by Andrea Elizabeth
So many issues.
“From the 1921 theatrical adaptation of Maugham’s story through both previous films, Davidson is a figure of religious intolerance, and Sadie after her conversion is presented as a zombie, reciting by rote the religious rhetoric pounded into her by Davidson’s psychological pressure. Here, Sadie quietly and with dignity relates how she came to reassess her life. “When O’Hara walked out on me,” she says, “and I had nobody to turn to, Mr. Davidson helped me. I didn’t feel lost anymore. I’m back to myself again. Like I was, long ago.” Seeing an open Bible on her dresser, Dr. Macphail, the text’s representative of “objective” modern science, nods contentedly, as if to imply, “She can’t go far wrong with the Good Book.”
After being raped by the minister (who, since a Hays Code ruling in 1928, still cannot be identified on film as a minister), Sadie’s newfound “faith” waivers. However, in the 1950s text, the tolerance Dr. Macphail urges is not of Sadie as victim but of Davidson. “You mustn’t confuse what he did with what he believed in,” he tells her. Macphail’s unprecedented defense of the lapsed theocrat is part of the text’s desperate attempt to preserve the religion already shielded by Davidson’s unofficial status. By reconstructing Davidson as an example of “abnormal” psychology (he explicitly disparages “Freud, Adler, and Jung,” the decade’s other gods), the conservative religious ideology can be upheld as being essentially correct; only individuals occasionally go wrong. As Macphail says of Davidson after the rape, “He just couldn’t practice what he preached.” Sadie closes the circle uniting the men in the text verbally as well as vocally (and politically and sexually) when she says to the doctor, “You talk just like him.” And Macphail says disingenuously, “Do I? I didn’t realize.”
As a reward for her final capitulation, the forfeiture of her anger, O’Hara miraculously returns, suddenly willing to forget Sadie’s past. He belatedly explains that there should be no double standard for B-girls and marines, putting it in acoustic terms: “Counting up all I’ve done . . . I had no right to sound off.” Reunited and reengaged, Sadie rides off, propped up on her speedboat, happily restored to spectacle status, awaiting a rosy future with O’Hara.
The most reactionary and conservative version of Maugham’s story, Miss Sadie Thompson locks the woman into spectacle on all sides. Sadie’s happiness for the first hour rests on being the prized object, prime spectacle, “the only white woman” there. In the musical numbers, she cannot capture her own voice, and when she does speak her own experience, she is either barred access (presented as “hysterically” talking to herself offscreen) or unconsciously repeats the dominant ideology, presented at every point as inevitable. According to this classical text, the woman’s submission to spectacle status in both image and voice is, finally, the only possible course.
The convulsive repressiveness we saw in response to women’s efforts to speak in the films of the forties went underground in the fifties, camouflaged by spectacle on the one hand or transmuted into hysteria and melodrama—as in Sunset Boulevard .”
One issue is that the minister expects her to return to the states to face jail. I see a problem with the legislation of morality with punitive reprisals. What else could the state do? Enforce counselling? That’s what they do in civil cases, but what hope is there in that. Ms. Lawrence doesn’t seem too fond of Jung and Freud either. It’s like the attempted stoning of the woman caught in adultery. Sadie did want to change her ways not only because of the threats of Davidson, but because of how she saw she put other people in painful situations. The men were in pain before meeting her. Her incitement gave them hope of relief. *bigger spoiler alert* Davidson commits suicide after taking it, so that didn’t work. Can Sadie change? Will O’Hara still want her once he gets her? I think the movie is pretty convincing in promoting O’Hara as her only real help as someone willing to commit himself fully to help her instead of just offering advice and referrals elsewhere.
Then there’s the issue of her zombie state vs. feeling alive when she was getting fun attention. But there are happy nuns. St. Mary of Egypt found communion in solitude. Perhaps there is a transition state of withdrawal when one quits leaning on dysfunctional fixes. Ms. Lawrence is more concerned about her being portrayed as having a dysfunctional voice. Or one that is only functional when people are allured. I was not comfortable with her submission to Davidson even though I was glad she saw her methods more critically because of him. And I found the 23rd Psalm reading pretty moving and it’s effect on her nicely portrayed. Maybe he should have just referred her to God after that instead of the reflective conversations afterward. But I’m not comfortable with committing a damaged person to solitary confinement either. Nor is everyone in this day and age ready or able to go to a monastery. I think it’s a pretty dysfunctional age and maybe God will have mercy on people’s pitiful attempts to find positive connection.