A commanding performance by Gloria Swanson.
Synopsis: A prostitute seeking a fresh start becomes the obsession of a religious extremist. (IMDB)
Starring: Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore, and Blanche Friderici
Writer: Raoul Walsh
Director: Raoul Walsh
Running Time: 97mins
Sadie Thompson (Swanson) arrives in Pago-Pago to start a new life, but when extremist missionary Davidson (Barrymore) lashes out against her lifestyle and tries to force her back to San Francisco, she may lose her second chance.
This silent film from 1928 is the best version of the story “Miss Thompson”, written by Somerset Maugham in 1921. Unfortunately, a portion of the film was lost and there is no more complete version of it. Instead, the final scenes have dialogue cards and stills replacing the original images, which is quite sad.
Sadie Thompson had a lot of problems on the backstage: Lionel Barrymore wouldn’t bathe for days, with irritated Swanson; she was coming from a huge financial flop and needed the success; the content of the film was considered scandalous in the 20’s and some costly problems happened, with Swanson taking the front to solving them by selling her own farm to cover the costs.
Very old movie are sometimes quite difficult to watch: the content not always ages well (Gone With the Wind has been facing some controversy the past weeks), images are not necessarily sharp and all sorts of problems can be seem. We are constantly evolving as an audience and it is very common to recognize problems when our eyes are trained. I mean, even The Lord of the Rings trilogy is starting to show its wear with the visual effects, which were absolutely stunning when the movies opened but now have some recognizable flaws. Our eyes get better in noticing the problems.
With silent movies, things get even worse: the actor’s performances were very overdramatic to a point when sometimes it is quite laughable. That happens here in a few instances: Lionel Barrymore was not really an understated performer and Gloria Swanson is a force of nature and that means she overacts in a couple of scenes.
There are two elements in the film that hold it all together and make it quite strong: first is the subject matter. A prostitute being persecuted and repressed by a religious fanatic is still a very fresh content in our society and the film deals with its dark natures very directly and clearly. It shows how evil intolerance is and how destructive it can be. Sadie is trying to rebuild her life the best way she can. She makes mistakes and not always knows what is best for her, but she is far from a being a bad person. None of that means she deserves to be bullied, outcast and looked down at, all the things Mr. Davidson constantly does to her. And it is awful, especially because he is, of course, a huge hypocrite.
Second, Gloria Swanson is a force to be reckoned with. This is perhaps one of her best (if not THE best) performances of her silent movie career. She is completely hypnotic in the roll; we cannot take our eyes off of her. Sadie is a lot of things at the same time, and Swanson knows exactly how to portray these things. Her eyes are so expressive, so strong; you end up only looking at them in a number of scenes and forgetting everything that is happening around her. Some of her reactions are quite striking.
Overall, Sadie Thompson is a difficult film to find but it is totally worth the try.
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