Sadie McKee (1934)

Film Title: Sadie McKeeSadie-McKee-1934-Poster

Year: 1934

Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Drama

Starring:

  • Joan Crawford
  • Gene Raymond
  • Franchot Tone
  • Edward Arnold
  • Esther Ralston

Review

We’ve all heard the saying “nice guys finish last”. If that concept ever applied to a woman, it was Sadie McKee, or at least, it certainly looked that way. Nine years into her career, and already with over 40 films to her credit, Joan Crawford was in the middle of MGM’s star-making hurricane. Sadie danced in the glare of the pre-code era, though it wasn’t nearly as blatant as its counterparts. The 1934 melodrama is heavy in theme and a great example of how good acting used to look.

Joan Crawford is Sadie McKee, a young girl working with her mother (played by Helen Ware) as a servant to the Alderson family. The Aldersons are clearly part of society’s upper crust and have no qualms about proclaiming it amongst each other. Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone) is the golden child of the family. He seems to care for Sadie on a deeper level and even recounts fond memories of her as a child in specific detail. But despite Michael’s outward affection, Sadie’s heart lies with Tommy Wallace (Gene Raymond), a prime example of whom the Aldersons hold in disregard. Tommy has little money and it’s obvious that he can offer Sadie no more than her current lot in life. Sadie is painfully obedient to her mother and spends more time biting her tongue than expressing her true feelings. But when she overhears the Aldersons’ ego-laden rants around the dinner table, she finally explodes and tells them off before storming out. Tommy, meanwhile, is ready to try his luck in New York City. As he and Sadie bid each other a temporary farewell, Sadie is overcome with grief and jumps on the train shortly after it begins to pull away from the station. She finds her way to Tommy’s seat and they make a plan to marry right away in New York. Both are wide-eyed by the time they arrive. They have no place to live, no jobs and hardly any money. Sadie strikes up a conversation with Opal (Jean Dixon), who suggests that they move into her apartment building. The landlady, Mrs. Craney (Zelda Sears), she explains, is very open-minded and wouldn’t object to the unmarried couple living together. After rent-bargaining with Mrs. Craney, Sadie and Tommy move into the cramped room, smiling from ear to ear. Tommy sings her to sleep with “All I Do Is Dream of You”.

The next morning, Tommy is singing an encore in the bathroom. Both he and Sadie have job interviews during the day but agree to meet at noon to get married. After Sadie leaves, Tommy catches the eye of Dolly Merrick (Esther Ralston), the showgirl next-door who makes frequent use of her flirtatious personality. In a matter of minutes, she convinces Tommy to sing for her, kiss her, and travel with her as part of her act. Even though he realizes that by leaving, he’d be “stranding Sadie at the altar”, Tommy hits the road with Dolly. By the time noon rolls around, Sadie is already waiting for Tommy to arrive at the courthouse. Opal is with her, both for moral support and as a bridesmaid. Hours pass and Sadie finally acknowledges that she’s been stood up. She’s heartbroken, but it doesn’t fully hit until she receives a telegram from Tommy confirming the obvious. With no prospects, Sadie packs a suitcase and tries to leave but Opal stops her, offers reassurance and finds her a job as a nightclub dancer. One night while on the job, Sadie is beckoned by Jack Brennan, an overweight millionaire with an affinity for drinking himself in to a stupor. When she arrives at Brennan’s table, she finds Michael Alderson waiting, who happens to represent Brennan. Michael is happy to see her again but she is guarded and distant, especially since she blames him for causing a rift in her relationship with Tommy. Michael is annoyed that Sadie would harbor a grudge, but she would have it no other way, seeing as how she’s still devastated by Tommy’s absence. When Brennan arrives at the table, already drunk, he instantly cuddles up to Sadie and “claims” her as his woman. Sadie is visibly uncomfortable but endures the groping to disturb Michael. Brennan orders the band to continue playing long after the rest of the club’s patrons have left for the night. Michael is becoming impatient yet refuses to leave Sadie alone (since Brennan had invited her back to his house for the evening). She does agree to accompany Brennan home (which is better described as a lavish mansion of indulgence) and Michael tags along to keep an eye on things.

Brennan babbles almost incoherently as Michael tries in vain to put him to bed so he can take Sadie home. Sadie offers no help, but rather seems to enjoy watching Michael squirm. Brennan suddenly tells Sadie that he’s going to marry her (as if it was a decision that he made for the both of them). Michael is in shock though he doesn’t believe Sadie is malicious enough to take advantage of Brennan’s “altered” sense of reason. She does in fact marry Brennan and the newlyweds spend the next few days celebrating with alcohol and late nights on the town. Word spreads quickly. Sadie doesn’t really love her “husband” – that much is understood. But for the moment, she’s content to be free of financial struggle, and with Tommy gone, there isn’t any other logical alternative. The reality of the marriage doesn’t sink in for Sadie until Brennan kisses her. She’s visibly repulsed and scared at the thought of having inadvertently trapped herself in a marriage of convenience. The last thing she can do, however, is allow Michael to gloat. She stays married to Brennan, whose drinking is becoming progressively worse and a noticeable embarrassment to everyone, including the many servants strewn throughout the mansion. During the day, Sadie enjoys her lavish lifestyle. She pals around with Opal, and on one occasion, takes in Dolly Merrick’s show to get a look at Tommy, who she’s been tracking through Variety magazine. During Tommy’s portion of the performance, he croons the familiar “All I Do Is Dream of You”. He soon notices Sadie in the audience and directs the remainder of the song in her direction. She fills with tears and leaves the theater, unable to deal with the painful memory of her lost love. Sadie still loves Tommy, despite his actions the day they were to be married. Opal is as supportive as she can be, given the circumstances.

