Second looks: Rita Hayworth as ‘Miss Sadie Thompson’ (1953)

World War II is coming to an end. At a South Pacific military base, Sgt. Phil O’Hara (Aldo Ray) and his cohorts — all members of the U.S. Marines — are waiting to be discharged.

While they wait, the men carry out a series of mundane tasks that are required of them during peacetime, including picking up supplies. During one of these pickups, the men meet a group of passengers arriving to the island: Dr. (Russell Collins) and Mrs. (Frances Morris) Robert MacPhail, and Alfred (Jose Ferrer) and Margaret Davidson (Peggy Converse). They are the founders of the island’s mission hospital, who have been away for a year.

A mail boat soon arrives as well, and on it is singer Sadie Thompson (Rita Hayworth), who is on her way to New Caledonia.

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Unfortunately for Sadie, but to the excitement of the Marines, her trip is about to come to a halt. A week-long quarantine has been issued, and the boat she was planning to catch won’t be leaving. She’ll have to stay at the local hotel for seven days, dealing with the excitable Marines who want her to stay, and the very religious Alfred who wants her sent away.

Miss Sadie Thompson was directed by Curtis Bernhardt. The film was originally released in 3-D and is based on a W. Somerset Maugham story.

I first saw this film about six years ago if memory serves, and hadn’t watched it again until this year. What stuck with me the most after watching it was the music. This is really no surprise — I’m a big fan of musical films, and this one has a few stellar tunes. Both the instrumentals and Sadie’s numbers are enjoyable. One of the tracks, “Blue Pacific Blues” (my favorite song from the film), was even nominated for an Oscar.

Watching the film again now, I still find the music to be one of its best attributes. The music was written by Lester Lee (Affair in Trinidad, Ladies of the Chorus), the lyrics by Allan Roberts (Gilda, Campus Rhythm). Hayworth’s voice was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer, who also sang for Hayworth in Pal Joey and Affair in Trinidad. Greer’s voice is very pleasant.

(Image via soundtrackcollector.com)

(Image via soundtrackcollector.com)

With this second viewing, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for Hayworth’s performance and character. I didn’t remember much about Sadie herself, with so many years having past since I last watched the film. She’s a very interesting character.

Her dialogue is particularly striking — lots of biting one-liners about getting the most out of life before you’re dead. On the surface she seems to be having a ball, but Hayworth plays her as though her fun-loving personality is all an act, which (combined with that somewhat pessimistic dialogue) adds an interesting layer to her character.

Miss Sadie Thompson isn’t a perfect film, despite Hayworth’s strong performance and good songs. The romance between Sadie and O’Hara falls flat. Ferrer as Alfred Davidson, a foe for Sadie, is as emotionless as a brick wall (not to mention, a totally despicable man — a bigot, a misogynist). The conflict between them is dull throughout most of the film’s run-time, until the final ten minutes or so, at which point it takes a shocking turn.

Perhaps the 3-D gimmick was meant to make up for the slightly sluggish pace, but since I watched the film on DVD for both viewings, I have no way of knowing whether it was a successful tactic.

Now, despite these problems, I don’t dislike the film. As mentioned previously, Hayworth’s performance is great, as are the songs. The film is also worthwhile for the still-relevant social commentary that can be drawn from it, portrayed through the way that Hayworth’s character is treated by the men in the film. Her worth is tied to her reputation — even to O’Hara, who is willing to accept her past… until he learns that she worked at the Emerald Club.

It’ll take another watch or two for me to fully form my opinion about Miss Sadie Thompson. The final five minutes add such a twist to the whole story. But one thing’s for sure: Rita Hayworth’s performance makes it worth a watch, if you’ve not yet seen it.

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