Pre-Code Crazy: Sadie McKee (1934)
My choices for August’s Pre-Code Crazy pick came down to two movies: Sadie McKee (1934) and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931).
I love Sadie McKee and I’ve seen it, like, a gazillion times. Before today, I’d seen Susan Lenox just once, years ago. It seemed at first that between the two, Sadie McKee was a “gimme” – hands down, no contest. But Susan Lenox, even though I’d seen it only once, had stuck in my head all this time. So I decided to give the nod to Susan, watch the movie again, and write it up as my recommendation to y’all as my selection for the month.
But as you can see from the title of this post, that’s not exactly how things worked out.
For about three-fourths of Susan Lenox, I was firmly on board with it as my pick – but the last 15 minutes or so left me with my brow furrowed and my mouth agape. And not necessarily in a good way. And although I initially planned to still stick with it, I found that, ultimately, I just couldn’t. One of these days, I’ll do a post on it and share the issues I have with the end of the film.
Meanwhile, Sadie McKee it is!!
I feel much better now.
Sadie McKee stars (my girl) Joan Crawford in the title role of a cook’s daughter whose life is transformed by love and by money. Let me explain.
As the film begins, we’re introduced to Sadie and her mother (Helen Ware), the cook for the filthy rich Aldersons, whose attorney son, Michael (Franchot Tone), was Sadie’s childhood friend. We also learn that Sadie’s boyfriend, Tommy Wallace (Gene Raymond), worked in the Aldersons’ factory until recently, when he was fired for stealing. While helping her mother during a fancy dinner at the Aldersons, Sadie overhears Michael badmouthing her beau and talking his father out of giving Tommy a second chance. Sadie is peeved, to put it mildly, and tells him off, but good.
Meanwhile, Tommy decides to move to New York to look for another gig, and at the last minute, Sadie throws caution to the winds and joins him. The two make plans to marry, but on the day that they’re to share their I dos, Tommy is a no-show, leaving Sadie with a broken heart and an overdue lodging bill.
To make ends meet, Sadie gets a job as a dancer in a nightclub where, one night, she catches the eye of Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold), a billionaire who has a pretty serious drinking problem. Brennan is accompanied by his lawyer, who happens to be none other than Michael Alderson. Sadie’s less than pleased to see him, and when Brennan is bowled over by her charms and proposes to her, Sadie accepts, mainly to spite Michael.
I’ll let you find out for yourself what happens next, but I will tell you that you haven’t seen the end of Tommy Wallace, and that the remainder of the film contains several unexpected twists that you won’t see coming. And I’ll also share some of the reasons why I love this movie and watch it so often:
- If you know anything about me at all, you know that I love me some Joan Crawford, and she can do no wrong in my book. And her performance in Sadie McKee is no different. When I say she owns this picture, I mean it – she’s in just about every scene, and when she’s not, you wish she was.
- In addition to his skills as a minor-league thief, Tommy Wallace has a pretty good singing voice and a way with a ukulele – and introduces what has become one of my favorite songs from this era: “All I Do Is Think Of You.” It was written for the movie by Nacio Herb Brown, with lyrics by Arthur Freed. The song ends up being performed several more times throughout the film – which is just all right with me. (Incidentally, the film also features a swinging rendition of “Old Pal” – the more I hear it, the more I want to hear it.)
- Sadie’s best friend, Opal, is played by Jean Dixon – a name that, sadly, few film fans recognize. But you’re sure to know her when you see her – she played the wisecracking maid in My Man Godfrey (1936) and Edward Everett Horton’s wife, Susan, in Holiday (1938), along with roles in She Married Her Boss (1935), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), and Joy for Living (1938). She’s a delight in Sadie McKee as the streetwise pal with a heart of gold – the kind of friend we could all use.
- After Sadie marries Brennan, she undergoes an immediate wardrobe transformation, courtesy of famed designed Adrian. Her coats with mink sleeves, sleek pantsuits, and art deco-style dresses are simply to die for.
- Interestingly, even though Tommy literally leaves Sadie waiting at the altar, she never stops loving him – and never stops making excuses for him. When Michael Alderson remarks that Sadie trusted Tommy and he “let you down,” Sadie protests. “Nothing of the kind,” she says. “He was afraid to take a chance getting married on nothing. He was just weak. He got all turned around.”
- The film doesn’t treat alcoholism as a comic device – it’s dealt with as a serious, very real problem. It’s believed to be one of the first Hollywood films to do so.
- One of the film’s scenes takes place in an Automat. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by Automats, and wish that I could have gone to one. There’s a crazy-cool dispenser shaped like the head of a duck where Sadie gets a cup of coffee – the coffee and cream come out of the duck’s bill.
- Sadie’s first encounter with Brennan takes place when an overaggressive patron at the nightclub grabs ahold of Sadie’s costume during her number. As she struggles with him, Brennan steps in, removes the man’s glasses, and gives his nose a violent twist. As Brennan walks away, the patron calls him a “big mug.” Later in the scene, after Brennan buys champagne for everyone in the club, you can see this same patron in the background stand and salute Brennan, saying “I take it all back!” It’s kinda funny.
- There’s a great scene near the film’s end where Sadie confronts Dolly Merrick, the vaudeville star who was the catalyst for Tommy jilting Sadie. Basically, it’s a fairly civilized exchange – although Sadie does tell Dolly at one point: “I could kill you and love it.” Oh, and she also pushes Dolly into a wardrobe hamper. Good stuff.
- And lastly, here’re a coupla bits of trivia – Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone got married the year after Sadie McKee was released. (They divorced four years later.) Also, this film marked Leo G. Carroll’s screen debut – he portrayed Brennan’s butler. And, one more – scenes from Sadie McKee were used in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
That’s it. Sadie McKee airs on August 10th, during Joan Crawford day, part of TCM’s fabulous Summer Under the Stars event. Check it out and see why it’s one of my favorites – and don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy and find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending this month.
You only owe it to yourself.