Reflections 2009
Series 6
February 17
Polynesian Triangle VI: Pago Pago - Maugham


Somerset Maugham’s “Rain”   One of the most enjoyable things for me about the Samoas are the historical literary references, not only to Michener and Stevenson, but also to W. Somerset Maugham. To put the connections in chronological order, Stevenson falls in the 1890’s, Maugham in the 1920’s, and Michener in the 1940’s.


Maugham (MAWM) used Pago Pago as the setting for his novella “Rain”, with its bigger-than-life character Sadie Thompson. For those readers who are unfamiliar with it, or haven’t read it in some time, I’d suggest they do a quick read here: “Rain” by Somerset Maugham. It’s a bit more than two dozen pages, and will help in understanding the below comments.


I do not intend to summarize the story beyond this sketch. A ship arrives in Pago Pago, but an outbreak of measles on a connecting schooner prevents the Macphails, the Davidsons, and Sadie Thompson from continuing on to Apia for two weeks. They take lodging in a boardinghouse, and a conflict develops between Reverend Davidson and Sadie Thompson, leading to his eventual downfall. The incessant rain of Pago Pago symbolizes both the oppressive atmosphere in the rooming house, and Davidson’s suppression of the joys of life, not only of the Samoan village on an outlying island, of which has put himself in charge, but also of Sadie Thompson’s ebullient lifestyle.


Maugham visited Pago Pago and stayed in a boardinghouse that he used as his setting. The name of the work, in its written and filmed versions, has varied between “Rain” and various combinations of the words “Miss”, “Sadie”, and “Thompson”. In early 1921, Maugham first published it as “Miss Thompson”, but later that year, published it again as “Rain”. It was popular enough so that, in 1923, other authors wrote a successful play version, and stayed with the title “Rain”.


The first of three notable filmed versions came just a few years later, in 1928. This silent version starred Gloria Swanson as Sadie and Lionel Barrymore as Davidson, and was called “Sadie Thompson”. (You may now visualize Lionel Barrymore as Davidson, and use as an image-helper his Mr Potter, the banker, in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.)


But talkies were on their way, which is probably why the Gloria Swanson version is possibly the least remembered of the three. (A further irony is that some considered talkies as a passing fad.) In 1932, the sound version, this time going back to the name “Rain”, perhaps the seminal one of the three, starred Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. This version was still pre-code, so the subject matter didn’t suffer from the later censorship. (I’ll refer here again to the statue of Walter Huston in Puerto Vallarta [2009/2], but dedicated to him as a director.)


And then in 1953, Rita Hayworth splashed onto the screen under the title “Miss Sadie Thompson”, using the last possible permutation of the three words. José Ferrer was Davidson. The production code was by then in full force, and the film was unmercifully censored and emasculated. Davidson couldn’t be a missionary, since that might offend some people, so he became just a garden-variety religious zealot. It couldn’t suggest that Davidson thought Sadie might have been a prostitute in Honolulu (which she wasn’t—she was just a fun-loving party girl), so she was made into a nightclub singer instead, perhaps in the expectation that would imply some tawdryness. The Hayworth film is more of interest in order to analyze the censorship restrictions imposed on American life in the 1950’s than to really understand what happens in the Maugham work. Given that the Swanson film was silent, implying its own limitations, that leaves the Crawford film as probably the seminal filmed production.


As to the characters, Dr Macphail is the intermediary, the onlooker, the helper. Mrs Macphail stands behind him as a supporter. The Davidsons have clearly gone beyond their original religious mission at some out islands in Western Samoa and have attempted to fully change the Samoans’ culture to suit their extremely conservative lifestyle. They have tyrannized the people out of their dancing, their music, their clothing. Where would the fiafia and lava-lava be today if they had succeeded? (Where would surfing in Hawai‘i be today if they had succeeded there?)


It’s Mrs Davidson who verbalizes what they’ve done beyond their primary religious mission. She calls the lava-lava a “very indecent costume” and claims they’ve eradicated it in their area. She speaks of the “depravity of the natives” and claims that “it was impossible to find a single good girl in any of the villages”. She says they’ve “put down the dancing” as it “leads to immorality”, so “we stamped it out”.


I talked about the Samoan curfew, used for praying, as it’s practiced today, having similarities to Muslim prayer practices, but then Mrs Davidson states that “the women have all taken to the Mother Hubbard”. This is a head-to-toe Victorian cover-up outfit for women. I do not see any huge difference between a Mother Hubbard and a burka, as worn in the Middle East.


