The Perfect (Moral) Storm

I am serving as a teaching assistant for my advisor’s Religion and the Cinema course.  In preparation for an upcoming lecture on the representations of preachers, ministers, and evangelists in film, I have been watching loads of films that feature such characters in lead roles.  As the lecture approaches I am trying to watch at least one of these films each day, all the while hoping that Netflix will not stall my account activity.  One of the early, most famous of these films is Rain (1932), directed by Lewis Milestone. The 1932 version of Rain is actually a remake of an earlier silent film of the same name and a predecessor to 1953’s Miss Sadie Thompson starring Rita Hayworth.  These films all tell the similar story of a young woman, Sadie Thompson (here played by Joan Crawford) and a couple of “reformers,” Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi) who are stranded on an island in the South Pacific waiting on a boat to take them to their final destinations.  A cholera outbreak has stalled their progress.  A storm welcomes them to the island, but the confrontation of a woman of loose living and these moral reformers creates an even more intense moral storm.

We first meet Sadie on the inbound boat as she laughs it up and drinks with some military friends.  We meet the Davidsons on the same boat, and as they make their way to their temporary lodging at Joe Horn’s hotel and store, Joe fills us in on these reformers.  “They’ll break your back to save your soul,” he says.  He also says that their main tenet is “Thou shalt not enjoy thyself.”  Ironically, Joe does not seem to be too bothered as he smokes and drinks throughout their stay.  The Davidsons first meet Sadie at Joe’s place as she and her military friends drink, laugh, and dance to loud pop music.  Mr. and Mrs. Davidson are immediately offended.  Alfred barges in to stop them, but the soldiers quickly throw him out.  He then morally chastises Sadie who gives just as good as she gets.  Alfred then storms off in a fit to visit the “governor” of the island who he eventually convinces to order Sadie’s departure on the first boat back to San Francisco.  The rest of the film follows Sadie’s attempts to convince Alfred to let her sail on to Australia only two days later (we learn that the police are waiting for her in San Francisco although she admits to being framed).  When Sadie cannot convince Alfred to change his mind, she converts and agrees to return to San Francisco to accept even unjust punishment for the sinful life that she had lived.

The role of the minister in this film is not a pleasant one.  (Un)fortunately, we cannot assign this minister to any particular denomination as the director and other actors never give any indication of a particular affiliation.  The absence of a clerical collar might point us in a particular direction.  In fact, without his “gospel message,” Mr. Davidson could represent any moral reformer of the 20’s and 30’s.  From the start, however, he is a stern, judgmental man.  He rigorously organizes his and his wife’s time on the island so as to prevent idleness and temptation:  study, exercise, and some recreation (even though it is a lower class pursuit) are the order of the day.  He judges Sadie from the minute he lays eyes on her, as does Mrs. Davidson who tells her fellow traveling companions, “Don’t look at her, don’t speak to her.”  Alfred tells her, “The devil is strong in you.”

Alfred defends his behavior by claiming that he is trying to give her the gift of salvation, all the while failing to realize that this gift is not his to give.  Moreover, his interactions with Sadie are totally devoid of the mercy that so lovingly characterizes God’s gift of salvation.  Throughout the film, director Milestone stages Alfred and Sadie’s interactions with one another to symbolize Alfred’s feelings of domination over her.  Walter Huston is naturally taller than Joan Crawford, and Milestone accentuated this with camera angles and positioning.  When Sadie begins to recite The Lord’s Prayer in zombie-like fashion with Alfred, she stands on a staircase with him several steps below.  As she prays upward to God, Alfred intercepts her line of sight.

Mileston’e film does not end so pleasantly, even though Sadie has accepted Alfred’s offer of salvation and abandoned the flashy clothes that characterized her loose living before.  Absent any visible signs of an internal struggle until the final few minutes of the film, driven mad, apparently by desire, the rain, or the natives’ drums, Alfred rushes into Sadie’s room and the camera fades to black.  The next day, fishermen find Alfred’s body in one of their fishing nets, as Joe tells one of his tenants that Alfred slit his throat.  Though the film never expresses it directly, the implication here is that Alfred raped Sadie and then, overcome with guilt, committed suicide.

Though Crawford and Huston give great performances, the film would have been better served with some semblance of a spiritual struggle on the part of the reformer who, from the start, seems confident in his faith and mission, all of which were apparently a cover up for his attraction to Sadie.

Rain (94 mins) is unrated (this does not mean what it means today!) and is available on DVD at some video stores and through Netflix.