Two Raucous Silents: ‘What Price Glory?,’ ‘Sadie Thompson’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

What Price Glory?, like the successful play from which it is drawn, works with some of the era’s anger is directed less toward war itself than toward some of the era’s topical themes—in particular, as the title implies, the disillusionment that had befallen many of the youthful participants in World War I. But especially as directed by Raoul Walsh, the film version thrives on comedy that is sometimes satirical and often ribald. And that comedy only occasionally intersects with the anti-war feeling implied in the title.

Eileen Bowser has written that the film is “the archetypal celebration of war as a game played by roistering comrades.” Certainly, the central Flagg-Quirt relationship, with combative friendship and devotion to duty as its key elements, seems to work in that direction. But while the film never approaches the radical disgust that Dos Passos, Hemingway, Céline and others expressed toward the war, it does evoke a more complex and less romanticized attitude than Bowser indicates. The warriors—some of them, anyway—are romanticized, but the war isn’t, one of the results of which is an interesting tension between personal flamboyance and public destruction.

The film’s anti-war protest—”What price glory now?”—comes at a particularly grim moment in the warfare, the death of a young and quite vulnerable draftee (the sentimentally labeled “Mother’s Boy”). The protest’s somewhat overwrought emotion seems curiously out of step with the film’s prevailing ribaldry; and there is enough of the latter, and enough attention to battle scenes, to raise the possibility that the protest is a trifle obligatory. But this aspect of the film is part of a several-sided attitude toward war that is worked out in some of the characterizations and in the treatment of battle action as well. For the war means one thing to the professionals like Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirt (Edmund Lowe), another to the sensitive Lt. Moore (Leslie Fenton) and the young draftees, and yet another to onlookers like Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio).

Lt. Moore “took his war seriously” and therefore stands in paradoxical contrast to Flagg and Quirt, professionals who seem to take it casually. But Flagg, even more than Moore, is an agent of protest in the film as well. Much is made of the veteran’s amusement at the rawness of the incoming recruits, but after they’re chewed up in actual combat, it’s Flagg who says with great bitterness, “There’s something rotten about a world that’s got to be wet down every thirty years with the blood of boys like these.” Later, when Flagg regales the survivors with some not exactly insincere rhetoric (“I’m as proud of you as America should be”), Quirt jeers him to his face. The prevailing tone is one of outrage and anger, but the anger is directed less toward war itself than toward a particular kind of war. One gets the distinct feeling that it’s the slaughter of draftees, of non-warriors thrust in quick succession into wholesale mechanized war, that is the source of anger. Quirt and Flagg go willingly, as their wearily determined return to duty shows us at the end, and one is left with the sense that a war on their (professional) terms might be far more acceptable.

Nevertheless, the film also manages—as the play does not—to convey a sense of the war that undercuts even the Quirt-Flagg version of Semper fidelis. There is, for example, “The Field of Glory”—a hillside blanketed with white crosses for the dead. But the point is made even more effectively in the battlefields to which Quirt and Flagg keep returning. The two battle sequences emphasize a nightmarish spectacle that dwarfs individuals, including the film’s putative heroes. The first shows Flagg behaving heroically, and in the second we catch glimpses of Quirt getting wounded (and, characteristically, taking it as an insult more than anything else); but the chief tendency is toward a sense of vast numbers of more or less anonymous men running through a shattered and convulsed landscape. The first sequence begins with a shot of feet slogging through deep mud and ends with the burial of the dead (including a shot of dirt being shoveled onto a blanket-covered corpse). The second, a brilliant and horrifying night battle, gives us the sight of trench soldiers buried by dirt from both sides and of ghostlike men scampering through a terrain that is soon swallowed by explosions that only bordered it moments before. The horror is itself somewhat impersonal here, but there is no sense whatsoever of any “roistering game.”

Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen

Elsewhere, Flagg says, “This is the best war I ever attended,” but that’s when he’s coming back from leave in Bar-le-duc. The roistering game is not war, but the life lived by Flagg and Quirt on the edge of war, and it is in this sense that the roistering is central to Walsh’s endeavor. While the film’s moments of spectacle and drama have mostly to do with war, a great part of its action deals with physical pleasure via blatantly ribald comedy. In the play, Charmaine’s relationship with Flagg and Quirt is mostly sexual, but Flagg, in particular, goodnaturedly makes a point of not pretending that it’s anything else. The film magnifies this feeling through earthy language (even amateur lip-readers have noted that the film is much more “raw” than the play in this respect) and through the movies’ ability to heighten the importance of physical detail (e.g. Charmaine squeezing Flagg’s biceps and his thigh, with Flagg testing her biceps and offering to do the same with her thigh). Food and drink are recurring elements of the film. At one point fairly early on we are treated to the sight of Flagg and Charmaine heading with matter-of-fact pleasure for the bedroom; elsewhere, a secondary character named Kiper (Ted McNamara) dances with his hand on a girl’s butt, then later rams nose-first into that same butt while drunk. This sort of unabashed rowdiness prevails through much of the film, especially in the parts that achieve some kind of intimacy with the main characters.

