blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone)

Rain is an adaptation of an adaptation. Maxwell Anderson’s script is based on John Colton and Clemence Randolph’s stage script of a Somerset Maugham story. The story’s from 1921, the play first ran in 1922, Rain is from 1932. Maugham’s story is a first-person account, the play is not but does follow the original narrator, Rain does not. In Rain, he seems an afterthought, which is kind of the problem. Rain has a lot of good scenes and good moments. Director Milestone has a great time showing off camera movement and editing to convey their intensity. He’s also got a lot of excellent montage sequences (he and editor Duncan Mansfield go wild). But he doesn’t have a good sense of the story. Not how to tell it. He knows where it needs to be effective, but he doesn’t know how to keep the energy up between those scenes.

Rain is just over ninety minutes and the last fifteen or twenty minutes feel like an eternity. It just won’t hurry up and do something. In fact, it gets really low towards the end, only for the finish to save things. Luckily there’s enough drama to interest Milestone and there’s enough heavily veiled (pre-Code or not) material in the script for stars Joan Crawford and William Gargan to get some gristle. Rain works out; just. It might help if the ending didn’t just reveal yet another potentially more interesting character in the narrative to follow.

The film, play, story are about a working girl (Crawford) who ends up marooned—there’s cholera on the connecting ship—on a South Seas island with a crazy Christian reformer (Walter Huston). Gargan’s a marine stationed on the island’s naval base who takes a liking to Crawford, regardless of her past. Meanwhile, Huston and his good Christian wife Beulah Bondi set about trying to slut shame Crawford and then ruin her life. They’re all staying in American ex-pat Guy Kibbee’s general store and hotel. Matt Moore and Kendall Lee are another American couple, traveling with Huston and Bondi. Moore’s a doctor, going to be stationed where Huston and Bondi are traveling to missionary. Crawford’s also going there, which horrifies Bondi who gets Huston worked up. Moore’s out on the slut shaming, which you’d think might lead to some kind of scene where Lee talks to him but I’m not sure she ever does. Lee’s never anything but background. It’s a missed opportunity.

Moore’s lack of material is probably the only not missed opportunity in the picture, which is weird since he was the narrator of the short story and still had stuff to do in the stage version. Much of Rain is from Crawford’s perspective. Some of it is from Gargan’s. Some of it is from Kibbee’s. The balance is all way off. The way Milestone directs the film, it needs to be a lot more focused on one. Crawford’s got a pretty significant arc; while it does eventually work into a big pre-Code infer not elucidate, the film would’ve worked much better with a tight focus on her. But then the same goes for… Gargan, Kibbee, Bondi, Huston, probably Lee, probably not Moore. Bondi and Huston can’t be the protagonists because the film’s got a lot to say about Christian missionaries. Kibbee would make it a black comedy sitcom for most of it then something darker. Lee would’ve worked. Gargan would’ve been a little off too. And Milestone doesn’t care. He’s too busy with the great montage sequences and occasional deft camera move. The script isn’t in his sphere of interest.

Neither are the performances. Bondi spends the movie a caricature, which is a really bad move considering how things turn out. Huston’s a little too intense. He’s standoffish in his scenes with Crawford, who tries hard but the lack of insight into her character is the film’s biggest failing. Either way it could go, will she be saved or not, the film makes it about Huston being loud and determined not Crawford’s experience. What ought to be the film’s most striking scenes, when even Milestone realizes it’s time to go to close-ups on a stage adaptation, get tedious instead. Crawford and Huston’s performances just might incompatible. She’s got this long close-up with no dialogue as she starts to break down from his booming preaching and she’s great and the shot’s long enough to see how she’s great… but it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, the movie drops her for a while so there can be a couple surprises.

Rain had all the parts, someone just needed to think about how to make the stage narrative into a film one. Someone like Milestone, who does a bunch of great stuff, he just doesn’t support his cast’s performances. At all. It ought to be an amazing part for Crawford, Huston, Gargan, maybe Kibbee. But no. Crawford, Gargan, and Kibbee weather it best. Huston eventually gets rained out.

Oh, and awesome bit part from Walter Catlet at the beginning.

9 responses to “Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone)”

  1. Marsha Collock

    I saw this film for the 2nd time recently and I agree with your review – especially Huston. He struck out in this role as far as I’m concerned. Joan, on the other hand, is pretty magnificent. She inhabits the role both inwardly and outwardly. her body language is amazing and I just could not take my eyes off of her. As you say, too bad she didn’t get a better script and director.

    1. Yeah, I’m disappointed but not surprised. I don’t think there was a good Maugham adaptation until RAZOR’S EDGE. Lol. I was watching RAIN and thinking, “I’ve read ‘Rain,’ are they going a completely different route because there’s just something off about Huston and Crawford’s chemistry.”
      Crawford’s so good though.

  2. This is a very interesting review, Andrew. Although I adore this film I can really see where you’re coming from, and I think that’s why it’s always been so divisive in terms of Joan’s fans. Joan herself wrote it off, sadly, because as you said, she’s very good in it. I particularly liked how you were very honest in your assessment of the film. Thanks so much for taking part in our Blogathon 🌸

    1. Thanks for hosting! I’m glad I finally got to watch it!

  3. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film, but I do remember thinking the film seemed lacking. However, I loved Joan in this role. This film needed her. Now that I’ve read your thoughts, I’m going to revisit “Rain” with your comments in mind.

    1. I’m fairly convinced there aren’t any entirely successful South Seas dramas. There are lots of them and none of them ever quite work out :/

      1. On my blog, I’ve recently started a new series titled “Movies Everybody Loves That I Hate.” Episode 2 is coming shortly, and it’s all about South Pacific.

  4. I liked it more than you did, but I do prefer the version with Gloria Swanson, Sadie Thompson. The color remake with Rita Hayworth, Miss Sadie Thompson, has its moments too. I think the problem with all three versions is that the role of the religious man was badly written.

    1. I feel like Maugham adaptations, with some exceptions, need to be direct and not subtle with their characterizations… especially in this one. I really want to see the other versions now.

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