Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rain (1932)

Director: Lewis Milestone                               Writer: Maxwell Anderson
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: Joan Crawford, Walter Houston, Guy Kibbee and Beulah Bondi

As pedestrian a director as Lewis Milestone became later in his career, he was just the opposite in the early 1930s. He had a visual style that was distinctive, fluid, and artistic, a pleasure to watch. After winning two Oscar’s in a row, for Two Arabian Knights and All Quiet on the Western Front, he was nominated again for The Front Page the following year. His next feature was Rain, starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. In this film he displays all of his considerable talents. The camera is wonderfully fluid as it tracks people walking to and from the ship, or as they move around the table. There’s even a nice shot as Joan Crawford looks for a can of soup, her face framed from the darkness behind the cans as she shops. And surrounding and centering the action of the film is the continuous and oppressive presence of the rain, a blunt symbol but an effective one nonetheless.

The story, from the pen of Somerset Maugham, begins in Pago-Pago on the island of Samoa. There a boat stops but must return to the United States, temporarily stranding it’s passengers. Running the only store and hotel on the island is the happy go lucky Guy Kibbee who offers hospitality to his guests. They are an interesting mix. Beulah Bondi is the sour and disapproving wife of missionary Walter Huston, and they are accompanied by physician Matt Moore and his wife Kendall Lee. Also staying at the hotel, however, is prostitute Joan Crawford. She brings along with her a gramophone, lots of booze, and noisy friends as she parties with a group of soldiers who are stationed at the U.S. naval base there. As such, she incurs the wrath of Bondi and, eventually, Huston himself. While one of the soldiers, William Gargan, issues her what amounts to a proposal, Huston blackmails the governor into having her sent back to the states and a fate she would do anything to avoid.

It’s a powerful film when seen today, and that is no doubt due to the flaunting of the production code that was still in effect at the time. Both Moore and Kibbee--who reads Nietzsche--as well as Gargan later, seem the ones who truly understand reality. Huston, on the other hand, like so many religious nuts, has the arrogance to assume that he and he alone has a monopoly on the truth. The scene on the stairs when Huston is towering over Crawford and reciting the lord’s prayer is as harrowing as any murder or torture on film. The rain itself, which is supposed to symbolize the sin that Huston wants Crawford to escape from, is really the oppression of religion that Huston brings with him to the island, destroying the happy and contented lives of the natives and Crawford alike. When seen in that light, it makes the ending incredibly satisfying and makes me so thankful that there were at least a few years in the sound era when films could tell the truth.

Crawford owns the screen, and while she’s not quite the actress she would become just a few years later, in some ways she’s more interesting because of it. Of the other actors only Kibbee really has the kind of charisma that he was known for. Bondi, while one of my favorite character actresses, seems hampered by the script. Her lines come off rather stilted and the role itself certainly lacks the kind of depth she could normally deliver. Huston is solid, but does nothing many other actors couldn’t do. As with most talkies, there is no film score to speak of, and Alfred Newman handles the chores on the opening and closing titles while Crawford’s records provide a jazz reflection of her sinful nature. Milestone is the other star here, in addition to the moving camera and framing devices, does some nice editing with left-to-right swipes going into close-ups. It’s another great artistic touch. Rain is film worth seeking out and an example of pre-code filmmaking at it’s best.

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