Victor McLaglen’s Flagg exudes great vigor and his powerful physique is one more element of the film’s Rabelaisian gusto. As with the play’s Flagg, he is a mixture of toughness and generosity, genuinely pleased with Charmaine, but not in the least troubled by her exuberant promiscuity; crustily amused at the innocence of the younger soldiers, yet greatly moved by their real sufferings. But the filmic Flagg is also an improvement on the character who exists in the original text. Here Flagg comes to represent an exceptional joie de vive, an earthy energy which is at once larger than life and consistently unheroic. His robust resiliency does not keep him from making the mistakes of an ordinary man. But the film also gives Flagg a complexity that is missing in the play, especially with respect to the “Mother’s Boy” character. The latter worries over his lost I.D. tag and, when given the “who cares?” treatment, he offers the naïve rebuttal that his mother cares about what happens to him. And Flagg reacts to this in a rather surprising way. Whereas the play’s Flagg tells the boy to look in his hat if he forgets who he is and then leaves it at that, the movie Flagg scratches his name off his own dog tag and offers it to the boy along with the remark that no one cares what happens to him: “If I forget who I am,” says McLaglen/Flagg, “I’ll just look in my hat.” The movie’s reworking of this scene is perhaps a more sentimental version, but it also gives us an act of compassion accompanied and undercut by self-directed irony, and suggests a revealing basis for Flagg’s unexpected empathy: he himself is essentially alone in the world. And so the professional’s gruff stoicism is enhanced and complicated by a sense of vulnerability which in some ways may exceed the recruit’s.

Dolores del Rio as Charmaine de la Cognac

The movie also changes Charmaine. She is consistently a part of the ribaldry in both play and film, but she is a much more active figure in the film. The play implies that her promiscuity is inevitable, given the promiscuity of the men she is attracted to. The film neglects this notion, but instead makes her stronger and more independent. Both works have a scene in which Quirt is almost forced to marry Charmaine, but whereas the war intrudes before that can happen in the play, the film’s Charmaine flatly refuses to let anybody arrange a marriage of any sort for her. Eventually it becomes clear that she prefers Quirt to Flagg, yet her earthy independence and sense of her own integrity come first even where the objectionable arrangement clearly has its appealing side. Like “Shanghai Mabel” (Phyllis Haver), Charmaine is first seen in the film in a shot that emphasizes her rear end (practically a Walsh trademark, says Bowser) and, as with Flagg, our sense of the actor’s body becomes a major ingredient in our sense of the character. Such unabashed physicality is rather rare in the American cinema and a large part of this film’s appeal has to do with the success of Walsh, McLaglen, and Del Rio in creating a brash, bawdy quality that neither robs the characters of their modest but real intelligence and dignity nor limits them to the grim willfulness of inverted Puritanism. Charmaine is not equal with Flagg and Quirt outside a purely erotic realm. But the film does insist on her freedom from post-Victorian stereotypes: her sex life is free of guilt; and when her father goes to get her for the arranged wedding, she is busily chopping wood.

Quirt’s place in all this is not entirely clear. McLaglen’s Flagg gets the greater amount of screen time and—quite deservingly—the most sensitive and extended closeups. Yet there are signs that the filmmakers expect us to feel a good deal of affection for Quirt, too. He wins Charmaine and in the end seems to have Flagg’s affection as well. Yet whereas Flagg is big-hearted and “Rabelaisian,” Edmund Lowe’s Quirt often seems devious and indifferent to other people’s feelings. One important exception comes when Quirt flees the hospital ward—and its unresponsive nurses—to share a tender and rather frightened embrace with Charmaine. There at least, Quirt’s physical and (implied) spiritual wounds give another dimension to his brash sexuality. But perhaps Quirt’s comparative lack of appeal is also a function of the film’s sneaky unconventionality: he wins the girl, but that doesn’t mean he’s the hero of this movie; he wins her, but also leaves her to go back to war with Flagg, and so is perhaps just as insincere and habitually combative as he had previously seemed to be.

