Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: SADIE MCKEE (1934)

Vina Delmar is forgotten today except by classic movie buffs who may recognize her as the screenwriter for The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow. In 1933 she was popular enough as an author that M-G-M bought the movie rights to her Liberty magazine story "Pretty Sadie McKee" before it was published, with a Joan Crawford vehicle in mind. John Meehan adapted it and Clarence Brown directed. It's a rags-to-riches-to-respectability chronicle following Sadie through three intertwined relationships. Her parents are servants to the Alderson family and she grew up as the playmate to Michael, the Alderson scion. Grown up, she's gotten work outside the household but comes in to play maid for larger dinner parties. At one such she re-encounters Michael (future Mr. Crawford Franchot Tone), now a lawyer, and shares friendly memories of childhood pranks. But when Michael talks of making an example of Tommy Wallace (Gene Raymond), a boyfriend of Sadie's who's gotten into trouble, she can't hold back from denouncing Michael and his entire social set in front of the dinner party. She and Tommy elope to the big city, where the feckless boy seduces her with a song ("All I Do is Dream of You") on the ukelele in advance of their wedding.

The next day, Tommy dumps her. While she's waiting at the court house to get a marriage license, Tommy is seduced in turn by Dolly Merrick (Esther Ralston) who makes him part of her act -- a musical stooge, he interrupts her song while "practicing" in the audience until she yields the spotlight to him. Left to her own devices, with only Opal (Jean Dixon) for a friend, Sadie finds work as a niteclub dancer. One night she catches the eye of Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold), an overgrown child of an alcoholic millionaire. He wants to marry her on the spot, but his dinner companion objects. It's Michael Alderson, his legal counsel, and Sadie marries Brennan mainly to spite him. The spite is mutual as Michael suspects Sadie of gold-digging. She isn't especially welcome with the Brennan servants, either. They prove a bunch of enablers, led by butler Finnegan (Leo G. Carroll) who keep their master sozzled the way he likes. Sadie's happy to go along with that for a while, especially when the prospect arises of seeing Tommy on the side, but when she learns that Brennan could drink himself to death before long, she takes it upon herself to dry him out, defying Michael and the servants, who all think the worst of her, and ultimately Brennan himself, whose drunken antics grow steadily less comical as his self-destructive streak becomes more apparent. Arnold nearly steals the film with his wild-man performance, riding a wild arc from comedy to outright menace as Brennan finally slugs Sadie in the face after she empties his liquor cabinet. At its trough, Sadie McKee is a dark reflection of the era's gold-digger comedies as her sugar daddy proves far less manageable than the typical befuddled buffoon that Guy Kibbee might have played.

The film goes soft in the final act as Meehan (or Delmar) clears all obstacles to a happy ending. Brennan climaxes his ultimate tantrum by tumbling down a flight of marble stairs and breaking his leg. Laid up, Brennan finally dries out and, realizing what he owes Sadie, he agrees to divorce her after she learns that Tommy and Sadie have broken up. Tommy's health is failing now, causing the fickle Sadie to dump him. Michael tracks him down and discovers that he has the Movie Disease (cough, cough). He sets the man he once wronged up in a sanitorium, but it's too late for anything but a deathbed scene in which Tommy commends Michael to Sadie. With his two rivals nobly renouncing their claims, Michael gets the girl at last despite being a self-righteous jerk for most of the picture. The film's main flaw is its failure to convince you that Michael deserves Sadie; he simply prevails by a process of elimination, without displaying Tommy's languid, musical sensuality or Brennan's briefly attractive playfulness. Before the wrap-up, however, Brown puts a pretty good picture together. It's an unusually musical picture for a non-musical, and the music -- Tommy on the ukelele, a small jazz ensemble at Sadie's niteclub compelled by Brennan to play all night -- gives the movie a distinctive, almost leisurely atmosphere that makes Brennan's turn to brutality all the more alarming.  Sadie McKee is about three-quarters of a fine movie, and if the end keeps it from being great its overall record is still pretty good. 

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