A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh, 1928)

It's sad that most people know Gloria Swanson only as the gorgon Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1957). Or that Swanson's deft parody of silent movie acting in that film constitutes many people's impression of what it was like. The survival of Sadie Thompson, even though it's missing its last reel, which the restorers piece out with old stills and title cards, shows what a formidable force Swanson could be on screen, generating enough heat that it's surprising she didn't ignite the nitrate film stock. The story is the familiar one of the San Francisco prostitute who comes to Pago Pago, where she clashes with a bluenose reformer who threatens to return her to San Francisco and the hands of the police. The reformer is Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore in full ham), who was a clergyman in Somerset Maugham's short story, "Miss Thompson," and the play, Rain, that was based on it, but becomes a layman here to please the Hays Office. Fortunately, Sadie has the support of a sturdy young Marine sergeant, Timothy O'Hara, played by director Raoul Walsh, who before turning director full-time had been an actor in the early days of silents; he played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). This brief return to acting was a one-shot: Walsh was planning to direct himself again in In Old Arizona (Irving Cummings, 1928), but lost his right eye in a freak auto accident while on location preparing to shoot the film; Warner Baxter took over the role and won an Oscar for it. Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for Sadie Thompson, as was cinematographer George Barnes, whose nomination included his work on two other films: The Devil Dancer (Fred Niblo, 1927) and The Magic Flame (Henry King, 1927). In fact, Barnes did only a week's worth of filming on Sadie Thompson before Samuel Goldwyn insisted he fulfill a contractual obligation to him; he was replaced by Robert Kurrle and Oliver T. Marsh.

Two Arabian Knights (Lewis Milestone, 1927)

The first ever Academy Awards, presented in 1929 for movies made in 1927 and 1928, included several categories that soon disappeared. There was one for "title writing," which the arrival of sound made obsolete, and the award for best picture was divided into two categories: "best production" and "unique and artistic production." The former was won by Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927), the latter by Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927). The distinction between "best" and "unique and artistic" is opaque, so the Academy dropped the latter category the next year. But one category split that it might well have retained, given the Academy's blindness toward comedy over the years, was the distinction between "director, comedy picture," and "director, dramatic picture." Lewis Milestone became the sole winner of the former award, but he might have missed out on that opportunity if the Academy hadn't excluded Charles Chaplin from competition. Chaplin was instead given a special award as writer, director, producer, and star of The Circus (1928), probably because the Academy board knew that he would have swept the honors if allowed to compete for them. The trouble is, Two Arabian Knights is not terribly funny. It's a series of bits about two raffish American soldiers in World War I, who escape from a German prison camp and through a series of improbable circumstances wind up in "Arabia," where they rescue the daughter of an emir from marriage to a man she doesn't love. It's the stuff every Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour movie was made of, but without the talent and charisma. The soldiers are a high-born Philadelphian, W. Daingerfield Phelps III (William Boyd) and his sergeant, a New York cabbie named O'Gaffney (Louis Wolheim). The emir's daughter is played by Mary Astor, who has little to do besides roll her eyes over her veil. Milestone and Wolheim would be reunited, with much better results, in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Boyd was a popular leading man in silents and early talkies, but he fell on hard times before, in 1935, he landed a role in a Western as a character named Hopalong Cassidy. He played the part for the next two decades in scores of movies and a TV series. Two Arabian Knights also features Boris Karloff in a small role.