Clarence Brown’s Sadie McKee (1934) is a maudlin, highly predictable and totally improbable mélange of clichés and caricatures extolling the virtues and vices of America's classicist society. The film’s one saving grace is Joan Crawford, cast as the title character – a lowly maid aspiring to be so much more. Alas, Crawford’s performance proves to be everything; a variation on her ‘shop girl makes good’ formula that built the first half of her career – particularly her early tenure at MGM.
The screenplay by John Meehan is elegant tripe at best. Sadie’s mother (Helen Ware) encourages a love match between her daughter and Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone); the young buck of the household Sadie serves. The two share an unrequited affection, but Sadie’s heart is drawn to arrogant man about town, Tommy Wallace (Gene Raymond) instead.
Tommy is a factory worker and thus, more on par with Sadie at least insofar as their social status goes. When Tommy is fired from his job for dishonesty, he runs off to New York with Sadie in tow – the two in search of high adventure.
Misguidedly believing that Tommy will eventually marry her, Sadie’s heart is broken when Tommy takes up with girl of easy virtue, Dolly Merrick (Esther Ralston) instead.
Determined to make a life for herself rather than go sulking home to mama, Sadie embarks upon a career. Her trajectory is anything but smooth or sure-footed. However, after her share of lumps, Sadie ends up singing for her supper at a fashionable night club. There, she meets millionaire Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold); a dark horse lush, more tragic than romantic and quite possessive of Sadie once his obsession with the bottle takes hold.
After numerous thwarted attempts at dragging her to the altar, Jack marries Sadie; she out of pity rather than love, creating a downward spiral into marital chaos. Running true to form for a Crawford flick of this vintage, a reprieve materializes when Michael reenters Sadie’s life. Sadie realizes that she has loved Michael from the start and the two go off – presumably into the sunset of bliss that otherwise would have eluded anyone else who attempted to chart such an implausible course.
Director Brown, usually a master of this sort of subterfuge, delivers a particularly stilted offering this time around. The opening scenes on the Alderson estate ramble aimlessly with too much dialogue and not enough ‘proof’ as it were that Michael and Sadie are actually in love. Hence, Michael’s reappearance near the end of the story seems more contrived and rushed.
Despite the fact that Crawford and Tone were husband and wife, their on screen chemistry is wooden and unconvincing. Still, Crawford makes the most of each scene, her large hard-boiled eyes capturing the pang of longing for a better life, her pouty lips telling their own tale of misery.
Warner Home Video's DVD is generally weak. Age related artefacts are present throughout and, at times, quite distracting. True, the film elements are almost 80 years old, but that’s only more reason for the film to have received a much needed digital restoration. Fine details disappear during darker scenes. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include short subjects and a theatrical trailer. This disc is available only as part of Joan Crawford Vol. 2.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)