Tuesday, June 11, 2024

W. Somerset Maugham’s Miss Thompson (Rain)

Rain is one of the best known short stories by W. Somerset Maugham (one of the grandmasters of the art of short story writing). It was originally published as Miss Thompson in the American magazine The Smart Set in April 1921. Maugham claims to have written the story in 1920. It’s a longish short story, long enough to be regarded in some genres as a novelette.

The story was adapted into an astonishingly successful stage play, Rain, by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. The success of the play was presumably the reason the title of the story was changed to Rain.

The story was made into a silent film in 1928, with Gloria Swanson starring and with the title Sadie Thompson. 

A few years later it was made into a talkie, Rain (1932), with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. That movie was a commercial flop, for reasons I have never been able to fathom. It has since built a substantial cult following.

In 1953 it was filmed again as Miss Sadie Thompson with Rita Hayworth. This was a sanitised squeaky clean version and a waste of Miss Hayworth’s considerable talents.

This is the story of a battle of wills between a prostitute and a preacher.

The 1920s and early 30s were a period of rebellion against the moralising and social rigidity of the late Victorian era. It was also a period in which at least some sections of society were embracing sexual freedom. The flapper became a symbol of rebellion, and so too did the prostitute. Books and movies not only dealt with prostitutes sympathetically but even admiringly. They were seen as women determined to live their own lives even if it meant flaunting social conventions.

Of course the spirit of rebellion was fairly thoroughly crushed by the Depression, by a resurgence in religious moralism and by the Second World War which trained the population to accept a high degree of social control.

The story begins with the arrival of a steamer at Pago Pago. The passengers include a Dr Macphail and his wife. They also include fanatical puritan missionary Mr Davidson and his malevolent wife. The passengers also include Sadie Thompson. It is to be a very brief stopover. The passengers will soon be departing for other destinations, but an outbreak of measles strands them in Pago Pago for two weeks. The only accomodation on offer is provided by a half-European trader. The passengers are not pleased, and the relentless rain adds to their discomfort.

Davidson and his wife are scandalised by Sadie’s behaviour. She entertains men in her room. They listen to records and they dance. Davidson fears they do other things. He is convinced that Sadie had been working in Honolulu’s notorious red-light district. He is convinced she is a prostitute. Which she almost certainly has been. Whether she is plying her trade in Pago Pago is left obscure, but Davidson sees her very existence as a threat to morality. 

Davidson has proudly told Dr Macphail of his campaign to eradicate sin on the small island where his mission is located. To Macphail it sounds like Davidson and his wife are brutal merciless unscrupulous tyrants who have instituted a reign of misery on the island but Davidson has no doubt he is doing the Lord’s work. Both Dr Macphail and the reader will suspect that Davidson is motivated by an intense pleasure in exercising power over the lives of others. 

And Davidson has no intention of permitting the existence of sinners like Sadie. He is going to save her soul. If that fails she must of course be destroyed. And Davidson has found a way to destroy her - if he has her sent back to San Francisco she will go straight to prison.

The odds seem to be in Davidson’s favour. And it appears that Sadie, utterly defeated, will agree to whatever fate Davidson decrees for her.

But there are some major plot twists to come.

And some slight differences to the 1932 film version. The endings are very very similar with the ending of the story having a slightly harsher edge to it, but to my mind both endings work.

Maugham was a fine writer who was especially adept at the short story format. He seems to be out of fashion these days which is a great pity. This is a superb novelette with plenty of overheated tropical atmosphere and some nice touches of sleaze, hypocrisy, repression, sin and guilt. Very highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment