“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

Back in the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was king of the Hollywood industry, thanks to the business and artistic acumen of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. One major aspect of MGM that made it the most successful studio eighty years ago was its star system. The studio used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”. One of its top stars was Hollywood icon, Joan Crawford.

Crawford first gained the notice of the MGM brass back in the mid-to-late 1920s. By the early 1930s, she had become a major star, whose metier was the “shopgirl-turned-Cinderella” story. This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1934 movie, “SADIE McKEE”. Based upon Viña Delmar’s 1933 short story, “Pretty Sadie McKee”, this movie told the story of a young part-time serving maid from upstate New York, who moves to New York City with her n’er do well boyfriend, Tommy Wallace, to start a new life as a married couple. When Tommy abandons Sadie to become part of a nightclub act with a beautiful singer named Opal, Sadie is forced to take a job as a chorus girl at a nightclub. There, she meets a wealthy businessman named Jack Brennan, who falls hard for her. Although she marries Jack, Sadie realizes that she still loves Tommy and that her new husband is a serious alcoholic.

When I first saw “SADIE McKEE”, I feared it would become another “EVELYN PRENTICE”, an old and rather unsatisfying MGM melodrama that had been originally released during the same year. And I viewed “SADIE McKEE” with a jaundiced eye. I am happy to say that my wariness proved to be groundless . . . for about two-thirds of the film. I have to commend both director Clarence Brown and screenwriter John Meehan for setting up Sadie’s story – her initial friendship with childhood companion Michael Alderson, attorney for her future husband; their falling out over Sadie’s romance with Tommy; and her engagement to and abandonment of the latter. If I must be honest, Meehan’s screenplay – at least two-thirds of it – proved not only to be detailed, but also well paced. Probably the best aspect of “SADIE McKEE” was its dark portrayal of alcoholism in the form of Sadie’s husband, Jack Brennan. In a scene that I never came across in a movie made before 1950, the film revealed how excessive alcoholism could lead an affable man like Brennan commit a shocking act of violence against the leading lady.

I managed to enjoy and appreciate “SADIE McKEE” so much that I was surprised when the movie took a disappointing turn during its last fifteen to twenty. Two things occurred that I believe brought about the movie’s downfall. Brennan finally became sober – a bit too early for my tastes – and Sadie discovered that her former fiancé, Tommy, was dying from tuberculosis. I honestly wish Brown and Meehan had either allowed Sadie’s story with Brennan and Michael to last longer. In fact, I wish she had never re-entered Tommy’s life in the first place. Their reunion at a hospital reeked with over-the-top sentimentality that bored me senseless. I believe in forgiveness as much as the next person – which is probably barely at all. But I thought Sadie’s forgiveness of Tommy happened a little too quick for my taste. I also had a problem with the movie’s last scene, which followed rather quickly on the heels of Tommy’s death scene. I read other reviews of “SADIE McKEE” that claimed it ended with a romance between Sadie and Michael. Really? I certainly did not get that impression. I felt more of a renewed friendship between them.

The performances in “SADIE McKEE” more than made up for the movie’s last act. Several bloggers have complained that leading lady Joan Crawford had failed to convey Sadie’s innocence in the film’s early scenes. I cannot agree with this assessment. I thought Crawford did a fine job in portraying the more innocent Sadie. More importantly, she expertly conveyed Sadie’s developing character as the latter faced more troubles. Franchot Tone gave an earnest performance as Sadie’s once and future friend, attorney Michael Alerson. On paper, his emotions seemed to be all over the map, but Tone skillfully kept his performance under control and did not allow his character’s emotions to get the best of him. I have never been much of a Gene Raymond fan. In fact, the only movie I had previously seen him in was the 1933 musical, “FLYING DOWN TO RIO”. Needless to say, I was not impressed. However, I was impressed by his portrayal of the charming, but shiftless Tommy in “SADIE McKEE”. Raymond made it easy for me to understand Sadie’s attraction to him.

Esther Ralston gave a funny, yet sympathetic performance as Sadie’s dependable friend, Dolly Merrick. Jean Dixon gave a skillful performance as the charming, yet shallow songstress Opal, who lures Tommy to her act and later dumps him. Fans of the television series, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” would be surprised to see Leo G. Carroll portray the butler in the Brennan household. I thought he gave a solid performance. But the movie’s best performance came from Edward Arnold, who was outstanding as Sadie’s alcoholic husband, Jack Brennan. Arnold once claimed that Brennan was his favorite role. It struck me as a difficult role for any actor to perform. But Arnold more than held his own in a skillful performance that revealed the best and the worst of this complex character. Personally, I feel that Arnold should have received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Despite the disappointing finale, I still managed to enjoy “SADIE McKEE”. I would not regard it as one of the best films to star Joan Crawford. But aside from its maudlin finale, I found it fascinating. Director Clarence Brown, screenwriter John Meehan and a talented cast led by Crawford did a solid job in bringing the adaptation of Viña Delmar’s short story to the screen.