Sometime later, Brennan is examined by a doctor, who then informs Sadie and others in the house that he is in critical heath. Drinking is the catalyst, and in order to survive longer than another six months, Brennan must completely quit his alcoholic excursions. Since he is essentially bed-ridden, keeping him on the wagon doesn’t seem too difficult a task. That is, until Sadie realizes that Finnegan (Leo Carroll), the head servant, has been sneaking bottles to Brennan. Sadie is furious and fires Finnegan on the spot. She also fires the rest of the staff but reconsiders after they promise to help Brennan quit drinking for good. Suddenly, Brennan wakes up and starts manically searching his liquor cabinet, now empty by Sadie’s hand. She rushes upstairs and tries to hold him back, but he punches her in the face and declares his independence. Obviously drunk, Brennan loses his footing and falls down his grand staircase. This time, he’s laid up for months, and, with Sadie’s help, finally stops drinking. Once Brennan is back to normal, the couple returns to Sadie’s old place of employment. The club’s entertainment for the evening is none other than Dolly Merrick. Sadie is livid at the sight of the beaming Dolly. She’s also nervous about seeing Tommy again with Brennan at her side. But when Tommy’s moment arrives, it’s another, non-descript man singing the song. Tommy is no longer part of the act. Sadie confronts Dolly in her dressing room after the show. The two exchange catty words. Sadie learns that Tommy’s preoccupation with her had become a hindrance to his subsequent performances, and thus got him dropped from the show. Walking back to a waiting Brennan, Sadie now faces a tough choice. Does she stick it out with her newly-reformed husband? Does she make a break for it and find Tommy? Is there any way to have the best of both worlds?

Joan Crawford is stunningly beautiful in this film. Her smile lights up every frame she’s in, and, at the same time, shows her vulnerable innocence. She was no rookie at this point in her career. She had already been the notorious Letty Lynton two years prior and her appearances in classics such as 1931’s Possessed, 1932’s Grand Hotel and Rain, and 1933’s Dancing Lady made her MGM’s wonder-kid. Sadie McKee was based on Viña Delmar’s serialized short story Pretty Sadie McKee, which ran in Liberty Magazine from June 24 to September 9, 1933. The film adaptation is said to be relatively accurate. A major nod to Crawford’s acting ability is the way in which Sadie continually jumped from weak to strong and vice-versa. However, the character’s moments of strength were themselves an act. Sadie is merely a local, good-natured girl who seems to be fate’s mortal enemy. The wealth she acquired as a result of her marriage to Brennan never really changed her personality. If anything, it made her more conscious of her dependency. She personified the rags-to-riches, Cinderella-esque woman who appeared less frequently in the midst of pre-code Hollywood. It might have been that simplistic loveliness that caught the attention of Franchot Tone. Tone and Crawford fell in the love while filming Sadie McKee and were married in 1935. Tone, as Michael Alderson, was soft and stern. His fondness of Sadie compromised his ability to be objective about her choices. Even as she purposely tried to worry him, he couldn’t separate the adviser from the pursuer. Tone was more of a fresh face on the big screen. He began his film career in 1932’s The Wiser Sex with Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas. Prior to film, he’d honed his craft on the stage. One of his roles, though it flopped on Broadway, was in Green Grow the Lilacs. That play eventually became the hit musical Oklahoma! Tone did appear opposite Crawford and Clark Gable in Dancing Lady before his role in Sadie McKee. His theatre training helped him to perfect the reserved, yet prominent character that was deep-rooted in Michael Alderson. Esther Rolston, who played Dolly Merrick, is also worthy of mention. Granted, her screen time in Sadie was limited, but Rolston’s career as a leading lady in silent films earned her the nickname “The American Venus”, after appearing in a 1926 feature of the same title. Sadly, after retiring from films in the early 1940’s, Rolston lost her fortune and spent a great portion of her remaining years as a department store saleswoman. One of her most notable films was 1924’s Peter Pan. A December 1925 article in Motion Picture Classic titled “Eight Years a Leading Woman But Never a Star; Esther Ralston Struggled Onward–And ‘Peter Pan’ Made Her Overnight” says it all. When it all boils down, Sadie McKee is still a Joan Crawford film, even with the mixture of talent surrounding her on screen. She was only in her late 20’s and already a force to be reckoned with. Sadie merely built another step in her stairway to greatness.

On Video

Sadie McKee was released on DVD in 2008 as part of the Warner Bros. Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2. Like the other films in the set, Sadie is accompanied with a few nice bonus features, including the requisite Theatrical Trailer, a Vintage Comedy Short: Goofy Movies #4 and a Classic Cartoon: Toyland Broadcast. Though there are a few scratches on the video transfer, it doesn’t deter at all from the overall presentation. Whether or not it was intentional, the video blemishes actually lend a certain authenticity to the film’s plot. The audio track is more than adequate. Since the only prior video release was a 1998 VHS, fans should find this DVD most enjoyable.

Conclusion

Joan Crawford and 1930’s MGM, should there be any cause for further explanation? Suffice it to say that Sadie McKee blends enough elements to hold its own in a few different genres. The drama is evident but there are also hints of romantic comedy dropped every so often like crumbs from Hansel and Gretel. That being said, this is the type of film that appeals to a diverse audience. It’s neither understated nor over-the-top. Sadie McKee plays the middle of the field with enough wit in the chamber to throw a few unexpected curves.

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