Based upon the W. Somerset Maugham short story “Miss Thompson”, (also known as “Rain”) this 1928 silent feature stars a powerhouse pairing of Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson and Lionel Barrymore as fundamentalist reformer Davidson under spirited and judiciously impassioned direction by Raoul Walsh. With such stellar talent (not to mention production design by William Cameron Menzies) on board, there is every reason to expect an adaptation of this tale of hypocrisy under the guise of religious zealotry to be uncompromising in its adherence to the original literary source.
That is succeeds even partly is both heartening and disappointing; heartening in that in expanding the story to move beyond a relative chamber piece, the film’s focus shifts away from the story’s almost pathological fascination with Davidson and affords a more generous characterization of Sadie, which strengthens both her transformation- which in the story is left to the reader’s faith to accept- and explains the dramatic psychological shift in Davidson that leads to the ironic climax. The film, however, disappoints in the elements of the story that were easily translatable and are still missing, rendering unfortunate reduction to the final film; the film following the controversial play adaptation “Rain”by John Colton and Clemence Randolph more closely than the Maugham original.
The diminishment of the McPhails from whom the reader of the story retains their most balanced perspective of the Davidsons and the subsequent reign of enforced spiritual terror they bring to both the islands and specifically Sadie, is a damaging and needless change in the psychological dynamic of the story. While the film hints at Davidson’s seemingly complete control over the islands-including the gubernatorial authority- the story is blatant in the oppressive hold he holds over the entire native culture giving him a sense of omnipotence which is progressively commented on by the shy but sensible Dr. McPhail who finds the clergyman’s actions increasingly distasteful. Davidson is also diminished in his theological position in the film from minister to civilian which makes his dictatorial behavior even harder to rationalize in how it’s accommodated by both governing and military authority.
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