Friday, 8 January 2016

Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” on stage and screen

Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” on stage and screen

“Rain” is commonly regarded as one of Somerset Maugham’s most popular short stories. No doubt much of this popularity is due to the fact that very soon after its first publication (1921) it was adapted for the stage (1922) and the screen (1928); at least two other movies followed in later years (1932, 1953). Maugham had no hand at all in any of these adaptations. It is instructive to compare them with the original. Such comparisons show how bold and daring was Maugham for his times. Playwrights and screenwriters invariably sentimentalised his characters and weakened his stories.[1]

The story how the play Rain was born is one of the most famous in the Maugham lore. The author was spending the winter of 1921–22 in Hollywood when one night John Colton, a young playwright staying at the same hotel, asked him for something to read. Having nothing else but the galley proofs of “Miss Thompson”, the first version of “Rain”, Maugham gave him that. Next morning Colton came excited and asked if he could adapt the story for the stage. “Miss Thompson” was as yet unpublished and had been rejected by numerous editors, a lustful missionary with suicidal inclinations apparently being considered too daring for the dainty pages of their magazines. Maugham had no great hopes for the story, so he gave his permission, shook hands with Colton and thought no more about it. In February 1921, he left Hollywood for the Far East. Just two months later, in April 1921, “Miss Thompson” appeared in the charmingly titled magazine The Smart Set. It created quite a stir with its frank depiction of missionary collision with a prostitute, and the author was quickly showered with lucrative offers for stage and film adaptations. Colton must have been a little apprehensive whether his oral agreement and a handshake would stand, but he needn’t have worried. Maugham was as good as his word.[2]

On 17 September 1921, the story first appeared in book form, under the title “Rain”, published by George H. Doran as part of The Trembling of a Leaf, the first of Maugham’s eight mature collections that established him as the greatest short story master of the twentieth century. A little over a year later, on 9 October 1922, the play Rain by John Colton and Clemence Randolph opened at the Garrick Theatre, Philadelphia, with Jeanne Eagles as Sadie Thompson; on 7 November 1922 it was transferred to the Maxine Elliott Theatre, New York. It ran for the impressive 648 performances and thus became by far the most popular of all plays written by Maugham or based on his original material. The first London production opened at the Garrick Theatre on 12 May 1925 with Olga Lindo as Sadie; reportedly her lack of sex appeal was the main reason for the relatively short run of 150 performances. The London production was most notable for Maugham’s rejection of Tallulah Bankhead who was originally cast as Sadie. Director Basil Dean thought this was a mistake born of personal spite, the sweet Tallulah raged against the divine injustice, but Maugham remained adamant.[3]

(Incidentally, Maugham is supposed to have remarked some years later that his preventing Tallulah from appearing in Rain was “the greatest mistake of his professional life”.[4] The source of this remark remains elusive and I don’t buy it. Tallulah did eventually play Sadie Thompson in a 1935 revival on Broadway, “to great acclaim” according to Selina Hastings and the Literary Digest which hailed her performance as “exciting, arresting” in a review titled “Somerset Maugham Stands Corrected”. But the play closed after mere 47 performances. So the acclaim of the audience was not exactly great, and maybe Maugham knew what he was doing ten years earlier in London.[5])

The film rights were sold for $150,000, a considerable sum in those times, and thanks to Gloria Swanson (1928) and Joan Crawford (1932) Sadie Thompson became something of a household name. In 1953 she was brought back to the big screen by Rita Hayworth. More of the movie versions, later on. The play was first published in New York by Boni and Liveright (1923); a British edition by Samuel French appeared only in 1947. The hardly successful revival with Tallulah in February 1935 was the last time the play saw the lights of Broadway. A London revival in 1949 yielded 94 performances. Today the work of Colton and Randolph is entirely forgotten. Maugham’s story has been reprinted countless times under several different titles in all sorts of anthologies with his writings. It is very much still in print as part of his Collected Short Stories (vol. 1, Penguin, Vintage).

Apart from minor changes like enlarging the part of Horn or making Sadie’s language more colourful, Mr Colton and Ms Randolph commit two cardinal sins that dilute the original a great deal. They introduce a romantic interest between Sadie and Major O’Hara and they treat her religious conversion as genuine. The former is completely missing in the story. A naval base is mentioned once or twice in passing, but there are no marines among the characters, much less one who wants to take Sadie to Sydney and start a new life with her. As for the religious conversion, I have just re-read the story carefully and I have no doubt that Maugham’s Sadie puts on a contrition show with the full intention of seducing the sadistic priest. Nothing else can explain her sudden transformation at the end to “the flaunting queen they had known at first.” Of course the playwrights had the right to change anything they wanted, and their changes are indeed plausible and consistent. Yet the final result is so much less powerful than the original! Just compare the final of Maugham’s story with the corresponding passages in the play:

