Sadie Thompson (1928): Starring Gloria Swanson in Oscar-Nominated Performance

A major silent star, who began performing in her early teens, including some of Mack Sennett comedies, Gloria Swanson was nominated as Best Actress for the silent movie Sadie Thompson, and for her first talkie, The Trespasser.

This version of the famous story by W. Somerset Maugham, made in 1928 by Raoul Walsh, is considered the best of the several adaptations.

Swanson plays the titular role, a prostitute (not exactly with a heart of gold), who follows the fleet to Pago Pago, from which a crusader (Lionel Barrymore, as usual hammy) tries to banish her.

Eventually the repressed crusader falls for Sadie, who is dallying win a marine, played by director Walsh with gusto.

Joan Crawford played the same role in MGM’s 1932 movie, titled “Rain.”  Rita Hayworth essayed the part in 1953, when Columbia remade the Maugham story as “Miss Sadie Thompson.”

The movie was financed by Joseph P. Kennedy (President J.F. Kennedy’s father), who was Swanson’s lover at the time.

Well-produced, with polished technical values supervised by William Cameron Menzies, “Sadie Thompson” was also nominated for Best Cinematography (by George Barnes).

Detailed Plot

Gloria Swanson plays a heavy smoking and drinking, jazz listening young prostitute, who arrives at the island of Tutuila, claiming to be waiting for employment.  The ‘moralists’ arrive, including Mr. and Mrs. Davidson (Lionel Barrymore), are staying in the same hotel, where they plan to teach the natives about sin.

Sadie falls in love with Sergeant Timothy O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), who is unfazed by her past. He tells her that he has a best friend who married happily a former prostitute, now living in Australia.

Davidson sets about trying to redeem Sadie, but she finds him self-important. Davidson tricks her into telling him about her past in San Francisco  and, when she refuses to repent, he threatens to have her deported. Sadie is terrified of the idea but O’Hara assures her it won’t happen. He wishes she would go to Australia and wait for his term of service to finish.

Sadie and O’Hara beg the Governor to let her go to Australia instead of back to San Francisco. She eventually confesses that, if she goes back to San Francisco, there is ‘a man there who won’t let her go straight. For Davidson, this means there is warrant for her arrest back in San Francisco. Sadie claims that she was framed and is innocent, but Davidson still refuses, insisting she atone for her past.

Sadie eventually offers to repent, but Davidson says that the only way to fully repent is in prison. Davidson tells her that if she repents there will be nothing to fear and after praying with her, she converts to Christianity.

O’Hara returns and tells Sadie he has a fishing boat to take her to Australia, where they can marry and be free. Afraid, she refuses to go, saying that ‘old Sadie is dead’ and she must go to San Francisco and prison to repent. O’Hara, upset, leaves and Sadie pleads with Davidson not to get him in trouble.

that night, while Sadie is asleep, the restless Davidson walks in the rain. His wife says he can’t sleep for “the unpleasant dreams he’s been having about Miss Thompson.” Outside, Davidson is struggling with himself, realizing he is sexually attracted to Sadie. Sadie, frightened because she heard noises, is waiting in Davidson’s room. Davidson jumps into the ocean, killing himself, unable to reconcile his conflicted passions. Sadie and O’Hara reconcile and head for Australia.


Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Alfred Davidson

Blanche Friderici as Mrs. Alfred Davidson

Charles Willis Lane as Dr. Angus McPhail

Florence Midgley as Mrs. Angus McPhail

James A. Marcus as Joe Horn, the trader

Sophia Artega as Ameena

Will Stanton as Quartermaster Bates

Raoul Walsh as Sergeant Timothy ‘Tim’ O’Hara

Oscar Context

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Janet Gaynor (for three films).  The Cinematography Oscar went to the co-lensers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, for Murnau’s “Sunrise,” one of the films starring Gaynor.

Swanson’s subsequent movies were unsuccessful, and in 1934 she retired.  Swanson made an abortive comeback in the comedy Father Takes a Wife, and then, after a decade, rendered a memorable comeback in Sunset Boulevard, in which she played a neurotic fading movie queen. Hollywood couldn’t deny Swanson a nomination for her comeback as well as for her indelible portrayal.