Mr Davidson is clearly a forceful person to have been able to succeed in this tyranny. He uses economic threats against the Samoans and traders to get his way. He even bullies the Governor of American Samoa to do his bidding. Mrs Davidson doesn’t want to be in anyone’s shoes who comes against him.


The Davidsons are arrogant, self-righteous, drab, and humorless. In fining the Samoans for dancing and for not wearing “proper” clothes, they are reveling in stamping out pleasure in the guise of driving out sin.


But then Davidson decides to impose his lifestyle on Sadie, and he goes one step too far. She rebels against his interference in general, and his interference in her life in particular.


As to the time period, let’s look carefully at it by removing subsequent layers of history. We’ll remove the air travel of today, and picture the ship travel of 1921. As I confirmed with Bill Miller on the QV, at that period the Pacific had a spider web of shipping routes to and between all the main islands. The five characters are going from Honolulu to Pago Pago. As one would change planes today, they all plan on “changing” ships in Pago Pago to go to Apia, when the connecting ship is laid low. They talk about a ship due going to San Francisco and one to Sydney. Maybe Sadie will catch this one, maybe that. What a different way to travel.


Note also how time had another meaning. Each of these voyages took time. Then they need to spend first ten days, then two weeks in Pago Pago, and that time extension doesn’t really seem to ruffle them. Aren’t they concerned with who’s watering the plants at home?


Look also at where this time period falls. 1921 is just three years after the end of WWI. Apia had been German up to just a few years earlier, and now was newly under New Zealand authority. The former Eastern Samoa, where the story takes place, had been American for only two decades. While the Davidsons are going to Apia to return to their mission, and Sadie is going because she’s gotten a job as a cashier there, Macphail is going to recuperate in Apia for a year because of on his war injuries. This is the time period when the Victorian and Edwardian eras had come to a close, and the flapper era has started. Granted Sadie wears flashy clothes, and has unrefined manners, so the Davidsons call her “common”, but she’s just a party girl who would fit in much more easily in the present, but which was much more shocking in the 1920’s. Because of Sadie’s lifestyle, Davidson assumes she has to be a prostitute, and there’s no valid indication anywhere of that. Davidson just felt she “looked fast” and “had no sense of sin”. You can imagine Sadie’s delight when she goaded him on, saying he can visit her in her room, but that he shouldn’t come in “business hours”. Shocking! Well, it really was a shocking remark to the Davidsons and Mrs Macphail, although Dr Macphail had to suppress a laugh.


Also note a sign of the era (or at least, of an era that was coming to an end) when Mrs Davidson wanted to tell Dr Macphail something about a marriage rite among the Samoans, presumably something sexual. Even with the mitigating fact that he was a doctor, the (outgoing) standards of the time prevented her from speaking to him on the matter, so she had to tell it to Mrs Macphail (same-sex discussions of this type were OK), and Mrs Macphail would then tell it to her husband (spousal discussions were OK).


There is another indication of social change. We talked (2008/17) about the word “legs” being a taboo word for quite some period of time, especially in reference to women, with people using euphemisms such as “limbs” to refer to legs. Maugham has no problem himself talking about Sadie’s legs, but Mrs Davidson still cannot bring herself to use that word. When talking about mosquitoes bothering sleepers, she refers to ladies being given pillow-slips to cover their “lower extremities”. I don’t think Sadie would use that phrase at all.


At any rate, these were two different worlds coming together. In the novella, the Samoans and Sadie enjoy music and dance in contrast to the repressed and cheerless Davidsons, and the focus is on Davidson’s fall from grace. In the Crawford film, the focus is more on Sadie being the chief protagonist, as she has vitality and likeability. Both novella and film present a tale of moral frailty, cruelty, and hypocrisy.


And the rain. Maugham says “It did not pour, it flowed”, a line I love. In Apia at dinner I saw similar torrential rain coming down outside the open sided Old Fale Restaurant, but the heaviest part lasted maybe 10-15 minutes. I can just imagine what Rainmaker Mountain in Pago Pago can do. The constant rain oppressing and tormenting the characters appears as a metaphor for Davidson’s oppression and torment of the Samoans and of Sadie. Maugham says the rain “was unmerciful and somehow terrible; you felt in it the malignancy of the primitive powers of nature. It did not pour; it flowed. It was like a deluge from heaven”.


There are a number of Sadie Thompson videos on YouTube. The only trace of the Gloria Swanson film I can find comes from Robert Ebert. It runs 2:08 has some views of Sadie, but doesn’t show Lionel Barrymore as Davidson, which I would have loved to have seen: Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson. There are numerous clips of the Joan Crawford film, but this short one (0:36) with Walter Huston as Davidson gets right to the point. Do allow that it’s style is a little dated, but this is quality: Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson. If it draws your interest, you can go to YouTube and see quite a number of lengthy clips from this, the best version. Do note that it changes “measles” to “cholera”, presumably because that sounds like a more serious disease. Finally, this is a too-long (8:36) clip with Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer. The time is updated from post-WWI to post-WWII, all characters are American, and there is music (!!!). This is just a vehicle for Rita Hayworth (Sadie sings! Sadie dances!) and it’s of course music of that period. Skip ahead to Davidson and Macphail talking, but still, this is not Maugham: Rita Hayworth as Sadie Thompson.


A Visit to Pago Pago   Planning this entire trip, I knew I wanted to get to American Samoa as well as independent Samoa, and the connections just didn’t work well. I decided I should follow the advice in the Frommer book and do it as a day trip out of Apia. It suggested that only Oceania Travel and Tours, in a hotel other than Aggie’s, did this, and this put me in touch with Sulu Malifa. She responded on an e-mail, and we went back and forth on what to do and how to do it. We decided on a full-day tour to make the effort worthwhile (in retrospect, a half-day would have been fine, since there wasn’t much I was interested in seeing beyond Pago Pago). She made the arrangements, and with a lot of faxing back and forth between New York and Samoa, including prepayment, it was all set.


On arrival in Samoa, I called Sulu, and she told me to be ready for a pickup to go to the airport at 6:00 the following morning. As I climbed up the steps to Aggie’s lobby in the pre-dawn darkness, only one person was standing at the desk. I had expected some flunky to appear, especially given the time of day, but it turned out to be Sulu herself, with a granddaughter in tow, there to drive me to the airport. She had a big hug for me, given that we’d done so much work together months earlier. The airport was almost empty at the hour we arrived, but I got on my puddle-jumper propeller plane. It was the first of five flights per day that this airline has to Pago, and I was scheduled on the last one back to Apia. The plane seated maybe 19-20, and there were maybe a dozen passengers.


The flight in both directions gave a beautiful view of Savai‘i, since the airport is at the western end of Upolu. It also meant that we flew over Apia in both directions, and you could make out Beach Road, Aggie’s on the right, and the long peninsula with the monuments on the left. In 40 minutes we landed in Tutuila.


Waiting for me was Tai, who guided me throughout the day. It turned out she was Sulu’s daughter-in-law, actually ex, since there had been a divorce, but Sulu and Tai get along very well, with each one running the office on each island. Only the southeast side of the island has a coast road, with Pago Pago Harbor jutting into the middle. The airport is a bit to the south, so Tai drove me up into town.


As I mentioned, the “great landlocked harbor” described by Maugham looks like an eagle’s head looking left. The larger part is seaward, and then the “beak” points due west. As you enter this inner harbor area from the south, the Governor’s Mansion is on a hill to your left. It dates from the turn of the 20C, and is the one Maugham used in the story for Davidson and Macphail to visit, separately. On the water side of the road opposite the Governor’s Mansion is the former Rainmaker Hotel and Sadie’s by the Sea, which I’ll discuss later. Rainmaker Mountain itself is on the north shore, opposite.


Most of town is along the south shore, and we passed the market and government buildings. We stopped at the Sadie Thompson Inn, but more about that later, too. The only way to continue north is to go around the harbor. This is where you pass—and smell—the tuna fish canneries, including Starkist. These canneries, plus the container port on the south side, are the major visual blemishes on the otherwise attractive area.


We then drove to the northeastern end of the island, and back. We drove up to the pass next to Rainmaker Mountain (1718 ft / 524 m). The view down over the sunny harbor and town was stunning, except for the fact that at the top of Rainmaker Mountain, it was pouring—what else. At least it wasn’t flowing.


Coming back through town we stopped for lunch at Sadie’s by the Sea, and Tai introduced me to Tom Drabble, originally from New Zealand, who, with his wife, own both Sadie-related hotels. I interviewed him for about half an hour, which will also be described below.


We did more drives, including all the way to the southwestern end of the island. The coastal views were all attractive, but that sort of thing gets old fast. Then Tai dropped me off at the airport, with plenty of time until my flight, and then returned to her office.


