There’s nothing Raoul Walsh likes more than taking a yarn by the neck and wringing a good joke out of it. The tropical background is set with a spacious stroke or two, W. Somerset Maugham’s characters are introduced via calligraphy: "Those reforming Davidsons" (Lionel Barrymore, Blanche Friderici) jot down notes on damnation, the McPhails (Charles Lane, Florence Midgley) write a lament for lost tolerance, Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson) scribbles a hard-boiled jest. Sadie, in plumed hat, parasol and frowsy furs, is the center of masculine attention in the island, incurring the wrath of Barrymore’s bullying Bible-thumper, who demands atonement, threatens deportation, succumbs to lust. As in What Price Glory, Walsh doesn’t hide the story’s theatricality, instead he animates stagy dripping rooftops and wicker chairs with a steady outpour of jaunty vigor. It’s full of casually inventive use of space: When the Marines gather around as Sadie recounts a saucy anecdote, the camera stretches the frame by panning right to reveal Sgt. O’Hara (Walsh himself, pre-eyepatch) listening in, then further right as she good-naturedly pushes him away with the tip of her umbrella. Above all, Walsh has Swanson front and center, swirling her dress cheerily after getting caught in the rain and cursing out the pulpit hypocrite bent on sniffing out a "scarlet woman." To the most tactile of pioneering American directors, the most disturbing aspect of Davidson’s spiritual manipulation is the physical toll it takes on the heroine, the horror of the joy of a party girl who sings along to her gramophone converted into zombified fear. "Life is a quaint present from somebody..." The final reel has been lost, but the stills used to restore it confirm Walsh’s robust chivalry and, as in Queen Kelly, Swanson’s personal triumph. With James A. Marcus, Sophia Artega, and Will Stanton. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce