Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rain (1932)

In 1932 Joan Crawford was having a landmark year, highlighted with a starring role in the star-studded motion picture Grand Hotel. The 27 year old actress spent years paying her dues to make a name for herself. After many small roles she moved to headliner and even married into Hollywood royalty with her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., son of early Hollywood's most handsome and energetic adventure star of the silent screen, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. In '32 Crawford would be lent to United Artist to star in their next picture Rain, a film based on a short story and play that they once produced as a silent in 1928 called Sadie Thompson, starring big name stars Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. With a racy story and Hollywood's hot young actress, United Artists thought they had their shot at box office success. To help direct the picture would be the two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone, (Milestone was nominated for three of the of the first four Academy Awards for directing. So he was the director for his time) providing the optimal skill with production quality.

Rain is a drama between a free, fun loving prostitute and a straight laced missionary. While spending time on a South Seas island the missionary does all he can to save the soul of young lady to whom he disagrees with. When a ship sailing the South Pacific reaches the island of Pago Pago the passengers are grounded due to an outbreak on the vessel. This leaves Sadie Thompson (Crawford), a woman of the night, to freely mingle with the Marines stationed on the island. The missionaries, Alfred Davidson and his wife (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi), who happen to be spending time in rather close quarters with Sadie, do not take kind to her lifestyle and look to stop her evil ways. After his failed attempt to save Sadie's soul, Davidson has her issued to be deported back to the states by the governor, where she will do jail for past crimes. Yet Davidson would make a breakthrough converting the stubborn woman who now sees the errors of her ways. Just as Sadie was to ship back to the US Davidson has a moment of weakness with Sadie. This action ends in his suicide and Sadie returning to her ways stronger than ever in this morality play about the lines of righteousness and self-righteousness.

The story is an intriguing one, in that it is about what is right. In a Christian world (think about the different times this was made in) prostitution was, and still is, looked down upon. For a missionary to try to convert such a lady would not be out of the ordinary. But the story takes a turn as Davidson, after failing to right her ways, decides to destroy her life by having her sentenced for deportation and her ultimate criminal conviction. Davidson turns from savior of her soul to judge and jury, claiming that what he has done to bring her down is the Lord's work. All of this makes for a good plot as the right missionary is in fact the protagonist. Milestone masterfully shoots the picture, cleverly moving both camera and actors to create such depth in a film that for the most part takes place in the small confines of a general store/hotel. The acting is rather satisfactory as Huston is the missionary you love to hate, and Crawford is the hard nosed prostitute that has no means of hurting anyone, but is just looking for fun. All seems very well, but the film was a failure. How so, you may ask? Well a lot just wasn't right about the film. I will explain.

The acting is good. Very good, depending on how you look at it. Joan Crawford was in fact at a major peak coming into the picture. She would be the headliner, before Milestone and Huston, who were great in their own rights. Audiences were just not ready for Crawford to take such a racy role as a prostitute and play opposite of a missionary, manifesting the hypocrisy of religion. This would be a touchy subject leading into the era of the production code in film. Audiences were shocked that the nice, pretty girl would take a role so different from that of her normal castings in a time when people didn't want to hear about religious strife, during the depression. There would be a little backlash for Crawford, nothing too bad, but it would have Crawford saying Rain was her least favortie film she made, mainly because of the finacial losses the film created and negative critical reception.

The other major players in the picture were the aforementioned Huston and Milestone. Walter Huston, a dignified actor in his own right from both stage and screen was on his way to having many roles in major films for years. He would not be hurt by a small film such as Rain, even though we was very good in the role. His greatest contribution to film might be his son, John Huston, one of Hollywood's most respected and honored directors, known for such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. Lewis Milestone, Hollywood's most decorated director of that time, actually does a marvelous job with Rain. There is much to appreciate from his use of the camera in this film. Despite Rain not getting much respect through the years and the film quality fading a bit with the passage of time, a keen eye will notice the great skill to which Milestone brings to the production. One great example of his visionary work is a scene where Sadie has a discussion outside the general store, and the completed shot travels almost entirely around the structure while it is raining. It is clear that they had to time rain machines so that the camera and crew would not get wet as the camera travels along the outside of the building to create the wonderful shot.

Rain really is not a motion picture for the ages. I do believe it was a failure due to timing. I think if the picture was made 50, 60, or even 70 years later it would have been a film talking about Oscar contention and would have made a star of a lesser actress. This was not meant to be a Crawford picture in an age when Crawford was making big films for MGM. Sadie was not the look she would want to give off, nor did the public like the character of Sadie, in a time when people wanted happier stories. The film was not a success, but would be remade once again in 1953's Miss Sadie Thompson by Columbia Pictures starring Rita Hayworth. The production code would be in play at that time, but the film would make it through with some resistance from censors. As you can see the story that was portrayed in Rain had promise, unfortunately it would not find favor with censors or audiences.

1 comment:

  1. This film made me extremely uncomfortable, but then I stood back and realized that my emotional intensity was some proof that the film was working. Could be there was more tension for me as I had seen the Gloria Swanson/Lionel Barrymore 1928 silent and knew what was coming. The anticipated rape scene, which I vaguely recall as more unambiguously presented in what is left of the 1928 version, gave tension to the whole film. In the 1932 version it is foreshadowed, and then suggested only by a look on Huston's face and a single line from Crawford reacting to the next day.

    This is one of IMDB's most underrated movies. I suspect anger from religious types, but then the 1928 version gets a good IMDB rating so go figure. Crawford and Huston deliver outstanding performances and the only thing wrong with the movie is that it came out at the wrong time. The movie deserves to be rediscovered now, when the anti-religion message is even more poignant, and audiences are more tolerant of emotional intensity.

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