By contrast, Kiper and Lipinsky (Sammy Cohen), whose presence is felt much more strongly in the film than in the play, have fairly clearcut importance, as ethnic types; as anti-heroes; as deflaters of Flagg and Quirt; as comic (and anarchic) survival artists; as two-thirds of a funny ménage-à-trois; as cartoonish images of military absurdity; as characters who are at once all too human and unheroic, and yet seemingly immune to both danger and rhetoric. Often at rowdy odds with Flagg’s authority, Kiper persistently gives him “the razzberry”—and the message is clear not only in response to Flagg’s playful Napoleonic pose before the mirror, but also to the legendary Quirt-F1agg squabbles. Kiper the survivor prevails, in comic fashion, over a motorcycle mishap and a gas attack—whipping out an ultra-white handkerchief and lustily blowing his nose after the latter. Lipinsky joins Kiper at the head of a long line of Raoul Walsh drunks: one bit of barroom comedy has them leaning at weird angles (and on each other) in a hilariously hopeless attempt to stand at attention. Like Flagg in particular, they are preeminently creatures of the flesh and their very pointed antics challenge Flagg’s heroic side with a vigor that goes well beyond mere “comic relief.”

Together, Flagg, Quirt, Kiper and Lipinsky represent a good deal of what is distinctive in the male protagonists of Walsh’s films. Andrew Sarris, comparing Walsh’s males with those of Ford and Hawks, finds less of a sense of value, less maturity and self-recognition, than with the other two directors’ creations. And indeed, as these soldiers go plodding back into a battle that is utterly alien to their rough hedonism, they seem perfect examples for Sarris’s thesis. But Walsh’s characters also tend to live on much more physical terms than Ford’s, who are more emotional, and Hawks’s, who are more cerebral. Indeed, physical existence itself has a centrality here that is given to the family in Ford and to friendship in Hawks. Flagg and Quirt bear comparison with some of the male friendships in Hawks, but only in that Flagg and Quirt show so little of the delicately mutual understanding that goes into the Hawks characters’ equally combative relationships.

What Price Glory? is—to borrow Sarris’s terms—neither profound nor pretentious, but it is perhaps a wiser movie than its joyously lowbrow air might make it seem. Its complexities are of real interest, but ultimately they take a back seat to the powerful, direct and rather unrefined vitality of the film and its characters. In a way, the film version in particular is a sort of blasted picaresque, full of likeable roguishness, but caught up in a world that obliterates rogues and dullards, professionals and innocents alike. The conflict is simply stated, but the movie springs from the heart of a definitively modern dilemma, the role of creatures of the flesh in a technologized, awesomely destructive world. Walsh’s movie doesn’t solve the dilemma and few would dare to say that it can be solved. But What Price Glory? does heighten our sense of the “meaning” of living in the flesh, and given the darker knowledge which it also bears, that’s no small achievement.

***

Sadie Thompson, based on the stage version of Maugham’s “Rain,” introduces its characters as they disembark on Pago Pago. Each is “typified” by the way he responds to the ship steward’s request for contributions to his autograph book. Oliver Hamilton (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife both write reformers’ aphorisms with heavy, selfrighteous digs at “sin.” Angus MacPhail (Charles Lane) and his wife assert that tolerance is far preferable to righteousness. Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson), eyes flashing, avers that it’s best to smile, always smile, when things look bad, because they’ll be worse tomorrow. Hamilton and MacPhail both seem emblems for the ideas they express, and as such they embody two of the obvious forces and themes of the story. But Swanson’s Sadie Thompson is immediately a complex, electrifying presence in the film and her motto, her attire (sun visor, white blouse, necktie), her beauty and her élan are less emblems of an idea or type than they are challenges to any such typification.

Swanson’s incarnation of the title character takes a number of forms: cynic with a lesbian touch, flamboyant floozy, very experienced streetwalker, connoisseur of male flesh, refugee from her own past, victim of doubt and fear, tragic penitent, etc. There is more here than most people could bear in a single personality, but Swanson succeeds in evoking the enormous vitality that might hold it all together, thus putting Sadie’s moments of guilty self-denial among the flaws of character which afflict several other Walsh protagonists of great vitality. Swanson’s closeups never reveal a pristine glamour. Rather, her beauty is almost always explosive, never “perfect.” Ever on the edge of surreality, her teeth and eyes bespeak a more than human beauty and intensity yet what her Sadie obviously values most is the robust, uncomplicated masculinity of Sgt. Tim O’Hara (played by Walsh himself). Sometimes Swanson resorts to stock gestures (hand to the forehead for distress) bur she has great force and presence here, and considerable range. Her fire and swagger link her with several other Walsh females (Dolores Del Rio in What Price Glory?, Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal, Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory), but here she seems capable of competing with any contemporary actress on her homeground, be it Garbo at one extreme or Gish at the other.