Then CRISIS!! I was early, and went to ask when check-in started. Well, there’s a delay. Actually, there’s a delay with not only my flight, but the one before it. Then, word came from Apia that both flights were cancelled. I’d never before flown on a day trip before with no luggage, and here the last flight of the day was cancelled. None of the two other airlines had flights this late in the afternoon. I asked about flights the next day, and they were all fully booked, since Friday was a popular travel day for the weekend. It turns out that both their planes in the Apia-Pago service—and do note that “both” means “two”—had developed mechanical problems and were grounded. My feeling was that one had probably broken its rubber band and the other had its hamster go on strike. I had them call Tai, who turned around and came back to get me. She was prepared to put me up in her guest room for the night, on the basis that they might charter a plane from another airline in the morning. Then the call came through: they had managed to charter one on the spot, so Tai made her second U-turn and we returned to the airport. I ended up arriving in Apia only twenty minutes behind schedule. Of course, Sulu had heard about the problem, so had turned back home, but then got the newest word, so she turned back to the airport again and got me. This was the trip where we encountered the curfew in the towns along the way. But at least my day trip had not become a two-day trip—without baggage.


Sadie Thompson   So here’s the nitty-gritty. The very Pago Pago rooming house along the south shore of the harbor, inland, where Maugham stayed, is now the Sadie Thompson Inn. Although much modified since the 1920’s, it is still a two-story frame building with broad verandahs on both floors overlooking the harbor, just as Maugham described. Staff was on hand, but the hotel seemed to be unoccupied, given the economic downturn. Tom had people staying instead at Sadie’s by the Sea. He has gotten the Inn on the historic registry, though, and plans to use it for commercial and government travelers. The town has grown up near the inn, and there is no longer any nearby beach as mentioned at the end of the story.


I asked the staff if we could go upstairs, and there I found the rooms all named. Among others, there was a Sadie Thompson Room, of course, and one for Rev Davidson, Dr & Mrs Macphail, Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore, Rita Hayworth, José Ferrer. Some rooms were inside, others on the east verandah. I didn’t get to see the west verandah, which probably would account for rooms for Mrs Davidson, Joan Crawford, and Walter Huston. Still, I was satisfied. It is rare that you can get a Sense of Place such as in this case.


Downstairs there were a few movie posters for the three films. Tom tells me that he has lots more, but hasn’t yet put them up.


The Rainmaker Hotel, in an excellent location at the entrance to the inner harbor opposite Rainmaker Mountain, is a study in frustration. It was built with government backing in 1965 and was mismanaged from the start. It not only went downhill, it hit rock bottom. Even with its prime location, it is presently boarded up and in very sad condition.


What Tom Drabble did was take over the one wing with the best location, right on a beach, with prime views, restore it, and convert that into Sadie’s by the Sea. What a clever idea. This is the facility, still connected by name to the Inn, that he hopes to get visitors to use. We were eating (Philly cheese steak, home-made apple pie à la mode—this is US territory, after all) in his beautiful new restaurant, just inside off a large terrace.


It was interesting to get his views on tourism in American Samoa. It is perfectly obvious to him what I had found when planning my trip: the world flies through Apia, and Pago is a side trip. Even the regular flights to Pago from the US do not extend further, as compared to my flight to Apia, which connected to NZ. He says the US government is trying to promote US tourism, and nothing is happening. Of course not. There’s not that much here to do or see to make the long trip from the US viable. The logical territory to mine for tourism is Australia and New Zealand, not that far away. This is also the conclusion I had come to in planning this trip.


He talked about the cable car, the ruins of which Tai showed me later. A cable car (gondola) used to go up from behind the Governor’s Mansion across the harbor to Rainmaker Mountain, but there had been a bad accident some years ago when a helicopter hit the cables, and ruined them. There has not been enough funding to redo it, but it would be a big drawer of tourism.


I mentioned cruise ships. Sure, he said, it’s nice when even the Queen Mary 2 can dock in the ample Pago Pago harbor. But what good do cruise ships do? The hotels don’t benefit. Few restaurants benefit, outside of maybe cafés. Only the sellers of trinkets benefit. More cruise ships, while lifting prestige (and hopefully repeat visitors), are not the answer.


Tom has been trying, with meager success, to establish a tourist group for all the islands in the South Pacific. Perhaps by working together, they can improve each other’s lot. Anyway, it was very interesting looking at such long-distance travel from the hotel owner’s point of view.


I am pleased to have been able to have added Maugham-Sadie Thompson to Michener-Bloody Mary-Aggie Grey and Stevenson-Vailima, and those three elements were a major component to my having enjoyed my visit of the Samoas so much.

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