One day a ship arrives in Pago Pago, capital of American Samoa; among the passengers are Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Davidson, with Mr. Davidson (Lionel Barrymore) being a "reformer" who, has come to Samoa to bring Christian morality and stop what he sees as the immoral lifestyle and behavior of Pacific islanders.
Also aboard is Miss Sadie Thompson, a former prostitute from San Francisco who is looking for a new life and has a job waiting for her in Apia, the capital of independent Samoa. The ship's departure to Apia is delayed by a smallpox quarantine and while she waits Sadie starts to fall for Sgt. Timothy O'Hara (Walsh), a Marine who is stationed in Pago Pago.
Unfortunately for Sadie, she has drawn the attention of Davidson,who makes her the target of his reforming zeal, pressuring her into repenting and changing her fun-loving ways.
He figures out that she is fleeing from San Francisco police, and has the governor of American Samoa issue a warrant to send her back to San Francisco. A terrified Sadie, who loses the support of O'Hara when Davidson has him confined to quarters, cracks under pressure and "reforms". She puts away her makeup, her jazz records,and accepts her return to San Francisco and prison as an act of Christian repentance—but Davidson is feeling pressure of his own.
Sadie Thompson was based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham called "Miss Thompson". It was one of the last commercial successes for Swanson, a star of the silent era who had a career rebound with Sunset Boulevard. Raoul Walsh had been directing for years, but this was his first acting role since 1915. It was also his last, as soon after that he was in a car accident that lost him his right eye.
In the early talkie era many silent films were remade, and so was Sadie Thompson. The 1932 remake, titled Rain, was directed by Lewis Milestone and starred Joan Crawford as Sadie and Walter Huston as Davidson. It is a nearly note-for-note copy of the 1928 film. Yet another remake, titled Miss Sadie Thompson and starring Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer, was released in 1953.
The last reel of Sadie Thompson has been lost due to deterioration of the negative. The Kino DVD release includes a "restoration" of the ending using still photos and original dialogue, and also includes as an extra the ending to Rain.
Tropes in this film:
- Adaptational Heroism: In the original short story, Sadie is a much darker character, much more The Vamp that led Davidson to his destruction. In the film she is a victim of Davidson's intolerance and lust. The love story with Sgt. O'Hara is another addition to the film to make Sadie more sympathetic.
- Driven to Suicide: After whatever happened between Davidson and Sadie (clearly something of a sexual nature), he cuts his own throat. His body is found on the beach the next morning.
- Empathic Environment: The monsoons that strike Pago Pago seem to really kick up at moments of emotional crisis, like when Sadie is panicking at the prospect of being sent back to San Francisco, or at the climax when Davidson is wrestling with his lust.
- Epic Tracking Shot: Rain includes several tracking shots that were highly unusual for the era. The scene where Sgt. O'Hara suggests that Sadie go to Australia and wait for him there runs seven minutes without a cut, following Sadie and O'Hara as they walk around the patio of the boarding house. The camera even spins to find Sadie back in her room after she runs inside in a panic.
- Establishing Character Moment: The first scene, and specifically the things they write in the autograph book, establishes the intolerance of the Davidsons as well as Sadie's fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude.
- Happy Ending: Sadie is back to her Manic Pixie Dream Girl ways, and she and O'Hara are going to leave for Australia together.
- Hitler Cam: Rain uses this more than once for shots of Davidson towering over poor little Sadie.
- Hypocrite: Davidson damns Sadie for her lustfulness and high living, but in the end his own lust destroys him.
- Imagine Spot: Sadie imagines being put behind bars in San Francisco.
- The Ken Burns Effect: The Kino DVD release pans and zooms the still pictures of the "restored" ending to liven things up.
- Mind Rape: Davidson does something very like this to Sadie. After "three tortured days" she cracks. She casts aside her makeup and flamboyant clothes, lets her hair hang limply, and dons a modest wool dress. She converts to Christianity and accepts that she has to go to San Francisco and serve her sentence, even after O'Hara says he can get a boat to smuggle her to Apia and freedom.
- This is even more overt in the remake Rain. Crawford starts hurling abuse at Huston, who responds by loudly reciting the Lord's Prayer, over and over again. She finally runs out of steam and goes silent, while he continues to recite the Lord's Prayer. Then she starts repeating his words. The scene ends with Crawford falling on her knees and saying the Lord's Prayer right along with him.
- Moral Guardians: The Davidsons are the worst kind, bent on imposing Christian blue-nosed, intolerant, puritanical morality on the laid-back natives of the South Pacific. Mr. Davidson certainly won't tolerate a prostitute like Sadie, even if she is trying to reform.
- Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: It eventually becomes pretty obvious that Davidson's lust for Sadie is the reason why he won't let her alone. Eventually he kills himself after a confrontation with Sadie. It's offscreen, so exactly what happened isn't specified, but it's clear that Davidson either tried to rape her or made some sort of sexual advance towards her.
- Sinister Minister: The dialogue establishes that Davidson isn't actually a minister, just a civilian "reformer", but in every other way he hits this trope, with his Bible-thumping, his intolerance, and his lust for Sadie. In the original story he actually was a Protestant minister, but this was changed for the film to appease censors.
- Smoking Is Glamorous: Sgt. O'Hara gives Sadie a cigarette and, after she puts it in her mouth, lights it with the one that he's smoking. It plays much like a kiss.