Friday, December 4, 2009

Notes For December 4th, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On December 4th, 1916, the legendary writer W. Somerset Maugham departed on a ship to Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. During the voyage, he became friendly with his fellow passengers, including a missionary and a prostitute, who would inspire him to write one of his most famous short stories, Rain, which would appear in his 1923 short story collection, The Trembling Of A Leaf.

Rain, (originally titled Miss Thompson) told the story of the downfall of a devoutly religious, severely repressed missionary who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of a prostitute. After their boat docks in Samoa, fiery Scottish missionary Reverend Alfred Davidson and his wife find themselves trapped by the island's heavy seasonal rains. They lodge at a seedy rooming house and general store. To the Davidsons' dismay, the occupant of the room below them turns out to be Sadie Thompson, a fast young American woman who was a passenger on their ship. The Davidsons can hear the sounds of Sadie's phonograph, her laughter, and the sailors that she entertains.

When Reverend Davidson learns that Sadie is a prostitute, he becomes determined to save her soul and make a good Christian woman out of her. But Sadie is a tough cookie and wants none of that. As Davidson becomes Sadie's unwanted "avenging angel" and tries to save her from sin, his repressed passions threaten to explode. He ends up killing himself, and the story ends with the disturbing implication that he raped Sadie.

In 1923, Rain was adapted as a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. It opened first in London, then in New York the following season, becoming one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1920s. In 1927, silent movie megastar Gloria Swanson bought the film rights to Rain, determined to play Sadie Thompson. This brought her into conflict with Hollywood Production Code Administration head censor Will Hays, because he forbade the depiction of religion in a negative light.

Swanson got around Hays by making changes to her original cut of Rain. The missionary Reverend Davidson became a religious layperson, Mr. Atkinson. All she had to do was change the character's name and description on the silent film's title cards. The name of the picture was changed to Sadie Thompson to avoid any references to Rain. This was done to appease studio bosses who had pledged not to adapt "salacious" books and plays for the screen.

Will Hays was so concerned about eliminating all references to Rain that he hired lip readers to screen Sadie Thompson. (The silent film's title cards had already been changed.) They must have been asleep at the switch, because they missed seeing Gloria Swanson mouth the line "You'd yank wings off butterflies and claim you were saving their soul, you psalm-singing son of a bitch!"

Sadie Thompson became a huge hit, earning record-setting revenues at the box office, thanks to Swanson's performance in the lead role, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Lionel Barrymore delivered a typically brilliant performance as Atkinson. When the film was restored in 1984, the original title cards were used, and Atkinson became Reverend Alfred Davidson again. Due to the degradation of the original film elements, the last reel was lost forever, so the restorers used stills and new title cards to prepare an ending for the movie.

Quote Of The Day

"What mean and cruel things men can do for the love of God." - W. Somerset Maugham

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a reading of W. Somerset Maugham's short story The Letter, performed by playwright Jon Richards. Enjoy!

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