Miss Sadie Thompson

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MISS SADIE THOMPSON—eye-catching, entertaining 1953 claptrap is primarily a showcase for the tantalizing Rita Hayworth, and as such well worth a gander, though the back-story is more interesting than the Production Code-tamed movie.*

Set in Samoa, following WW2, it envelopes the sultry Ms. Thompson (Hayworth)—cabaret singer, good-time girl or just plain hooker?—in waves of testosterone-sopped desire from a batch of sex-starved Marines, and spouts of steam from a lust-consumed moral crusader. Jose Ferrer blusters with required phony piety as the uptight do-gooder; Aldo Ray and Charles Bronson are able representatives of the dame-deprived troops.

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Thanks to bowdlerized scripting, the scrubbed-up drama doesn’t pan out to much, so the floor show belongs mainly to Hayworth, as sizzling as ever playing the title tease. Not quite as lithe as she was a few years earlier in Gilda, and dressed down to look tawdry rather than elegant, with little makeup, the ‘new’ 35-year-old Rita could still knock coconuts out of nearby palms, and raise the blood pressure of decent Christians.  Shimmering color cinematography of Hawaiian locations from Charles Lawton Jr. was shot to be released in 3-D as well as standard projection.

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Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, the 91 minutes are shallow but diverting, with Russell Collins, Diosa Costello**, Harry Bellaver and Rudy Bond.  Bronson has a small role, billed 11th, still under his last name Buchinsky. The song “Blue Pacific Blues” was Oscar nominated: it’s one of three numbers Hayworth performs, although dubbed by Jo Ann Greer. The others are “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” and “The Heat Is On”, which is the showstopper dance number, one with pre-Elvis gyrations that incensed the grand wizard venerable 85-year old Memphis,Tennessee censor Lloyd T. Binford (sounds like a guy who would be mis-aroused by fun) to drool that it was a “filthy dance scene” in a “rotten,lewd, immoral, just a plain raw dirty picture”—thanks, Lloyd: when’s it showing ?  It is pretty hot for a year when a #1 song was “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”  The bumping grind probably confirmed Hayworth as Hellbound to squirrel-brains since it followed her playing that same year as Salome, writhing out of veils to tease Charles Laughton’s slobbering King Herod toward the head of John the Baptist. Vixen! This test of the soul of a nation grossed $2,900,000, yet didn’t weaken our resolve: Mao’s landing craft never made it to the sands of San Clemente.

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* After serving in WW1 with the British Red Cross (one of the ‘Literary Ambulance Drivers’), W. Somerset Maugham was cruising through the South Pacific. Sitting out a quarantine in Pago Pago, Samoa during the rainy season, Maugham noted the doings of fellow stranded passengers and their clashing mores. His resultant 1921 short story “Miss Thompson” was adapted first as a play for Jeanne Eagles, then a 1928 silent, Sadie Thompson, with Gloria Swanson. Done with sound, it became Rain, with Joan Crawford in 1932. This third version in 1953 was updated to fit the second war, and suffered changes under the namby-pamby Production Code, with Ferrer’s character softened from a brutish missionary to a generalized zealot (don’t want to offend those Church power blocs) and Sadie turned from an obvious prostitute to a feisty singer with a ‘reputation’—no doubt all those millions of innocent ex-GIs may have been able to tell the difference if pressed. Likely, Maugham’s mischief & morals mashup will be summoned again, and the demon sex will at last come out from under the sheets. But what havoc will the new p.c. puritans bestow? Will Sadie will become Sidney?

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**One of only three films seared by the Puerto Rican nightclub sensation dubbed “The Latin Bombshell”, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 100–proving longevity might lie in the hips as much as in an attitude. Some clips on the Net showcase a bit of Costello’s exuberance, and her zestful interviews are worth looking up.

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