential moral fiber, not just to the easily corruptible American G.I.’s; isolated and thus deprived of female companionship for far too long, but also to the godless natives he has worked ever so diligently to convert into finer specimens of his own ‘intelligent design’ through charitable works. Alas, Davidson and his entourage are forced to share lodgings with Sadie in the island’s only hotel, run by the benevolent, Joe Horn (Harry Bellaver); an American expat married to a Malaysian woman, Ameena (Diosa Costello). Over the course of the next several days, Davidson will move heaven and earth to launch an inquiry into Sadie’s past; unearthing a disturbing history; including a stint as a ‘singer’ at a disreputable nightclub in Honolulu. While Sadie denies to Davidson she did anything more than sing at the club, she will later confirm for O’Hara her talents extended to more intimate after hours’ pleasuring of the club’s male clientele. Davidson is determined to see Sadie sent back to America from whence, it is suggested, she has fled incarceration on never entirely disclosed charges of prostitution. Sadie, of course, resists this deportation. She also attempts, without success, to keep O’Hara’s curiosity regarding her past at arm’s length. When Davidson petitions the Governor (Wilton Graff) to have Sadie forcibly ejected from the island, she appeals to the Governor for a reprieve. But Davidson is the ‘real’ law in these parts. The Governor will not rescind his order.
At the same time, O’Hara proposes to take Sadie away to live obscurely with him at a friend’s place in Australia. It sounds like heaven, except O’Hara, later discovers the truth about Sadie and suffers a momentary lapse of personal integrity, calling her a tramp. Boxed into an impossible situation, Sadie succumbs to Davidson’s dehumanizing assault. She renounces her former ways and, for a brief stint, is almost brainwashed into a complete reformation. Unhappy circumstance, that as Sadie draws nearer to repenting for her sins she becomes obsessively desirable to Davidson who is, after all, nothing more than a hypocrite, lusting after her. Davidson’s fall from grace is made complete when he enters Sadie’s bedroom after everyone else has retired for the night. Forcing himself upon her, the rape reawakens Sadie to a misperception about all men – they’re pigs! Sadie is haunted, but hardening as she prepares to return to America to face up to the fallout from that life she ran away from before the plot of this movie began. Mercifully, O’Hara arrives to inform Sadie of the discovery of Davidson’s body by local fishermen; Davidson seemingly having committed suicide by drowning. O’Hara now makes a heartfelt apology to his beloved. Whatever her past, he cannot help but realize she is the only woman for him. The offer of safe passage to Australia still stands, and O’Hara promises to rejoin Sadie just as soon as his release from the army is granted. The movie ends with O’Hara and his buddies hurriedly escorting Sadie to the docks where she boards a ferry bound for the clipper to take her to the land down under.
Miss Sadie Thompson’s finale is a wee too optimistic to be truly effective; Sadie, seemingly untainted by the rape, neither unnerved by the realization she was the catalyst for Davidson’s fall from grace and suicide, bundled off with a luminous toothy smile as she retreats to a new – and presumably, brighter future to be shared by O’Hara. It doesn’t quite fit into the dramatic arc or milieu of the rest of the picture or, the punishable edicts for all fallen women outlined in the Production Code, or in fact, the residual darkness that permeates Maugham’s short story and the play on which it is based, first given off-Broadway hit-status by producer, John Colton and stage/silent screen diva, Jeanne Eagels. Maugham’s tale of moral turpitude first published as Sadie Thompson in the magazine, Smart Set in 1921, and later to become a pivotal chapter in his anthology of eight, entitled, A Trembling of a Leaf, was something of a sleeper with Eagels as its star; the engagement at Maxim Elliott’s Theater alone running 608 performances and proving a veritable cash cow for Maugham. But the ending of the story and the play have Sadie reverting to her old ways, playing records loudly and spitting on Mrs. Davidson, accosting Dr. McPhail with a declaration that all men are filthy pigs. To varying degrees, the movies have had to grapple with a pseudo-enforced contrition of the central protagonist; not exactly brought to heel, but nevertheless developing a more or less cockeyed optimism about what the future may bring.
