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Joan Crawford always considered Rain, the 1932 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's story about a South Seas prostitute reformed then raped by a missionary, her worst film, which would suggest that a) she was swayed by her fan mail and b) she never got a chance to see Reunion in France (1942) or Trog (1970). In truth, her only mistake in making Rain was flying in the face of her stock casting at the time as an honest shop girl. From the vantage point of 75 years, the performance is quite powerful, while the picture itself is of interest as the most accurate film transcription of the John Colton and Clemence Randolph play adapted from Maugham's story.
The original play, performed by Tallulah Bankhead in London and the legendary Jeanne Eagels on Broadway, created such a scandal that when Gloria Swanson announced plans to film it, she had to change the title and assure Will Hays, enforcer of the industry's Production Code, that not one line of the original would turn up in the titles. She also had to soften some plot points and make her Sadie more of a fun-loving party girl and less of a harlot. When Rita Hayworth remade the story in 1953 as Miss Sadie Thompson the story had to be so cleaned up for the Production Code it was virtually unrecognizable as Maugham's original story. But the 1932 Rain was made in that curious period of film history called the "Pre-Code Years," between the coming of sound and the strict enforcement of the Production Code that began in 1934. As a result, Crawford's Sadie -- introduced in a striking series of close-ups of her feet, jewelry-laden arms and then her face -- was very definitely a woman of the streets. Although the Rev. Davidson was made a reformer rather than a missionary and references to his sexless marriage were dropped, it was still quite clear that he raped her and then committed suicide.
Crawford hesitated to accept the role of Sadie at first. Her friend, Billy Haynes, warned her that she would be competing with the memory of Eagels and Swanson, saying "You couldn't find a sharper razor to cut your throat with." But producer Joseph Schenck -- whose brother Nicholas owned MGM's parent company, Loew's, Inc. -- persuaded her that the role would give her the chance to prove that she was an actress and not just a personality. He also hired her favorite cinematographer, Oliver Marsh. That and the knowledge that Lewis Milestone, already a two-time Oscar®-winner, would be directing, was enough to change her mind.
When Crawford arrived for location shooting on Catalina Island, however, she quickly regretted her decision. The cast, many of whom were Broadway veterans, seemed to be looking down their nose at her. William Gargan, who played her romantic interest, admitted that he had never seen any of her movies, while acerbic comic Walter Catlett told her outright, "Listen, fish-cake, when Jeanne Eagels died, Rain died with her." Faced with so much hostility, Crawford responded by barricading herself in her dressing room and listening to Bing Crosby records so loudly and so often the cast complained to Milestone.
Milestone was hardly a blessing either. He insisted on rehearsing scenes endlessly. That was fine for the stage actors, who were used to repeating scenes over and over but for the un-trained Crawford, who usually performed instinctively and got stale after the first take, it was hell. Nor was Milestone happy when Crawford insisted that visitors be barred from the set and black cloths hung so outsiders could not watch her work. Years later she would claim that he gave her no direction at all, leaving her to figure out the character for herself.
Crawford was facing personal problems, too. She and husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had been drifting apart in recent months. Before leaving for vacation, she had learned she was pregnant, but a fall on a wet ship's deck led to a miscarriage. She refused to take Fairbanks' calls, and when he sailed to Catalina for an impromptu visit, the two had an ugly fight. He spent the rest of the shoot sailing off the Mexican coast with his friends Robert Montgomery and Laurence Olivier.
When Rain premiered, it received mixed reviews, including some respectable notices for Crawford. But there were also a good number of pans like the one in Variety: "It turns out to be a mistake to have assigned the Sadie Thompson role to Miss Crawford. It shows her off unfavorably. The dramatic significance of it all is beyond her range." But the worst notices came from her fans, who wrote to her to express their outrage that she had played a fallen woman.
Rain was one of the few flops of her early career, and when it was re-issued in 1939, to take advantage of her acclaimed villainous turn in The Women (1939), it flopped again. Little wonder Crawford would later say, "I hope they burn every print of this turkey that's in existence....I don't understand to this day how I could have given such an unpardonable bad performance. All my fault, too -- Milestone's direction was so feeble I took the bull by the horns and did my own Sadie Thompson. I was wrong every scene of the way."
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Maxwell Anderson
Based on the play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, and the story "Miss Thompson" by W. Somerset Maugham
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Joan Crawford (Sadie Thompson), Walter Huston (Rev. Alfred Davidson), William Gargan (Sgt. O'Hara), Guy Kibbee (Joe Horn), Walter Catlett (Quartermaster Bates), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Davidson).
by Frank Miller