04 February 2010

Rain (1932)

Released in 1932 by United Artists and directed by Lewis Milestone, Rain stars Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, a woman with a decidedly checkered past. Opposite her is Walter Huston in the role of Reverend Alfred Davidson, a stalwart Christian fundamentalist who is hellbent on saving Sadie's soul (whether she likes it or not).

There's rather a lot to like about this picture. Although it dates from a period in film history when talking pictures were really only just beginning to hit their stride, Rain is largely able to avoid many of the problems that seem to plague many movies of the era -- the acting is hardly stiff, the sound quality is quite good (for 1932, at any rate), and the camera work is anything but static. Indeed, Lewis Milestone's camera work is one aspect of the film that really stands out -- in addition to some shots that suggest the art house more than the studio-owned movie theater, Milestone incorporates some unusually long tracking shots (at least for the time) even one instance where the camera completely circumnavigates the action (an almost cliched cinematographic trope these days, but perhaps fairly innovate for 1932). I imagine that being free of studio constraints afforded Milestone a bit of creative latitude -- it has to be said that United Artists was the closest thing there was to an indie-film distributor in the era of the studio system. None of this might be particularly groundbreaking, but I have rarely seen such techniques in pictures from the time, which allows Rain to truly stand out from the crowd.

Beyond all that, Rain is also an exceptionally well-written picture. The screenplay is based on a 1923 stage play of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1921 short story "Miss Thompson" by W. Somerset Maugham, which was later retitled "Rain" (remember that bit of trivia for your next A/V Club meeting). Not only does the picture deal with such themes as moral ambiguity and religious hypocrisy -- two of my favorites, as you might have guessed -- but it does with a pair of genuinely interesting and well-developed characters. The only drawback is that many of the more sordid elements of the plot are only hinted at or alluded to (but such, unfortunately, is the nature of 1930s Hollywood).

More than anyone else, Joan Crawford is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the strong screenplay. Sadie Thompson is much more profound character than the majority of characters that Joan played during her career -- this role certainly has Janie Barlow and Crystal Allen beat by miles, to say nothing of that one movie with the ice-skating -- and she actually does a hell of a job, particularly during Sadie's fits of rage at Reverend Davidson. In all honesty, I think Joan's Sadie Thompson gives her Mildred Pierce a run for its money.

Of course, fanboyism should not keep me from giving Walter Huston his due. Walter is great as the sanctimonious Reverend Alfred Davidson, looking and sounding every bit the seemingly self-possessed bible-beater. Towards the end of the movie, when the Reverend gives in sinful temptation, Walter metamorphoses from pious preacher to creepy lecher extremely well, and all with a shift in facial expression. Once again, a hell of a performance.

Yet in spite of all this, Rain was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. Joan took this reaction to heart, sticking to safer and more accessible roles for the remainder of the decade. Truly unfortunate, since Rain does demonstrate that she could be quite an actress if given decent material. Fortunately for posterity, however, the picture has attained much greater renown today, and is generally counted among Joan's best pictures.

For classic movie junkies, it's definitely worth checking out. Movie lovers in general might also want to give it a go, if only to see how it stacks up against other movies of the era. And if you don't have TCM or don't want to fork over the cash for a DVD, you can even watch Rain in its entirety on the Internet Archive. It turns out that the internet is good for something other than porn, after all!

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