With the ink yet to dry on contracts for the 1928 movie, Maugham would gross a whopping $3 million dollars from the exploitation of this one story, and this at a time when a gallon of gas cost barely twenty-one cents! But Eagels, a severely underrated and all but forgotten actress today, would suffer a minor breakdown after being passed over for Gloria Swanson in the original movie. In hindsight, Swanson had the bigger reputation with audiences.  But it is one of Hollywood’s ironies – or perhaps even its ‘curses’ – none of these three big screen adaptations of Maugham’s perennially popular story did a thing to advance the reputations and/or careers of any of the actresses assuming the part; Swanson receiving the best reviews overall; while Crawford was almost universally panned (despite an exceptional break out from her MGM Teflon-coated ‘shop girl makes good’ image) and Hayworth virtually all but ignored. Arguably, audiences are still waiting for the definitive version of ‘Rain’ to hit the screen, an effective and affecting visual transcription of Maugham’s incendiary story of this no-good woman, clawing her way up from social outcast to moral ambiguity.   
Twilight Time’s 3D/2D release of Miss Sadie Thompson is hardly up to Sony’s usual impeccable mastering efforts. Overall, the image is fraught with inconsistencies in grain, color balancing, and contrast. Exactly how much of this is exacerbated by the gimmick of stereoscopic projection remains open for discussion. And, to be sure, there are some exquisitely understated uses of 3D scattered throughout this movie. Maugham’s tale could easily have done without the third dimension; Hayworth effectively blowing smoke from a cigarette out into the audience during one scene, or gyrating in and out of the proscenium during ‘The Heat is On’ adding quaint SFX that neither overpower the narrative nor, arguably, add much too it either. But back to the transfer quality for just a moment: for starters, the Columbia logo is in very rough shape, exhibiting residual fading on the right-hand side and looking fairly murky and slightly out of focus in either its 3D or 2D incarnation.
From this inauspicious beginning, things marginally improve; a rather lushly photographed main title with candy-apple red credits set against a vibrant green backdrop of Kauai’s flora and fauna. But soon, the image becomes intermittently plagued by a sort of thin dusty veil that renders flesh pasty and Rita’s iconic henna tresses (except in a handful of shots) looking more dirty brown/gold than anything else. Colors range from vibrant to murky. Rita’s dance in ‘The Heat is On’ is bathed in a smoky blue-gray mist that, in several shots, practically obliterates the action. Never having seen Miss Sadie Thompson during its original theatrical run, I can only speculate there was something more – or better – to Charles Lawton Jr. cinematography than this murky blend of fog and silt. Yes, we are meant to get the point – it is stiflingly hot in the tropics. No kidding. But this pivotal moment in the movie is marred by a lot of visual inconsistencies that tend to draw one out of the story. Overall, I was not engrossed by this presentation in either 3D or 2D; the visuals lacking overall consistency and, in some cases, even basic clarity, to keep me interested in the performances.
The DTS-HD 2.0 mono, while hardly setting the world afire is nevertheless, quite competently rendered. Extras include an intro from actress, Patricia Clarkson (part of this release on DVD back in 2006). We get a brand new and highly informative audio commentary from noted historians, David Del Valle and Steven Peros, plus an isolated music and effects track and Julie Kirgo’s usual bang-up job on liner notes that read far more effectively as an essay. I’d like to say a word about TT’s rather ugly cover art; a heavily Photo-shopped depiction of Hayworth, barely recognizable with her head tilted backward, hoisted by actor, Harry Slate, whose lips appear as though to be breast-feeding through the fabric of her dress. Honestly, there is better cover art available. Overall, nicely put together extras for a marginally amusing movie. Bottom line: less than impressed with the transfer. Good but not great. Pity that.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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