The film sure doesn’t lack tension, and there’s a very satisfying stage-like intensity in the second half, but it misses the opportunity with an ending that, regardless of the fact that’s it’s recreated through stills, doesn’t live up to the hype it previously promises. Lionel Barrymore would’ve made for a great nominee.
Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson
Gloria plays Sadie Thompson, an easy-going, outspoken, party girl who stops on the island of Pago Pago, on her way to a new job. She has a conflict with an overzealous Christian missionary, who is also an influential man, which will bring out a dark secret from Sadie’s past and cause her a nervous breakdown when faced with imminent imprisonment. It sounds a bit complicated, though the role is not as tragic as it seems: it has its lighter side in the first half.
The role is quite consistent and offers plenty of possibilities for the actress to show range. Gloria looks gorgeous all throughout the film and the camera clearly loves her. She uses it at its best, especially when showing the seductive, fun side of Sadie, in her first scenes. She knows about men, she knows how to amuse them, how to entertain, yet keeping the fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s vulgar. I didn’t always find myself on her side in the first scenes, but I could recognize this girl and how her down-to-Earth attitude was not badly intended.
Gloria has no problem in proving the street-smarts of the character, while carefully underlining the vulnerable, human side, especially in her first conflict with Davidson. She feels cornered, doesn’t realize what she did wrong, and her reactions are natural, well-played and bring likeability to the character as the story progresses. Her reactions of worry and anger are very believable and have a great contribution to the tense atmosphere, so important for the 2nd part of the film.
But as I said, it’s not all perfect. Her breakdown scene was overplayed, I thought, and might be the only weak moment in her acting. One could blame it on the directing maybe, I just thought she was a bit overtheatrical in that scene, trying to take it far enough to justify the change in her character. It’s not terribly wrong, but maybe she could’ve found some other way.
As you might know, the last 8 minutes of the film are missing, and Sadie Thompson has been recreated using stills and the original screenplay for dialogue. That’s a pitty, because at one point there’s a scene with Sadie, and the card says: Behold me in all my glorified glory – I’m radiant – I’m beautiful! And it’s sad we cannot see how she acts this line, which seems so deliciously difficult to deliver or act around.
It’s an enjoyable performance, actually more than that: a good one. She hardly loses focus, gives a believable, confident performance, she’s gorgeous to look at and makes the character more accessible than someone else might’ve managed. Even if it’s a success, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going with more than… Oh, wait: very last minute update: I was going for a 3, but let’s make that an almost . She does sell the film. :)
***I usually don’t count photos of the actors on screen as screentime. But considering the missing footage here, I did take in account the stills from the last minutes, meaning: I also included as screentime when she appeared in a production still in the restored scenes. And that gave me the total of approximately 51 minutes, 23 seconds. Without the restored ending, the screentime is 48 minutes, 57 seconds.