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Reviews of silent film releases on home video.
Copyright © 1999-2014 by Carl Bennett
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Sadie Thompson
(1928)
 

Fun-loving Sadie Thompson is in the South Seas, on the lam from the San Francisco law. She unfortunately comes into contact with Mr Davidson, a megalomanical reformer who pathologically needs to control all he surveys. Sadie’s coarse enthusiasm soon makes her a target of Davidson’s strictured judgments. He quickly figures out her stateside occupation and the reason for her recent flight from the law, lording the revelation over Sadie to pressure her into submission to his will.

We love Gloria Swanson’s feisty performance as Sadie Thompson, for it certainly looks as though Swanson had fun swaggering through this role. (You may note that Sadie is also ahead of her time, being at the pinnacle of today’s early 21st century fashion, with the faint tattoo on her left arm.) Director Raoul Walsh wrote the scenario adaptation and also stepped in front of the cameras to portray the Marine sergeant who protects and falls for Sadie. Walsh’s striking eyes are seen here just months before he lost one of them in a freak accident while on a film location. Walsh’s direction is very good, impressing us throughout in general, and especially in his framing and selection of shots during Davidson’s probing interview of Sadie. Lionel Barrymore is a proper bastard in the role of Mr Davidson, the meddlesome, self-rightious reformer. For Barrymore fans, there is plenty of his trademark handwringing on display.

The film plays well to modern audiences, being a still-relevant condemnation of the hypocritical efforts of moralistic reformers. Many of these self-styled saints can be seen on a Saturday morning on some obscure cable television channel with all of Davidson’s confidence in their powers of infallible judgment and their need to control. Watching Sadie Thompson, you’ll be begging out loud at the screen for Sadie not to submit to Davidson’s pious and intimidating pressure. Lipreaders will have fun watching Sadie verbally rip into Davidson after she learns she is to return to the San Francisco that she just fled. And as always, the storming rain continues outside as a metaphor for the turmoil and conflict between Sadie and Davidson.

For Kino International’s 1987 restoration of the film, Dennis Doros utilized the sole surviving print of Sadie Thompson that was originally stored in Mary Pickford’s personal film archive (as were many of the silent era films released by United Artists) — a print since preserved at the George Eastman House film archive — and supplemented the surviving footage with duplicates of shots from earlier in the film, still production photographs, the original scenario, intertitle records, and a clip from the sound remake Rain (1932) — which was also shot by cinematographer Oliver Marsh — to reconstruct the closing minutes of the ninth and final reel, lost to decomposition in the 1950s. At places in the surviving print the beginning stages of decomposition is present to mar the image and distract the viewer. A few shots are so severely decomposed that the center portion of the image is all but obliterated. But we are lucky to have had this film preserved when it was, since it is likely at best the decomposition of the original print been arrested or at worst it may have even progressed further. — Carl Bennett

2001 Kino on Video DVD edition

Sadie Thompson (1928), black & white, 96 minutes, not rated.

Kino International, K194, UPC 7-38329-01942-6.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, single-layered DVD disc, Region 1, 4 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 12 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $29.95.
DVD release date: 20 February 2001.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 8 / audio: 7 / additional content: 8 / overall: 7.

From the beginning of the film you’ll be grateful for the new video transfer in this edition, which corrects the severe overcropping of the main credits present in Kino’s earlier home video edition of Sadie Thompson released on laserdisc and videotape in 1990. The remainder of the new transfer seems to frame the image on a shot-by-shot basis since the DVD cropping appears to be much the same as the laserdisc at some times, at other times the difference of additional picture image is quite pronounced. The sides of several intertitles were clipped off by the laserdisc framing. The cropping of the new transfer is more open, but some inset shots of handwritten letters will still have the left and right edges of the lettering cropped off when viewed on some television monitors. We take the opportunity to again lobby for windowboxed framing of silent era films to the edges of most television’s overscan cropping to allow as much image to be seen as possible.

The preservation print utilized for the video transfer was a bit contrasty, being slightly blown-out in the highlights and slightly closed off in the shadow areas of the image. The new transfer holds highlight detail while opening up some of the shadow images that were lost on laserdisc. The soft focus and slightly sepia cast to the graytones of the laserdisc transfer have been corrected and improved in the DVD transfer, which features neutral graytones and sharper image detail. The transfer speed of the DVD is also very slightly slower than the laserdisc transfer making the pacing of the film’s action even more natural. The actual running time of the Kino International restoration, including introduction and end credits, is 93.5 minutes. An additional 3 minutes of exit music, running over a black screen, concludes the program.

An original music score was composed by Joseph Turrin for Kino’s 1987 restoration. That score, nearly all woodwinds and horns in its arrangement, was performed by a small orchestra and is flawlessly reproduced here in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack.

The DVD specific extra features are fronted by the amusing main menu screen. Four groupings of supplementary material begins with the section “Background Essays,” subtitled “The Many Faces of Sadie Thompson.” The section is divided into the following subsections that are presented in 56 screens of text and images. “The True Sadie” details author Somerset Maugham’s chance encounter with a prostitute that he saw on a South Seas cruise, who became the model for Sadie Thompson. “Sadie on Stage” covers the play adaptation of Maugham’s story and includes a reproduction of an original program for the production of Rain starring Jeanne Eagels (a very Sadie Thompsonish actress). “Big Screen Sadie” includes a brief bio of Gloria Swanson, a handful of Swanson and Raoul Walsh stills, production stills from the 1928 film, a sample page from Walsh’s scenario with handwritten notes, and a reproduction of an original herald for Sadie Thompson, with original print ads.

The next section is titled “Scene Comparisons” and is presented in two subgroupings entitled “Meet Sadie Thompson” and “Sadie’s Wrath Unleashed.” Both subsections feature text exerpts from Maugham’s original story and the play adaptation Rain by Colton and Randolph. Also featured are exerpts from the 1928 and 1932 films. The section “Sadie’s Wrath Unleashed” shows how Swanson’s enthusiastic, spitfire performance puts to shame the deliberately-paced 1932 talkie performance of Joan Crawford.

The section “The Lost Ending” features a text exerpt from Raoul Walsh’s scenario, and exerpts from the 1928 and 1932 film adaptations to give a sense of the different approaches to the film’s conclusion. And the section “Photo Gallery” features 50 still photographs from the film, which can be stepped through by DVD remote or viewed hands-free in an automated slide show format.

This new DVD edition of Sadie Thompson, ably produced by Bret Wood, is enough of an improvement in the video transfer alone to coax collectors to upgrade their copies from Kino’s previous edition. The inclusion of the supplemental material should be mere icing on the cake. We recommend this home video edition of Sadie Thompson.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2007 Passport Video DVD edition

The Gloria Swanson Collection: 10 Fabulous Films (1915-1931), black & white, 675 minutes total, not rated,
including Sadie Thompson (1928), black & white, ? minutes, not rated.

Passport Video, unknown catalog number, unknown UPC number.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, five single-sided, dual-layered DVD discs, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops, five-disc DVD keepcase, $19.98.
DVD release date: 13 February 2007.
Country of origin: USA
This edition has likely been mastered from 16mm reduction prints. Identifying logomarks are likely superimposed over a lower corner of the picture to discourage video transfer piracy.

The silent films are likely accompanied by a soundtrack compiled from preexisting recordings.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Other silent era GLORIA SWANSON films available on home video.

Other silent era RAOUL WALSH films available on home video.

 
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