When prostitute Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson) arrives on the island of Tutuila, she expects to only be making a brief stopover before going on to Apia. But then her boat needs to be quarantined for ten days and she waits the time out by staying in a hotel along with religious zealot Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore). Sadie quickly makes friends with a number of soldiers in the area, including Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), who is in love with her and wants her to go to Australia and settle down with him after his orders are up.
Davidson gets to work imposing his moral views on the island’s natives and particularly on Sadie, who he recognizes from her days as a prostitute in San Francisco. Sadie absolutely despises Davidson and refuses to give into his demands to repent. But then Davidson finds out that if she goes back to San Francisco, she will be arrested, so he goes to the governor to have him force her back to San Francisco. He tells her that the only way to fully repent her sins is to server her sentence and then go straight.
Sadie’s spirit has finally been broken and she begins to repent the way Davidson wants her to. She spends three straight days praying and decides to take on a more modest life. When Tim comes to see her, he’s shocked to find the vivacious Sadie now a shell of her former self. He does his best to get her away from Davidson, but she insists on staying. However, Davidson, a married man, is beginning to have impure thoughts about Sadie. He has no idea how to cope with the idea that even he can’t live up to his moral expectations so he drowns himself, leaving Sadie to make plans to leave for Australia with Tim.
Sadie Thompson was the last movie triumph for Gloria Swanson until she made Sunset Boulevard twenty-two years later. Not only was Swanson the star, she was also its producer. She had signed with United Artists the year before and made her first film for them, The Love of Sunya, which she wasn’t entirely happy with. For her next film, she wanted to do something that was both cutting edge and a surefire hit. So she met with director Raoul Walsh and they came up with the idea of doing a film version of the play “Rain.”
At the time, “Rain” was thought to be completely un-filmable. It may have been a hit on Broadway, but with its subject matter, Will Hays would never allow it to be turned into a movie. Not only that, a number of prominent producers in Hollywood had all agreed that they wouldn’t try to make a movie out of “Rain.” However, Gloria was extremely clever about how she made this movie come together.
The key was not saying it was based on the play, but on Somerset Maugham’s original short story. And then she got personal approval from the most unlikely of sources — Will Hays himself. One afternoon, she spoke to Hays about a movie she wanted to produce and gave him a general outline of the story, the name of the author, and mentioned what she would change to make it meet his standards. Hays didn’t notice the similarities between this short story and the play “Rain,” so he said it sounded acceptable to him.
Swanson and Walsh went to work getting the rights to the story and writing the script. When they announced the movie, they didn’t make any big announcements to the press. Instead, they took out a very small ad buried in the back of the newspaper and expected it to be overshadowed by the excitement of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. But people noticed and all heck broke loose. They received an indignant telegram from the MPAA, signed by virtually every major mogul in Hollywood.
Since so many of the signers controlled the major theater chains in America, their disapproval could have kept Sadie Thompson from being widely seen. Gloria wasn’t about to give up on Sadie, though, and personally appealed to every single name on that telegram. The only person willing to go to bat and defend her was Marcus Loew, who was able to get the matter dropped. Sadie Thompson went on to be a huge success and Gloria gave one of the best performances of her career.