Sadie McKee (1934): Quintessential Joan Crawford Melodrama

In this quintessential Joan Crawford Depression-era vehicle, while under contract at MGM, she plays the title role, a maid in one of the richest houses in a small town. Her mother (Helen Were), who’s a cook there, has been pushing her into a romance with Michael (Franchot Tone), the house’s “young master.”

Though fond of Michael, Sadie is in love with Tommy (Gene Raymond), an impractical man who works in a factory. When Tommy is fired from his job for dishonesty, he tells Sadie that he plans to move to New York. Sadie follows him to the Big City, expecting to marry him, but Tommy takes up with a rich girl, Dolly (Ester Ralston), and deserts Sadie at the marriage license bureau.

What’s an ambitious girl to do Sadie stays in New York, determined to get along with no men in her life, finding employment as a nightclub entertainer. Things change, when Sadie meets the older millionaire Brennan (Edward Arnold), who’s afflicted with a severe drinking problem. Attracted to Sadie, because among other things, “we both are children of cooks,” Brennan proposes and she marries him out of pity, knowing all too well that she will never be happy with him.

Heavy melodrama kicks in the film’s second half, when Tommy gets killed (sort of a punishment for his sordid ways). The whole point of the text is to get rid of the abusive and neurotic drunken Brennan, so that Sadie would be free to marry the man of her mother’s dreams. In due time, Michael returns to her life and after some misunderstandings, the couple ends up together, after all.

Clarence Brown directs in a reliably proficient way the John Meehan verbose script, which is based on the story “Pretty Sadie McKee,” by Vina Delmar. Crawford costumes, designed by Adrian, are more imaginative than the stale scenario or direction, which somehow “exaggerates the artifice,” as the New York Herald Tribune film critic put it.

Crawford is not particularly good in the film’s first reel, when she has to project naivet and innocence, qualities that were never associated with her screen image, but her work improves as the story goes along.

End Note

In 1934, Joan Crawford made three movies at MGM; the others were “Chained” and “Forsaking All Others.” ¬†She married her co-star of “Sadie McKee” Franchot Tone, a vet of New York’s famous Group Theater, in 1935, in a union that lasted four years. They appeared in seven films together.