They walked up the steps and entered the hall. Miss Thompson was standing at her door, chatting with a sailor. A sudden change had taken place in her. She was no longer the cowed drudge of the last days. She was dressed in all her finery, in her white dress, with the high shiny boots over which her fat legs bulged in their cotton stockings; her hair was elaborately arranged; and she wore that enormous hat covered with gaudy flowers. Her face was painted, her eyebrows were boldly black, and her lips were scarlet. She held herself erect. She was the flaunting queen that they had known at first. As they came in she broke into a loud, jeering laugh; and then, when Mrs Davidson involuntarily stopped, she collected the spittle in her mouth and spat. Mrs Davidson cowered back, and two red spots rose suddenly to her cheeks. Then, covering her face with her hands, she broke away and ran quickly up the stairs. Dr Macphail was outraged. He pushed past the woman into her room.
"What the devil are you doing?" he cried. "Stop that damned machine."
He went up to it and tore the record off. She turned on him.
"Say, doc, you can that stuff with me. What the hell are you doin' in my room?"
"What do you mean?" he cried. "What d'you mean?"
She gathered herself together. No one could describe the scorn of her expression or the contemptuous hatred she put into her answer.
"You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You're all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!"
Dr Macphail gasped. He understood.

Sadie (from within the room): All right! I’m coming right out!
(Horn shuffles to a position in front of the sofa as Sadie’s door opens and Sadie makes her appearance. She is dressed in the costume in which we first beheld her. Her face is tragic beneath its rouge. She carries her parasol.)


(Mrs. Davidson enters, followed by Mrs. MacPhail. Mrs. Davidson walks straight toward Sadie, crossing below the table. There is intense silence on the stage. The two women gaze intently at each other.)
Mrs. Davidson (sadly): I understand, Miss Thompson. I’m sorry for him and I’m sorry for you.
(Mrs. Davidson passes her, hastily, covers her face and walks upstairs.)
(All the people on the stage watch until she is out of sight.)
Sadie (in a low, sick voice): I’m sorry for everybody in the world! Life’s a quaint present from somebody, there’s no doubt about that. (Moving to O’Hara.) Maybe it will be easier in Sydney.
She clutches O’Hara’s arm and breaks into sobs as the Curtain falls.

I guess Colton and Randolph didn’t really have a choice. If they wanted their play to be a success, they had to turn Maugham’s brutal drama into cheesy melodrama, and his scheming slut who uses men into a conventional reformed sinner who leans on them. Of course they kept the main lines of the plot, more or less, but this is the least important part of the story. The characters are the thing. Well, Sadie is changed out of recognition. Somewhat ironically, considering her expanded vocabulary of abuse (“miserable snail snatcher”, “dirty, two-faced mutt”), Sadie’s “pigs” in the end is retained without the important adjectives “dirty” and “filthy”. The Davidsons are pretty much the same, but considerably toned down. Little of the Reverend’s “suppressed fire” and still less of his wife’s crusade against depravity “which nothing could hush” survived the verbose translation from the page to the stage.[6]

One interesting, though not so important, difference is that in the story Sadie is never told of Davidson’s death and presumably doesn’t know about it when she spits on his wife. Maugham, as every great writer, had an almost unerring instinct what to say plainly, what merely to hint at, and what to leave entirely to the imagination of his readers. It’s easy enough to guess why Colton and Randolph did include the episode. It gave them a fine opportunity to boost the melodrama still further and it accorded with the character they were creating. Their Sadie says “So – he killed himself, did he? Then I forgive him. I thought the joke was on me – all on me!” What would be the reaction of Maugham’s Sadie? I guess something like “He only got what he deserved. Good riddance.” It should be remembered that the change of Sadie’s character also reflects on the Reverend Davidson. In the story we are talking of conscious seduction which includes sex by default, whereas what happens in the play is unquestionably rape. The saintly Sadie of the play forgives the sinner. The ruthless Sadie of the story despises the hypocrite.

Maugham’s biographers, showing their typical ignorance of his works, have come up with some priceless opinions. Ted Morgan, having apparently never realised how profoundly different the works are, hilariously remarked that “the play spelled things out more than the story” referring to the stage direction which makes Davidson go back to Sadie’s room on the fatal night.[7] Wilmon Menard, a hack par excellence, has gone as far as stating that, in his opinion, Maugham was “deeply embarrassed” by the play’s success. “It perhaps wounded his pride that he hadn’t seen its dramatic potentials and authored the play himself”, continued Mr Menard with considerable psychological insight.[8] According to Garson Kanin, on the other hand, Maugham disliked the play and maintained that “Rain” was better as a short story.[9] I can certainly see his point.

Interestingly enough, all screenplays drew heavily on the play by Colton and Randolph, but only Rain (1932) made any acknowledgement. Sadie Thompson (1928) had only one “based on the story by W. Somerset Maugham”, which is true only if one keeps in mind the key word is “based”, while Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) went as far as “W. Somerset Maugham’s Miss Sadie Thompson” in the opening credits – which is completely false. All three movies are interesting curiosities to watch, but in none of them is there the slightest suggestion that Sadie’s “conversion” is a deliberate attempt to seduce Davidson. They all give you a Sadie who is genuinely contrite and in the end runs off with the handsome marine. In other words, none of the movies has anything to do with Maugham’s Sadie. Oddly enough, however, they all retain the transformation in the end, and though details may vary Sadie’s face is never “tragic beneath its rouge”. This makes little sense if her contrition is genuine. And if it is not, why is she disturbed by the death of the man who was determined to send her to the penitentiary for three years? This is one moment where the filmmakers apparently weren’t sure which version to follow. They kept the exact transformation from the story because it’s more effective, never mind that it didn’t sit well with the rest of the play.