Swanson’s “Miss Thompson” is constantly performing—”for the camera,” in a way, but also giving the impression of a woman whose joie de vive is constantly overflowing even though her ways of expressing it have an element of premeditated, rather than spontaneous, style. She differs from the Dietrich of the von Sternberg films in her lack of fatalism, in the feeling that the past can be put behind. This latter is clearly an implication not only of the film’s ending but also—and more powerfully—of Swanson’s presence, which evokes an undying, utterly unconquerable zest. Her Sadie Thompson seems “experienced” and yet always capable of transcending the world as she has found it. Swanson’s star quality corroborates that as well as the feeling that guilt about sex is baseless.

Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson

If Sadie is the center of the film’s energy, Sgt. Tim O’Hara—much more than MacPhail—remains something like its controlling intelligence. As O’Hara, Walsh conveys a mixture of loutishness and understanding, the fullblooded savvy of a rugged, uncomplicated good nature. His sparring with Swanson is sometimes literally just that, and their arm-swinging way of holding hands conveys a sense of nervously contained erotic impulses: not coyness or naïveté, but a barely managed effort to not rush a good thing. Swanson and Walsh respond to each other in most convincing fashion, and the “masculine” mystique of Walsh’s movies in no way intrudes upon, or hints of reaction against, the natural dominance of Swanson. (Indeed, since Swanson is both star and producer in Sadie Thompson, one might argue that she is the true auteur here.) The one gimmick in Walsh’s performance, a continual hitching-up of his pants, is managed naturally enough most of the time and the gesture takes on special charm when Swanson does a parody of it while wearing O’Hara’s hat near the end of their first “date.” But most significantly, Walsh—without “building up” his part—makes O’Hara into an incarnation of intelligent passion.

The Rabelaisian aspects of What Price Glory? Carry over here, and that includes the stridently mouthed (but silent, of course) profanity: Swanson’s Sadie keeps up a torrent of curses and yields no ground whatsoever to Flagg and Quirt. Some of the ribaldry is also blatantly racist, especially in some early titles having to do with “native” women. The hotelkeeper’s hefty wife smokes cigars, looks as round and hard as a boulder, and, we are told, is “not lazy, just born tired” like all of her race. But she and her corpulent husband also evoke an ambience of joy, tolerance, physical indulgence. In a fine bit of “incidental” comedy, the latter shocks Mrs. Hamilton and her companion with his bold and jovially explicit directions to “the rest room,” about which the two have been asking most primly of his wife, but not of him or any other man. Thoroughly scandalized, these two caricatures run off in the opposite direction, away from the unmentionable convenience. The hotelkeeper laughs, then strikes a match on his wife’s rear end (she having bent over in the meantime). The “scene-hogging” drunk of the later Me and My Gal, so commemorated by Manny Farber, makes an appearance here and drunkenly hogs a scene as a uniformed member of the ship’s crew delivering baggage. He gets flipped off the hotel porch and ends up sprawled over the turnstile-like gate which stands in front and which is the locus of considerable comedy, including the initial confrontation between O’Hara and Thompson.

NOTE: The official credits of Sadie Thompson indicate that the film is based on Maugham’s short story “Rain,” but the original intention was to film the stage adaptation, which had enjoyed notoriety and success with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role. The Hays Office considered the play too racy to be filmed, so Walsh got around the censors—and saved Gloria Swanson’s pet project—by choosing to film the story instead. The rub is that the film and the play have Sgt. Tim O’Hara as a major character and the story doesn’t.

My impressions of Sadie Thompson are based on a single viewing of the Eastman House archive print. Reputedly the only existing copy of the film, it is incomplete (the final reel is missing).

WHAT PRICE GLORY?
Fox Films, 1926. Scenario: Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, after their play. Cinematography: Barney McGill, John Marta, John Smith.
The Players: Victor McLaglen (Flagg), Edmund Lowe (Quirt), Dolores Del Rio (Charmaine), Leslie Fenton (Lt. Moore), Phyllis Haver (Shanghai Mabel), Elena Jurado, Ted McNamara, August Tollaire, Mathilde Comont, William V. Mong, Pat Rooney, Barry Norton, Jack Pennick, Mahlon Hamilton.

SADIE THOMPSON
Gloria Swanson Productions, 1928. Scenario: Raoul Walsh, after a play based on the story “Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham. Cinematography: George Barnes, Oliver T. Marsh, Robert Kurrle. Art direction: William Cameron Menzies.
The players: Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Hamilton), Raoul Walsh (Sgt. Tim O’Hara), Blanche Friedrichi (Mrs. Hamilton), Charles Lane (Dr. MacPhail), Florence Midgely, James A. Marcus, Sohia Artega, Will Stanton.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue