Sadie McKee - 1934
Directed by Clarence Brown
Released May 9, 1934
Crawford takes on the American depression and high society - - and wins.
The story in Sadie McKee
"Look, look at that gorgeous creature... a thoroughbred! Yes sir, there's no mistaking the aristocrat, is there?"
That's what three men in a limousine say when they spot Sadie McKee (Joan Crawford) walking toward a gargantuan manor house where she is a part-time maid and her mother is the cook. The three men are on their way to this same place. They don't offer Sadie a ride to the distant mansion that is so large it appears to be two football-field lengths away, and possibly just as wide.
Minutes later Sadie is inside preparing to help serve a large and important meal at the mansion. There we meet family friend and attorney, Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone). Michael reminds Sadie that when they were kids she had promised she would grow up to be a nurse and help people. She answers, "And you promised you'd be a prize fighter."
And that's the theme of our film. Sadie has the aristocratic bearing, but not the money and Michael is slightly miffed with Sadie for being quite too beautiful while belonging to the servant class. His accusations will get harsher as the tale unfolds, accusations which she will bat back, trading insult for sarcasm as she clambers upward through moneyed society. His frustration is obvious to us, he wants Sadie but she is out of reach, and anyway, she is in love with another man.
Ukuleles and poverty
Sadie’s man and the money clambering is due to the ne'er-do-well Gene Raymond (as singer Tommy Wallace) who is forced to leave town because of his general immaturity. (He can, however, sing "All I Do is Dream of You" effectively while strumming a ukulele.) He and Sadie end up at a boarding house in a rough part of New York City. Sadie is planning to get married, something which doesn't happen a day (and importantly, a night) later because Tommy and his ukulele suddenly run off with cabaret singer Dolly Merrick (played by Esther Ralston).
Now stranded in New York City and nearly penniless, Sadie is taken under the wing of a dancing hostess (who might also be a quasi-prostitute) played by fellow boarding-house resident Bella played by actress Jean Dixon. (We know Dixon better as the maid, Molly, in My Man Godfrey. She is called 'Bella' in this film but listed as 'Opal' in the official credits. Well, names are a problem in this film. Michael refers to Tommy once as "Tony" so these character names are a little slippery.)
Sadie meets millionaire Jack Brennan (actor Edward Arnold) at the nightclub (run by Akim Tamiroff) where she and Opal/Bella work. Brennan is infatuated at first sight, and is soon offering marriage to Sadie because she is the first girl he has met on his alcoholic drinking sprees (which appears to be his full-time pursuit) who talks straight to him.
Well, honesty is a basis for a sound marriage, and Sadie (and Bella/Opal) are soon ensconced at Jack Brennan's beautiful home, despite the fact the hectoring Michael (Franchot), who also Brennan's attorney, warns him that Sadie is only after his money (which Brennan already expects and accepts).
Also on staff is Brennan's head butler, Finnigan (played by a sneering Leo G. Carroll) who takes one long look at Sadie and decides she is a fortune-hunter meant to be sneered at (so he continues sneering for the next 40 or so minutes). How can he know that Sadie has a heart of gold? He can't, but he will learn.
But like director Clarence Brown's camera work, Michael can't stay away from Sadie. He keeps appearing regularly to insult her, angry with frustration because she basically won't do what she is told to do. (Why should she? They all think she's a tramp, except for her husband.)
The usually drunk Brennan (Edward Arnold gets to do little of his trademark stentorian yelling here) seems to be always laughing and teetering, a genial millionaire who is always paying for drinks all around. He has found a best friend and protector with Sadie, who once they are married keeps him safe and more or less on his feet as his alcoholism worsens. The condition isn't called alcoholism in this film, but is referred to as 'it,' and this same let’s-not-name-it attitude appears later in the story when we see Gene Raymond succumbing to tuberculosis, also never named.
