Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)
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If the Rita Hayworth of the 1940s - the Hayworth of Gilda (1946) and Cover Girl (1944) - is the ultimate glamour icon, the Hayworth of the 1953 Miss Sadie Thompson is a glamour queen who's a little more tarnished, and perhaps a little more interesting. In this highly sanitized version of W. Somerset Maugham's short story "Rain," Hayworth plays the Sadie Thompson of the title, a woman of shadowy morals and vibrant sex appeal who arrives on a Pacific Island just after World War II, much to the delight of the Marines stationed there, but also to the consternation of morally upstanding missionary-type Alfred Davidson (played by Jose Ferrer). As scrappy Marine Sergeant Phil O'Hara (Aldo Ray) woos Sadie, Davidson seeks to banish her from the island, though his motives have more to do with his own dark desires than with Sadie's alleged crimes against morality. In Miss Sadie Thompson, there's a dollop of tragedy, a soupcon of redemption, and a whole lot of steaminess, thanks to Hayworth's sultry presence - though the performance is notable less for its sexiness than for how touching Hayworth is, as a rather blowsy beauty who seems to know her days for potential romantic happiness are numbered.
In the movie's early scenes, Hayworth's performance is intentionally high pitched; her character is working hard to be the good-time gal, and so Hayworth exaggerates the hip-swinging and hair-tossing. In the later scenes, though, Hayworth's gravity intensifies in a way that challenges the picture's attempts at light-heartedness. Hayworth's performance is terrific, so good that it seems to belong in a different movie, which makes sense considering Miss Sadie Thompson was designed essentially as a breezy entertainment. That in itself was a bit of an odd choice considering that other actresses - among them Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, and, onstage, Jeanne Eagels - had played the same character in earlier and considerably juicier versions of the material. Miss Sadie Thompson, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, was at first intended to be a musical, and Lester Lee and Ned Washington contributed a few songs which made it into the final cut: The most memorable is Hayworth's song-and-dance number "The Heat Is On," in which Sadie raises the Marines' collective temperature by shimmying and shaking across the dance floor in a flouncy, citrus-colored dress. The picture was also shot as a 3-D feature, though the version that ultimately played in theaters was 2-D. And many of the story's original details were softened considerably: For example, Ferrer's character, Alfred Davidson, originally a minister, was turned into more of a bureaucrat-missionary, ostensibly to prevent American religious groups from lodging complaints. (Ferrer has conceded that he took the role only to drain some of the heat off the attention he'd recently attracted from the House Un-American Activities Committee.)
Bernhardt himself wasn't particularly happy with the finished movie. As he told interviewer Mary Kiersch in an oral history conducted for the Director's Guild of America, preparing the film in 3-D meant keeping the camera very still for long stretches, which made the actors self-conscious and stiff. "I found Rita most cooperative on this film, though," he adds, further noting that the actress was going through some personal turmoil at the time. At the time Miss Sadie Thompson was being made, Hayworth was still reeling from several failed marriages - her second and third, respectively, to Orson Welles and to Prince Aly Khan. Thus she was vulnerable to the advances of singer, actor and notorious scoundrel Dick Haymes - his nickname in Hollywood was, according to Hayworth biographer Barbara Leaming, "Mr. Evil" -- who pursued her aggressively. At the time, Haymes owed alimony and child support to a number of ex-wives and was heavily in debt; Hayworth, then one of Columbia's biggest stars (and certainly one of its most beautiful), must have looked like quite the meal ticket.
Perhaps unwilling to let this dollar sign with legs out of his sight for an instant, Haymes followed Hayworth to Hawaii, where Miss Sadie Thompson was being filmed. Before leaving the United States - at the time, Hawaii was still a U.S. territory, not a state - Haymes, a citizen of Argentina, obtained the documents he thought he needed to travel there. But when he returned to the States a few weeks later - after some heavy-duty wooing of Hayworth in a tropical paradise - he was detained and threatened with deportation. As it turned out, Haymes was allowed to remain in the country: Hayworth married him in September of 1953, which also meant marrying his financial difficulties. The couple would divorce two years later, by which time Hayworth's career was already in decline.
But in Miss Sadie Thompson, Hayworth was still burning bright. Her Sadie - unlike the Sadie originally written by Maugham - was less obviously a prostitute than a seductive mischief maker with a hearty appetite for fun. Hayworth wears that zest for life almost literally on the surface of her skin: She gleams with sweat through most of the movie - her beauty is a little coarser, a little more world-weary, a far cry from the powdered glow of perfection that had become familiar from her previous film roles. She was also about 10 pounds heavier than her usual weight, and the additional padding - far from being unwelcome - gives her extra erotic swagger. During Sadie's brief period of religious redemption, all that life temporarily goes out of her - suddenly, her skin and her eyes look dull; she has become zombified. We desperately need the old Sadie back, and thankfully, we get her. Miss Sadie Thompson suffers from clumsy tone shifts - it's never quite sure what kind of movie it wants to be. But Hayworth's Sadie knows exactly what she's doing: She's not suffering through life, but rather living right through the pain. The difference between the two may be subtle, yet it's as wide as the ocean, and Hayworth bridges it beautifully.
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner (based on the story "Rain" by W. Somerset Maugham)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Editing: Viola Lawrence
Music: George Duning
Cast: Rita Hayworth (Sadie Thompson), Jose Ferrer (Alfred Davidson), Aldo Ray (Sgt. Phil O'Hara), Russell Collins (Dr. Robert MacPhail), Diosa Costello (Ameena Horn), Harry Bellaver (Joe Horn), Peggy Converse (Mrs. Margaret Davidson), Charles Bronson (Pvt. Edwards), Henry Slate (Pvt. Griggs).
C-91m. Closed Captioning.
by Stephanie Zackarek
Gene Ringgold, The Films of Rita Hayworth, Citadel Press, 2000
Barbara Leaming, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth, Sphere Books, 1989
John Kobal, Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place and the Woman, Berkley Books, 1983
Mary Kiersch, Curtis Bernhardt: A Director's Guild of America Oral History, Director's Guild of America and Scarecrow Press, 1986