“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Somerset Maugham Weekend 2 – Maugham, Hollywood, Sadie Thomspon and…almost…Tallulah Bankhead

Posted: February 25th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

As I’m in about to be in Adelaide with Selina Hastings, who produced the recent and brilliant bio of WSM, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I thought I’d retell the story she notes in her book about Maugham’s first experiences with Hollywood, the adaptation of his great play Rain about the prostitute Sadie Thomspon (who I’ve blogged about previously here, here and here). The story is a classic and also includes another much loved character of this blog that gets an occasional mention (here with Noel Coward out east) but not enough for my liking, Tallulah Bankhead.

“Here’s a rule I recommend: Never practice two vices at once” – Tallulah Bankhead

William Somerset Maugham’s call to Hollywood came almost immediately after he had arrived back from his first and most prolific tour to the Far East after years of being desperate to see China and have described the Far East as “tantalising” when he almost made it on his voyages through the Pacific South Seas. Eventually in 1919 he had visited Hong Kong, Shanghai, Peking and Mukden (Shenyang) and gone up and down the Yangtze resulting in his book of impressions On a Chinese Screen, the novel of ex-pat shenanigans in Hong Kong The Painted Veil and a (now almost forgotten) play on murder and adultery among the British colony in Peking called East of Suez.

Hollywood came calling in 1920 in the form of the producer Jesse L Lasky who had started up in business in 1912 with his brother-in-law Samuel Goldwyn; their first employee was a man called Cecil B deMille! Lasky was working with Paramount Pictures, the dominant studio of the silent era who’s stable of talent included Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. Despite movies being silent Lasky believed in hiring the best literary talent he could find on both sides of the Atlantic. It didn’t really work – writers didn’t get silent screenplays. Maugham, though well paid, produced few screenplays if any of worth though did sell the film rights to some of his earlier plays that had done well in both the West End and on Broadway. Apart from that Maugham did little more in Hollywood except sightsee and become friends with his fellow Brit in California Charlie Chaplin.

Pure luck intervened when an American looking to get a start in Hollywood, John Colton, offered to adapt Maugham’s short story Miss Thompson – then unpublished but soon to be a sensation as Rain. It is the story of a notorious American prostitute Sadie Thompson who is thrown out of Hawaii and takes ship to Samoa where she establishes a new brothel in Pago Pago. On the voyage she corrupts most of the men onboard her ship including a man of the cloth. Maugham claimed to have met Sadie on his own voyage from Hawaii to Samoa. Rain was a massive success on the stage – grossed US$3mn in America alone as well as being a massive hot in London at the Garrick theatre. Maugham got the astronomical sum of US$150,000 for the film rights.

Eventually several films were made of the story (see ???) the first, silent one in 1928 with Gloria Swanson as the eponymous Sadie Thomspon. Her true life role was played down somewhat but audiences got the point of who and what Sadie was!

However, it could have all been different. In England Rain’s producer Basil Dean at the Garrick had been keen to cast the beautiful and talented, but troubled and volatile, Tallulah Bankhead as Sadie. Bankhead desperately wanted the part but after two days of rehearsals Maugham insisted she be replaced as he was disappointed by her performance. Bankhead through a trademark volcanic tantrum at Basil Dean, left and went home, wrote a suicide note, took a few aspirin ands then woke up the next morning with a headache!. Eventually Olga Lindo took the part. Years later Maugham admitted that preventing Tallulah from playing SAdie was probably one of the greatest mistakes of his career. Though Swanson and later Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford would play SAdie (with ever more sexiness), the t world missed seeing Talullah Bankhead in what many considered the perfect role for her – being sultry and promiscuous across the Pacific from Hawaii to Pago Pago.

Tallulah – never one to be beaten – did eventually get to play Sadie on the stage in a 1935 revival in New York.

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One Comment on “Somerset Maugham Weekend 2 – Maugham, Hollywood, Sadie Thomspon and…almost…Tallulah Bankhead”

  1. 1 John Wasko said at 5:55 pm on February 26th, 2012:

    Thanks for the info. Didn’t know about the TB reference. I’ve celebrated Sadie Thompson here with a drag take off. (scrool to the bottom of the page)

    From Pago Pago, John Wasko

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