The Heat Is Off

Although its Hays Code sanitizing is mitigated somewhat by the glorious extravagances of 1950s cinema (it’s a Technicolor, 3-D star vehicle with musical numbers), Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) is a scoured version of Rain (1932), also based on W. Somerset Maugham’s tale of a wanton woman. The earlier film boasted a divinely louche Joan Crawford as a strumpet stuck on Pago Pago for a week in between ships; Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson is not so much a doxy as she is a gal with moxie. José Ferrer’s zombie-eyed missionary man, Alfred Davidson, hopes his Christian zealotry will enrich the South Seas natives—depicted here as simple folk untainted by the materialistic malaise afflicting whitey. Davidson preaches his own brand of Hays Code morality to Sadie, who all too willingly succumbs to his redemption song, but his heart of darkness soon prevails: He rapes her and then kills himself. Sadie ultimately does find salvation in the form of a marriage proposal from pit bull marine Phil O’Hara (Aldo Ray). Hayworth’s prolonged hand-wringing over whether or not her dissolute swain will ever be able to forget her checkered past is a prime example of ’50s double standards, especially when compared to Crawford’s nonchalant swagger.

Notwithstanding its paternalistic sexual politics and cultural fetishizing, Miss Sadie Thompson is a fascinating case study of stardom; think of it as the coming of middle age in Samoa for Rita Hayworth. Although her musical number “The Heat Is On” almost reaches the show-stopping caliber of Gilda‘s “Put the Blame on Mame,” Miss Sadie marks the beginning of the end. Four years would pass before Hayworth appeared in another film, this time eclipsed by rising Columbia starlet Kim Novak in Pal Joey.

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