“A FREE SOUL” (1931) Review

A Free Soul (1931)

 

“A FREE SOUL” (1931) Review

A good deal of time has passed since I last saw a movie released during the Hollywood era known as Pre-Code. Just recently, one movie caught my attention, while watching a documentary about the era on YOU TUBE. Intrigued, I found myself watching the 1931 film, “A FREE SOUL”.

This 1931 movie became famous for a good number of reasons. It marked leading lady Norma Shearer’s first role, following her Oscar winning performance in “THE DIVORCEE” and solidified her reputation for starring in provocative films about modern women in the early 1930s. The movie not only proved to be the first time American film audiences took notice of future star Clark Gable, it also marked the first time that the latter would co-star with Leslie Howard. The two actors reunited some eight years later in the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. “A FREE SOUL” also became famous for a scene that featured a monologue from Lionel Barrymore that may have led to the actor’s Best Actor Academy Award.

Adapted from co-writer Adela Rogers St. Johns’ novel and Willard Mack’s play, “A FREE SOUL” told the story about the relationship between an alcoholic San Francisco defense attorney and his free-spirited daughter. When Stephen Ashe successfully defends mobster Ace Wilfong from a murder charge, he inadvertently introduces the latter to his daughter Jan. Although the Ashe family expects Jan to marry the also well-born Dwight Winthrop, she becomes romantically involved with Wilfong. The affair comes to an abrupt end when Ashe learns about it from a lovesick Wilfong. Disgusted over his daughter’s affair with the gangster, Ashe makes her promise to end it, and he promises to stop drinking. Jan, Ashe and the latter’s assistant named Eddie; spend a long vacation in the Sierra Nevadas. But Ashe, still longing for alcohol abandons Jan and Eddie at a small town in search for booze. And when Jan returns to San Francisco, she finds herself abandoned by the Ashe family and faced with an angry Wilfong, who demands that she marries him.

I really did not know what to expect of “A FREE SOUL”. Despite the hulaballoo over Pre-Code films during the past two decades, I have found some of them a bit overrated. Happily, I cannot say the same about “A FREE SOUL”. Some have said that the plot was a loose adaptation on the life and career of Adela Rogers St. John’s alcoholic father, Earl Rogers. It was probably a very loose adaptation, since I doubt that St. John ever dated a gangster. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I enjoyed this movie a lot. Well . . . most of it. I have one or two quibbles about the film. I found some of the performances in the movie a bit theatrical. Although Lionel Barrymore, Norma Shearer and Clark Gable all gave first-rate performances, there were moments when they came off as a bit theatrical . . . or seemed unable to shake the pantomime style of the silent era. Only Leslie Howard and James Gleason managed to avoid this. And there was also that brief moment in the movie’s first scene in which Stephen Ashe was handing Jan her lingerie, while she dressed in another room. Huh. Were director Clarence Brown and the screenwriters trying to be provocative? Or did interactions between St. John and Rogers actually happened? Personally, I found it odd and a touch incestuous. I really wish producer Thalberg had ordered it cut or altered.

There is one major aspect of “A FREE SOUL” that truly bothered me. I got the feeling that both Stephen and Jan Ashe were being punished for their actions in this film. Ashe’s alcoholism was treated as some kind of criminal misdemeanor or social affrontery, instead of the disease that it truly was. The screenplay’s treatment of the Jan Ashe character really annoyed me. At first the movie allowed her to revel in her sexuality, portraying her as a sexual and free-spirited woman. But apparently, sexual and free-spirited women – especially those from among San Francisco’s high society – are not allowed to be that. The screenplay made sure to punish Jan for her approach to life by allowing her to have a disastrous affair with a gangster. In the end, she has become a more somber and “respectable” woman who ends up married to the very respectable Dwight Winthrop. So much for the independent woman of the Pre-Code Era.

Despite these drawbacks, I must admit that “A FREE SOUL” is good melodrama. Screenwriters Adela Rogers St. John, Becky Gardiner, Willard Mack and John Meehan created a fascinating tale of sex, crime, family conflict and alcoholism. I may have been a little upset at how the movie treated Ashe’s alcoholism as some kind of social disease at times, I must admit that I was impressed by how the movie also showed the level of his decline in scenes that featured his inability to overcome his alcoholism during the Ashes’ vacation and Jan’s discovery of him inside a seedy flophouse back in San Francisco. And Norma Shearer really strut her stuff in scenes that featured Jan’s sexual desire for Wilfong. I was amazed at how she made it all look fluid and natural, despite a few scenes in which she clung to silent pantomime. The screenwriters did an excellent job in allowing the plot to flow naturally. But they were not the only ones responsible for the movie’s natural flow. I also have to give credit to director Clarence Brown for maintaining the film’s steady pace . . . and preventing me from falling asleep out of sheer boredom. Many films from the early 1930s, especially those from MGM, tend to come off as filmed plays. Thankfully, I could never accuse “A FREE SOUL” of being one.

“A FREE SOUL”, like any other film is not perfect. It had its flaws. But I believe that a first-rate narrative, solid acting from an excellent cast led by Norma Shearer and Oscar winner Lionel Barrymore, and well-paced direction from Clarence Brown allowed the movie to hold up very well after eighty-odd years.