High society, Michael, and the working class servants all believe Sadie is just a gold-grabbing opportunist taking advantage of the perpetually drunk Jack Brennan, but when Brennan's doctor says that his drinking has reached a stage in which he will have only a short time to live, Sadie steps in and takes control. She cuts her husband off from alcohol and fights the servants who are still sneaking it to him (threatening to kill Finnigan with a bottle, for example). She finally confronts the huge staff at the Brennan mansion with the threat of firing everybody, and making them swear, with hands raised, "not another drop to Mr. Brennan so help me God."
In a scene that would have been right at home in the pre-code Hollywood movies of just a year earlier, Brennan lapses into something like a detoxing state of madness, socks Sadie in the jaw and staggers in a self-satisfied stupor from his bedroom to his staircase, declaring "here's to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!" and promptly rolls backwards down the stairs and into a coma.
Now that medical care can be attempted with less resistance, Sadie and the doctors nurse Brennan back to health and a stable mental state. With that out of the way, Gene Raymond finally appears again (the ukulele strumming Tommy from earlier in the tale) and sings "All I do is Dream of You," yet again (the song permeates this movie from start to finish) staring thunderstruck at Sadie as she sits in the audience at a music hall.
Auld Lang Syne
Though the film portrays this momentary reunion as the reminder (and rekindling) of who Tommy really loves (despite having run out on Sadie) and who Sadie really loves (despite having married Brennan and having cared for him quite competently as a wife and nurse) it is easier to look at this turn of events as both Sadie and Tommy longing for their lost innocence. Sadie states this explicitly by saying she would trade everything to be back at the boarding house with Tommy once again which, considering events, doesn't make a lot of sense otherwise. But this film is adapted from a novel by Vina Delmar, which may have featured Tommy and Sadie happily living out of wedlock at the boarding house for a time before the cabaret singer lured Tommy away.
Michael (Franchot) is still around, and by now has come to admire Sadie (as has everyone else). He recognizes that Sadie is longing for Tommy, and when Sadie and Brennan begin an amicable divorce. (He's on his way to Europe, sober, and understands that Sadie loves him, but also doesn't love him, so why shouldn't they have a friendly divorce?) Michael sets off for New Orleans (it actually looks like the New York City set) to find Tommy where the Cabaret singer finally ditched him. Tommy is found coughing up a storm, in an advanced stage of it-is-not-named, and Michael says he is determined to get medical attention for him, and immediately the scene changes to a hospital where it is snowing fiercely (and obviously not New Orleans.)
Sadie soon arrives, and is warned by the doctors that Tommy is doomed. She goes to his hospital bed and they lie to each other about a future they each know is out of reach, Tommy saying "I'll sing you a song again," an impossibility for his lungs, but an ambition he repeats enough times that Sadie begins shedding tears.
Seeing this, Tommy begins bragging on how well Michael has been caring for him, which shocks Sadie. She always thought Michael hated Tommy. Then the ukulele player expires.
Four months pass, and Sadie, her mother, Bella/Opal are now in their own apartment in New York City where Sadie is working as a nurse. (Did Brennan divorce her without providing any support? Is this volunteer work? The film doesn't reveal the answer) . Michael is a frequent visitor to this apartment and is on hand for a birthday cake in his honor. Mother McKee tells him he has to blow out all the candles for his wish to come true. (Incidentally, there are only 21 candles, Franchot Tone was 29 while making this movie.) After Michael stares at Sadie meaningfully, he obviously has his wish firmly imagined, he blows out all of the candles, proving that he at least has good lung power. With Auld Lang Syne swelling up, the end credit hits the screen.
Is Sadie McKee a good film? Crawford is certainly the reason we are watching the movie on home video (part of this box set at Amazon: The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 (A Woman's Face / Flamingo Road / Sadie McKee / Strange Cargo / Torch Song) and without her this melodrama would be nearly forgotten. She is where the camera is constantly pointed in the tale, and very little happens in the story in which Crawford is not at the center. She is expertly earnest, suffering, and patient. It is the template for many other films besides this one.
The Photography and storytelling is polished and professional, but the plot transitions indicate some tension about what could be shown in the film and what had to be (at most) implied. Not an unusual problem for a melodrama production during the years when Hollywood was moving from the pre-code era into the Hayes Code era.
Joan Crawford Films
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Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association