Walter Huston Rains On Joan Crawford’s Parade: Lewis Milestone’s ‘Rain’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) is a prostitute with a heart of gold. Mr. Davidson (Walter Huston) is the missionary who decides it’s his duty to save Sadie’s soul. That Sadie’s soul needs saving, of course, is something Mr. Davidson takes for granted, but the idea that he could be wrong would never occur to him.

Lewis Milestone’s Rain is the second screen adaptation and the first sound film based on W. Somerset Maughams short story, “Miss Thompson.” Before that, Jeanne Eagels played Sadie on Broadway and, as writer and historian, Richard Barrios, talks about in his commentary, Crawford had to endure being constantly compared to Eagels (including by her fellow cast members).

As a film in the public domain, Rain isn’t exactly hard to find online, but the difference between some of the prints that have been available in the past and the 4K restoration VCI has done for the film’s 90th anniversary is significant, especially in terms of the picture quality, and how crisp the opening sequence now looks in black and white. As film historian and San Francisco Chronicle writer, Mick LaSalle, brings up in his commentary, Milestone and cinematographer, Oliver T. Marsh, brought an art film sensibility to Rain that’s especially apparent in those close-ups of the rain. From droplets on palm leaves to droplets on sand, Milestone and Marsh immediately lay to rest any questions over how the film got its title.

While these sequences get across how wet life is in Pago Pago, they don’t necessarily get across what a hindrance rain is going to be for Sadie in this movie. Pago Pago was supposed to be a layover stop, not a two week stay, except a cholera outbreak aboard the ship Sadie was on changed plans.

Being trapped on an island is bad enough, but once Sadie takes a room at the General Store, her freedom become even more restricted. With travel made nearly impossible by the weather, there’s no escaping Mr. Davidson or his righteous fervour. No reasoning with the man either.

So why subject yourself to such an unpleasant story? For one thing, the world is filled with Mr. Davidsons, and pretending they don’t exist doesn’t change anything, but what stands out about Crawford’s Sadie is how much she maintains her power, even while giving way to Mr. Davidson’s demands.

It all comes down to the scene where Mr. Davidson is praying, and Sadie slowly joins in. In his commentary, La Salle questions whether Crawford and Huston successfully sell the journeys their characters go on in this movie, and Crawford’s transition during the prayer scene is a key moment, but while it could be interpreted as too extreme a change, with Sadie suddenly backing down after choosing to fight, that’s not the only possible explanation. Another way of looking at the scene is that it’s not so much Sadie learning to agree with Mr. Davidson’s harsh views, but her realizing she’ll never get through to him. He holds all the cards, and there’s nothing she can do about it – “if you can’t beat ‘um, join ‘um.”

Because while Sadie does admit defeat on some matters, she stands her ground about others, like maintaining her innocence while agreeing with Davidson that she should be punished anyway. It’s these holdouts that make Crawford’s Sadie so interesting, whereas with Huston it’s all about Davidson’s self-assured stillness (contrasted with Crawford’s fidgeting).

One thing’s for certain: for all that Rain seems destined for a dismal ending, viewers may be surprised by how things turn out (and despite being able to get away with more as a pre-code movie, there’s still a lot left to subtext at the end).

More thoughts on the bonus features:

While La Salle’s commentary is more scene specific, some of the topics covered include how prostitutes were depicted in pre-code movies, the film’s post-Freudian outlook, and the questionable casting of Kendall Lee as the only character whose opinion of Sadie is never made clear (Lee and Milestone would marry a few years after filming). Barrios’ commentary offers more behind the scenes tidbits (like the beginner’s mistake that costume designer, Milo Anderson, made with Crawford’s dress) while also admiring how Rain was able to make the transition from stage to film.

There’s also a Betty Boop cartoon (where Betty Boop is Cinderella), an alternate “cut version” of Rain that Atlantic reissued in 1938, and a booklet with an article by Marc Wanamaker.

Rain is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now from VCI Entertainment.

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