THE BOOTLEG FILES: “RAIN”

If there was one thing that Joan Crawford hated more than wire hangers, it was her 1932 movie “Rain.” Said Crawford in retrospective gaze: “I hope they burn every print of this turkey that’s in existence.”

Ouch! Actually, double ouch – since “Rain” was not the “turkey” that Crawford imagined it to be. Although the film’s production marked a significantly unhappy time for Crawford’s personal life, her professional abilities were not ill-served in this often maligned feature.

“Rain” takes place on a quarantined island in the South Pacific. A group of steamer passengers are forced to stay on an island, which is experiencing torrential rain storms. Among the passengers is Sadie Thompson (Crawford), whose profession is fairly obvious thanks to her flashy wardrobe, excessive make-up and extreme friendliness to the American soldiers with a base on the island. Sadie’s too-easy ways earn the wrath of another passenger, Reverend Davidson (Walter Huston), who takes it upon himself to “save” Sadie from her wicked ways. Sadie is none too interested in being “saved” – unless the savior is the hunky Sergeant O’Hara (William Gargan), who doesn’t seem to mind her lack of angelic qualities.

However, Reverend Davidson has a trump card: he discovers Sadie is wanted for an unspecified crime in San Francisco. Threatening to have her deported back to San Francisco and a lengthy jail sentence, he is able to manipulate her into becoming a religious convert. But then Reverend Davidson turns wicked and attacks her. Plagued by the guilt of his carnal lapse, he kills himself. Sadie leaves behind her brief flirtation with religious fervor and departs from the island with Sergeant O’Hara, who plans to marry her in Australia.

“Rain” began life as a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, then it became a Broadway play written by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. The legendary Broadway star Jeanne Eagels headlined that production, but the first film adaptation (a 1928 silent) starred Gloria Swanson instead of Eagels. By the time the 1932 version was being prepared, Eagels had already passed away and Swanson’s star had waned dramatically with the coming of sound to motion pictures. That Joan Crawford was chosen for the role was a minor scandal in its time, as she was viewed primarily as a glossy MGM movie star and not as a great actress (her studio loaned her out for the role in this independent production). Even her co-stars in “Rain” doubted her abilities. Walter Catlett, who had a supporting role, brazenly informed Crawford at one point: “Listen, fishcake, when Jeanne Eagels died, ‘Rain’ died with her.”

Crawford’s relationship with her other castmates was equally icy, and director Lewis Milestone never established a mutually respectful partnership with her star. Compounding this situation was Crawford’s deteriorating private life, particularly her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Crawford refused to take his calls to the Catalina Island location where “Rain” was shot and his abrupt visit to the set was reportedly the source of additional friction between the couple. Crawford reportedly had a miscarriage during production, which obviously added to her tensions. For most of the production, she kept to herself in her dressing room – and her self-isolation only added to the venomous gossip against her.

But despite these problems, Crawford did actually create a highly memorable performance as Sadie Thompson. It is not a subtle performance, but the character is not supposed to be subtle. Sadie Thompson is a brassy, extroverted, unapologetic whore and Crawford (in a bold departure from her established screen persona) went to town as the apotheosis of whoredom. With a built-in sneer, a musical walk, and eyes that sized up a man like he was prime beef for carving, her Sadie Thompson is a wildly lusty animal. When she meets the American soldiers, for example, she gives them an improvised salute and greets them as a unit with a simple yet lethally erotic-charged salutation: “Boys!”

Crawford also more than holds her own against Walter Huston’s monstrous preacher. Huston was no slouch in the hamming department, and his scenery chewing here is acute. Yet when he and Crawford go to war, she more than holds up her own with dramatic fury. Even when her character is backed into the proverbial corner with threats of deportation and jail, she holds the audience’s attention in a larger-than-life meltdown. Huston’s villain eventually plays out as a stock villain, but Crawford’s character is a true work of art.

Unfortunately, Crawford’s fans were not ready to accept her in such a dramatic departure. “Rain” actually snagged good reviews, but the box office returns were dismal. Crawford reportedly received plenty of angry mail from fans who were furious that she would play a prostitute, and the star (who had a genuinely emotional rapport with her fan base throughout her career) was devastated to receive such scathing criticism. By this point, her marriage to Fairbanks had frayed beyond repair. Crawford spent many days in solitude during this rough period, relying solely on her intense study of the Christian Science faith as a means of gaining strength to push ahead.

Over time, Crawford would belittle “Rain” as being a mistake. One quote had her saying: “Oh who am I kidding? I just gave a lousy performance.” It would not be until 1939 that Crawford dared to venture into another role outside of her glamourous and sympathetic screen persona: in the classic film “The Women,” in which she walked off with the film in a brilliantly bitchy turn as a would-be marriage wrecker. Ironically, the success of “The Women” encouraged a re-release of “Rain” with the hopes that Crawford’s fans (who came out in droves for “The Women”) would give the earlier film a second chance. They didn’t.

“Rain” had its copyright lapse into the public domain and it has been available for years in bootleged dupes (mostly of a fair-to-poor quality). Yet Crawford’s Sadie Thompson became, by default if not design, the standard for that much-performed role. The Broadway productions (the Jeanne Eagels original and a later Tallulah Bankhead version) were legendary only to those who saw those live performances (neither was recorded for film, sadly). Gloria Swanson’s silent version, “Miss Sadie Thompson,” was out of circulation for many years because its final reel was lost. That reel is still lost, but the film can be seen today with a replacement reel consisting of production stills and footage from “Rain” (Swanson actually stated it was her favorite performance, even more so than her iconic Norma Desmond).

Later versions, both official remakes (a film with Rita Hayworth in 1953 and a TV movie with Carroll Baker in 1970) and unofficial versions (an all-black 1946 indie starring Francine Everett and a hokey 1950 ripoff with Shelley Winters and, of all people, Liberace) are little known today. There was even a series of comedy sketches on Sonny and Cher’s 1970s variety show that featured Cher as the hip-swinging Sadie Thompson and Sonny as the now-timorous Reverend Davidson. Perhaps the most intriguing “Rain” was the one never made: a proposed 1960 NBC production that was to star Marilyn Monroe (the network balked at her demand for Lee Strasberg to direct the broadcast).

But as for Joan Crawford, “Rain” is not the stinker she imagined it to be. It is a fun old film which deserves to be sought out. And thanks to bootleg videos, it will always be available for appreciation.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on March 3, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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