not in our stars, but in ourselves
Watching Pre-Code films can be a bit of a game. How many of the Code’s commandments can we possibly break? filmmakers seemed to ask between 1930 and 1934. If you want a fun drinking game, you could always keep a copy of the Code with you as you watch some fabulous dream from the early Dirty Thirties, and drink every time the film breaks a rule. Rain (1932), based on W. Somerset Maugham’s short story of the same name and filmed more than once, would land you in the emergency room.
On a steaming hot island in the South Pacific, a ship has been forced to dock and dawdle unexpectedly, due to a possible cholera outbreak among the crew and to the stormy weather. Good-natured Marines, stationed on the island, are delighted to find among the ship’s passengers Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford): a good-time girl if ever there was one, fond of jazz and liquor and men, in about equal portions. She is, in short, a prostitute – but the Marines never treat her as anything but a friend and an equal. It’s nice. Sadie is less than delighted to find a group of missionaries trying to cramp her style: most particularly, the meddlesome Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi). They object to jazz on Sundays. They object to what she does for fun and profit. Mrs. Davidson insists that her husband deal with their vile fellow-traveler, and Davidson uses every trick in the Book to get Sadie to repent, to atone for her life of sin, to do penance for crimes she has and hasn’t committed. All that religious fervor, however, is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing; but isn’t it always?
I should say here and now: Rain is not a great film. It’s about as far from Pre-Code masterpieces like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933) as (to borrow from Nabokov, with apologies for the inversion) mast from mist. It’s clunky at times, and didactic; and these are two things you’ll never find in the best Pre-Codes. Nevertheless, there are enough interesting things happening to warrant at least one viewing. For one thing, there’s Crawford. Is she at her best here? No. Is she absolutely compelling to watch? Yes, sir. There are times when the film allows her to express the consuming fire inside her, to express it in those extraordinary eyes (seriously, I know everyone thinks of Taylor when they think of incredible eyes, but she never did as much with them as Crawford does in every film), and it’s worth the price of admission. She’s leagues beyond everyone else around her.
For another thing, there’s an explicit dislike and distrust of “reformers.” Guy Kibbee, everyone’s favorite ’30s Humpty Dumpty (mine, anyway), abandoned America after that least popular reform, Prohibition, came in. He says, “We live in the day of the new commandment: thou shalt not enjoy thyself!” Oh, Guy, just wait a couple of years. Unfortunately, the reformers have found him. The terrible thing about reformers, god-botherers, and fanatics of all sorts: once they wear out their welcome on their own turf, they go looking to “save souls” elsewhere. Just like the writers and enforcers of the Code weren’t satisfied with saving the souls of those willing to be saved, warriors in the name of the Lord that they were, and decided to turn their focus on that Garden of Earthly Delights: Hollywood.
That in itself is unusually subversive, even in a Pre-Code. More usually subversive elements, for your drinking game: eliciting sympathy for a life of crime; sympathy for the violation of law both human and natural; use of liquor in American life; sanctity of the home and of marriage torn to shreds; inference that “low forms of sex relationship” are accepted and common; adultery treated explicitly; scenes of passion introduced when not necessary to the plot; lustful embraces; “seduction” or, more aptly, rape, is much more than suggested; miscegenation abounds; vulgar and profane phrases; ridicule of religious faith; ministers of religion as villains; bedrooms not treated with good taste or delicacy; the sale of women and a woman selling her “virtue.”
I’d suggest starting with a light beer. If you go into Rain with harder stuff, you’ll be in big trouble.
P.S. Now seems as good a time as any to embarrass myself again and call attention to the serious-ish essay I wrote a million years ago in university about the Production Code. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but it might be helpful if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. If nothing else, you can go straight to the Works Cited and read what real scholars have written.