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Sadie McKee

Ring a Ding Ding

She goes from rags to riches, but not in the way you'd expect.

Sadie McKee (1934)

     When you have watched enough movies from the ’30s and/or ’40s, you start to notice a lot of trends, especially in the romantic genre, and the plots start to blur together. You could also say the same of some Joan Crawford movies as she went through phases of characters: the flapper, the rags to riches, the bitch, etc. In watching Sadie McKee, however, I had the second of my recent experiences of thinking I had a plot pegged only to be wildly surprised (The other was Something to Sing About).

     We are introduced to Crawford’s titular character as she strolls toward a mansion. Some gents in a car comment that one can tell she has class, while another notes she is the daughter of his cook. It has been some time since servant Sadie has seen the son of her masters, Michael, with whom she grew up. Played by Franchot Tone, Michael Alderson is thrilled to see Sadie has grown up so beautifully, so it is easy to assume the two will soon wind up together.

     Sadie has a boyfriend, however, who has been fired for stealing from the company run by the Aldersons. Sadie believes he is innocent and so throws a fit as she is serving the family dinner and overhears how they wish to make an example of him, with Michael leading the attack. She holds a grudge against Michael as she hops a train from upstate New York to the big city with this boyfriend Tommy (Gene Raymond).

     After an awkward unmarried, yet consummated night at a boarding house, Sadie and Tommy make plans to meet at city hall after going to separate job interviews. The man never shows, however, because he has met the sexy performer across the hall (Esther Ralston), has joined her act as a singer and left town. Sadie soon takes a job as a dancer at a club and attracts the attention of millionaire Jack Brennan, played by Edward Arnold. His attorney who has joined him at the club happens to be Michael. The old friends have a tense reunion as Sadie is still angry with him and as revenge spends the entire night in the drunken arms of Brennan while at the club.

     Brennan, who is a perpetually drunk alcoholic, proposes to Sadie that night and the two are indeed married despite Michael’s objections surrounding Sadie’s gold-digger intentions. The feud continues up through a negative diagnosis that Brennan will die unless he quits drinking. Sadie makes it her mission to keep the man sober and succeeds, and in so doing restores a friendship with Michael.

     The marriage hits a breaking point, however, when Sadie learns Tommy is unemployed and possibly sick. She still loves him and explains to Brennan why she needs a divorce.

     My prediction within the first five minutes of Sadie McKee was that the protagonist and Michael would end up together. Crawford and Tone became off-screen lovers on this picture and eventually married, although the size of her fame would eventually squash their relationship. As they interact on screen at the movie’s start, the two get along so swimmingly, and Tone gazes at her so lovingly, that their courtship seems easy to predict. When Sadie goes to NYC, however, my prediction changed to her bumping into Michael and an instant relationship starting from there. Again wrong.

     The plot element that has Sadie unendingly in love with Tommy, despite his having done her wrong, seems to create a hurdle for the story to get over. By the time we reach the point that Sadie can leave Brennan, the picture has gone on for so long that it has little time to wrap everything up and presumably throw the woman in Michael’s arms. SPOILER Even in killing Tommy, the story cannot erase Sadie’s feelings for the man, and so the picture closes on she, her friend, her mother and Michael enjoying the man’s birthday at the woman’s apartment. Although we can guess what his candle-blowing wish is about, the screen goes dark and we are left with no final kiss to seal the deal. (Time to put on The Bride Wore Red). END SPOILER

      Both Crawford and Tone give splendid performances. Tone especially will grab you with his powerful emotional displays as he fights tooth and nail against Sadie’s desire to make herself into an unsavory sort. Crawford matches him well in her fighting scenes, and the couple have always been delightful to watch on screen together. Backing Crawford up is Jean Dixon, playing Opal, the hardened night club performer who finds Sadie a job and then revels in her wealth. She acts as a bit of comic relief while encouraging the woman to take Brennan for all he is worth, although her intentions are not sinister.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

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