I have mentioned films not standing the test of time several times on this blog, and expect to mention it several times over, but I believe this is the first time I will say it in reference to a silent film. Although Sadie Thompson does indeed deserve both of its nominations, the story is reminiscent of something you know is a nightmare but are unable to wake up from it.
It starts well, with an island and a group of marines who have not seen white men, or more importantly white women in months. In comes a ship, carrying a reformer (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife, a tourist couple, and a single woman (Gloria Swanson) who is a breathtaking beauty and a flirt right from the beginning. All of the serving men are taken, especially the bashful Sergeant O’Hara (Raoul Walsh). Unfortunately, it turns out that Sadie’s “connecting” ship is quarantined for small pox and she has to stay on the island, much to the chagrin of the reformer, Mr. Davidson, and his wife. Immediately he assumes that she is a whore because she comes from San Francisco.
Using his incredible influence over the governor, he won’t allow her to proceed onto her final destination, but forces her back to San Francisco. Terrified and angry, she uses all of her whiles, every trick in the book, but Mr. Davidson will not budge. He believes that in order for her to repent, she must return home.
Although Swanson occasionally falls into the trap of overacting, she does very well at communicating through only body language. You can tell that she is a free spirited, energetic woman that cannot be tied down, and her chemistry with Walsh, who is also the director, is wonderful. The cinematography is remarkably better that the other silent films I have reviewed so far, without counting Sunrise.
The storyline, as well as Barrymore, are the two aspects of the film that were unbearable. It is supposedly a testament to hypocrisy, but really all I saw was a power hungry, crazed man whose actions and religion were both portrayed very negatively. Any Oscar-nominated film seems as if it should be making a statement, but I just felt hate toward the man and saw little connection with the alluded hypocrisy. Barrymore did fairly well with what was given to him, and he really is a terrifying villain, but his end does not seem fitting.
Toward the climactic finale, Sadie falls under Mr. Davidson’s spell, but eight minutes before the end, all that we see are still images stitched together to replace the corroded film. As saddening as this always is, it was a bit of a relief for me not to see the final scenes, although I know I lost of lot of analysis and understanding because of it. It almost feels like they created an ending because theoretically there has to be an ending to the story, but in reality the result seems disjointed from the rest of the story. However, my belief that it is disjointed doesn’t hold much water because I haven’t actually seen the final minutes of the film. I will give Walsh the benefit of the doubt and say that the actual ending of the film was probably much better and conclusive.
As far as films go, this isn’t one that I would eagerly recommend. If you are looking for a more energetic and engaging silent film than the romances I have reviewed so far, this could be an option for you. My favourite part was the very endearing character that Walsh himself played.