Thursday, November 6, 2014

"SADIE McKEE" (1934) Review




"SADIE McKEE" (1934) Review

Back in the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was king of the Hollywood industry, thanks to the business and artistic acumen of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. One major aspect of MGM that made it the most successful studio eighty years ago was its star system. The studio used to boast that it had "more stars than there are in heaven". One of its top stars was Hollywood icon, Joan Crawford. 

Crawford first gained the notice of the MGM brass back in the mid-to-late 1920s. By the early 1930s, she had become a major star, whose metier was the "shopgirl-turned-Cinderella" story. This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1934 movie, "SADIE McKEE". Based upon Viña Delmar's 1933 short story, "Pretty Sadie McKee", this movie told the story of a young part-time serving maid from upstate New York, who moves to New York City with her n'er do well boyfriend, Tommy Wallace, to start a new life as a married couple. When Tommy abandons Sadie to become part of a nightclub act with a beautiful singer named Opal, Sadie is forced to take a job as a chorus girl at a nightclub. There, she meets a wealthy businessman named Jack Brennan, who falls hard for her. Although she marries Jack, Sadie realizes that she still loves Tommy and that her new husband is a serious alcoholic.

When I first saw "SADIE McKEE", I feared it would become another "EVELYN PRENTICE", an old and rather unsatisfying MGM melodrama that had been originally released during the same year. And I viewed "SADIE McKEE" with a jaundiced eye. I am happy to say that my wariness proved to be groundless . . . for about two-thirds of the film. I have to commend both director Clarence Brown and screenwriter John Meehan for setting up Sadie's story - her initial friendship with childhood companion Michael Alderson, attorney for her future husband; their falling out over Sadie's romance with Tommy; and her engagement to and abandonment of the latter. If I must be honest, Meehan's screenplay - at least two-thirds of it - proved not only to be detailed, but also well paced. Probably the best aspect of "SADIE McKEE" was its dark portrayal of alcoholism in the form of Sadie's husband, Jack Brennan. In a scene that I never came across in a movie made before 1950, the film revealed how excessive alcoholism could lead an affable man like Brennan commit a shocking act of violence against the leading lady.

I managed to enjoy and appreciate "SADIE McKEE" so much that I was surprised when the movie took a disappointing turn during its last fifteen to twenty. Two things occurred that I believe brought about the movie's downfall. Brennan finally became sober - a bit too early for my tastes - and Sadie discovered that her former fiancé, Tommy, was dying from tuberculosis. I honestly wish Brown and Meehan had either allowed Sadie's story with Brennan and Michael to last longer. In fact, I wish she had never re-entered Tommy's life in the first place. Their reunion at a hospital reeked with over-the-top sentimentality that bored me senseless. I believe in forgiveness as much as the next person - which is probably barely at all. But I thought Sadie's forgiveness of Tommy happened a little too quick for my taste. I also had a problem with the movie's last scene, which followed rather quickly on the heels of Tommy's death scene. I read other reviews of "SADIE McKEE" that claimed it ended with a romance between Sadie and Michael. Really? I certainly did not get that impression. I felt more of a renewed friendship between them.

The performances in "SADIE McKEE" more than made up for the movie's last act. Several bloggers have complained that leading lady Joan Crawford had failed to convey Sadie's innocence in the film's early scenes. I cannot agree with this assessment. I thought Crawford did a fine job in portraying the more innocent Sadie. More importantly, she expertly conveyed Sadie's developing character as the latter faced more troubles. Franchot Tone gave an earnest performance as Sadie's once and future friend, attorney Michael Alerson. On paper, his emotions seemed to be all over the map, but Tone skillfully kept his performance under control and did not allow his character's emotions to get the best of him. I have never been much of a Gene Raymond fan. In fact, the only movie I had previously seen him in was the 1933 musical, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO". Needless to say, I was not impressed. However, I was impressed by his portrayal of the charming, but shiftless Tommy in "SADIE McKEE". Raymond made it easy for me to understand Sadie's attraction to him. 

Esther Ralston gave a funny, yet sympathetic performance as Sadie's dependable friend, Dolly Merrick. Jean Dixon gave a skillful performance as the charming, yet shallow songstress Opal, who lures Tommy to her act and later dumps him. Fans of the television series, "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." would be surprised to see Leo G. Carroll portray the butler in the Brennan household. I thought he gave a solid performance. But the movie's best performance came from Edward Arnold, who was outstanding as Sadie's alcoholic husband, Jack Brennan. Arnold once claimed that Brennan was his favorite role. It struck me as a difficult role for any actor to perform. But Brennan more than held his own in a skillful performance that revealed the best and the worst of this complex character. Personally, I feel that Arnold should have received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Despite the disappointing finale, I still managed to enjoy "SADIE McKEE". I would not regard it as one of the best films to star Joan Crawford. But aside from its maudlin finale, I found it fascinating. Director Clarence Brown, screenwriter John Meehan and a talented cast led by Crawford did a solid job in bringing the adaptation of Viña Delmar's short story to the screen.

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