Dir.: Lewis Milestone. Scr.: Maxwell Anderson; from John Colton and Clemence Randolph's play, adapted from W. Somerset Maugham's short story “Miss Thompson.” Cast: Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, William Gargan, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee, Matt Moore, Walter Catlett
The first thing you notice in the credits of the 1932 United Artists version of Rain is that Joan Crawford's name is above the title (by courtesy of MGM). Then there's that moody score by Alfred Newman. A perfect beginning for a perfect movie.
As W. Somerset Maugham's short-story heroine Sadie Thompson, Crawford makes her grand entrance eight minutes into the picture. She emerges from behind a beaded curtain, one limb at a time, all tarted up in cheap costume jewelry, a cigarette dangling from her painted lips and a fox skin slung over one shoulder: the fabled whore with a heart of gold.
I have often noticed that Rain is accused of being stagy and static, but I've never found that to be the case. The film is utterly cinematic, as the camera moves fluently under Lewis Milestone's deft direction. As a plus, Milestone lets the rain play an important role in this brooding story.
Crawford holds her own opposite an ensemble cast of established actors, including Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, and Walter Huston as the self-righteous reformer, Mr Davidson. Her intensity during the long takes and interminable dialogue testifies to her highly developed acting skills by 1932.
Rain's simmering drama (adapted for the screen by Maxwell Anderson, by way of John Colton and Clemence Randolph's play) comes to a boil during the last confrontation scene between Sadie and Davidson, when he rejects her plea for forgiveness and she goes into attack-mode, lashing out at his hypocrisy. “How do you know what I've suffered? Your God and I could never be shipmates!” she shouts wild-eyed, until finally surrendering to his influence by reciting the Lord's Prayer with him. (Look at Crawford eyes. The don't blink for the entire scene.)
Later, Sadie shifts gears. Subdued and de-clawed, she radiates a virginal glow as she yields to the preacher's control. Soon enough, however, she discovers Davidson's fatal flaw as he proves to be just like any other man.
Sadie turns around again, putting her party dress back on and cocking her painted head back while cracking , “I'd race 'ya to the beach if it wasn't for these pesky heels.” She is shocked – but not surprised – when she hears that Davidson committed suicide after their sexual encounter.
I always wonder if that was just a set-up, that Sadie was pretending to be reformed in order to lure Davidson into her boudoir. Either way, Rains works as a timeless allegory of the hypocrisy of the self-righteous, holier-than-thou religious fanatics.
The last scene wraps up this classic with a perfect exchange between Mrs. Davidson and Sadie. The preacher's wife tells her, “I'm sorry for him and I'm sorry for you.”
To which Sadie replies, “And I'm sorry for the whole world, I guess.” She then walks off into the sunset with her soldier man.
© Danny Fortune