Gloria Swanson as Sadie.
The main attraction of the 1928 film is, of course, Gloria Swanson. She is glorious indeed. She manages to be funny, charming, sexy and pathetic without the benefit of a single word; eyes and body language suffice. She certainly has the most glittering smile ever captured on film. Raoul Walsh serves the double function of director and suitor (Major O’Hara, that is), and he does a fine double job. Lionel Barrymore is a histrionic Davidson on the grand scale. The movie is stylishly steamy. The scene in which O’Hara lights Sadie’s cigarette with his own is marvellously suggestive. It reminds me of Now, Voyager (1942) where Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes at the same time and gives one to Bette Davies. There also are some lovely comic touches, notably a hugely drunk captain quite unable to negotiate the “revolving door” of the “hotel” and a cheerful Horn using his wife’s butt to light his matches.

The sexiest moment in silent cinema.

The 1932 film slightly improves on the play when Joan Crawford, a pleasantly vampy Sadie with big eyes and big voice, speaks her final words to Mrs Davidson in a somewhat ironic manner and then quickly goes off with her marine. This is a vague suggestion that the religious phase of her life was, if not entirely phony, at least a bad mood that has passed. Walter Huston is a more restrained but more convincing Davidson than Barrymore. On the whole, this is the most satisfying version of the three.

Joan Crawford as Sadie.
With Walter Huston as Davidson.
The 1953 movie is a travesty of the travesty. Rita Hayworth is suitably hot, but great actress she is not. She is certainly out of her depth here and can’t hold a candle to either Swanson or Crawford. The adaptation attempts to display her singing, dancing and partying skills to the full, but it ends up as a noisy mess. Jose Ferrer, normally a fine actor, is a curiously dull Davidson. He simply looks sullen and barks his lines. It doesn’t work. It’s hard to find one good reason why this movie was made at all. It is slightly bolder than the old ones because the word “prostitute” (gasp!) is used and the beginning of the rape scene is shown, it is in colour and pleasantly exotic, but these are hardly sufficient reasons. Davidson and Sadie talking with the ocean in the background, much like Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, is just one among many embarrassing moments that further dilute Maugham’s original. Can you get any cheesier than that? “W. Somerset Maugham’s Miss Sadie Thompson”, indeed! A very young Charles Bronson in a small part is an amusing bonus.

Rita Hayworth as Sadie.

To sum up, by all means do see the movies if you like; two of them are available on YouTube. They are all fascinating and, except for the indefensible 1953 dreck, have considerable merit as cinematic works of art. Just keep in mind that none of them shows you Sadie Thompson as Maugham depicted her. True, the basic plot is retained, and it is worth noting that this plot was apparently Maugham’s original invention, but this is the least important, the least enduring part of the story. For my part, Maugham’s “Rain” is still waiting for its definitive appearance on the screen. Most likely, it is going to wait forever.

[1] See also Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951), the screenplays in book form (Heinemann/Doubleday) or the movies themselves. Especially the endings of the four stories in Quartet are atrociously de-Maughamized. 
[2] Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, John Murray, 2010 [first published in 2009], p. 269.
[3] Hastings, ibid., p. 270. See also Ted Morgan, Somerset Maugham, Triad/Granada, 1981 [first published in 1980], pp. 311-2.
[4] Hastings, ibid., p. 270.
[5] Hastings, ibid., footnote. See also Raymond Toole Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Kaye and Ward, 1973, pp. 234 (F81) & 252 (G32), according to whom the playwright Rowland Leigh was the source of Maugham’s presumed admission of his mistake as regards Ms Bankhead. Yet another third-hand evidence that may or may not have anything to do with the historical facts we shall never know.
[6] It was not uncommon for short stories to be sentimentalised and lose their edge when transferred to the stage. Maugham himself was forced in The Letter (1927), the only play he adapted from his own story (1926), to downplay Leslie Crosbie’s character and imply an ending far less chilling than the original one. No wonder he became fed up with the theatre. Nor was this unfortunate tendency necessarily confined to the 1920s. As late as 1946, Sam Behrman adapted Maugham’s story “Jane” into a play of the same name and thus turned a first-rate satire into a second-rate melodrama.
[7] Morgan, ibid., p. 296.
[8] Wilmon Menard, The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham, Sherbourne Press, 1965, p. 151.
[9] Garson Kanin, Remembering Mr. Maugham, Atheneum, 1966, p. 139. Kanin, incidentally, is one of the few relatively trustworthy sources about the origins of the play Rain