Movie: Rain (1932)

The “pre-code” era of cinema began roughly with the advent of talkies.  It is more certain when it ended, as that was the introduction of the Hayes Code in 1934 (read the excellent and concise background of that era here).  I have not seen many of the key films of that period, but I occasionally find one that is truly shocking when compared to the sanitized fare of the first couple of decades following the adaption of the code.

The one that has most stunned me so far is 1932’s Rain.  This was originally a hit Broadway play named after Sadie Thompson, its main character.  It had also been made into a movie in the silent era.  But it took the advent of sound to maximize the potential of this story of a battle of wills between a missionary and a “fallen” woman.

Joan Crawford plays Sadie, a prostitute from San Francisco who was facing a three-year prison term.  I think it’s interesting we don’t know what she was convicted of. 

We are introduced to her, and most of the other main characters, on a boat docking at Pago Pago.  This is one the most impressive introductions I have seen on film.  We first get a close-up on each of four sailors interrupted in mid-conversation as they suddenly look at their left.  Then we cut to a woman’s hand against one side of a doorframe, several jangly bracelets on her wrist.  Next, the other hand, on the opposite side of the doorway.  Then one ankle and then the other.

Finally, Crawford’s face as I have never seen it before.  It isn’t just that she’s so much younger here than in the other movies I have seen her in, it’s the lively, knowing expression of a woman who enjoys life.  It is safe to say she has “known” many men in the Biblical sense.

Speaking of the Bible, the ship she’s arrived on has some fellow passengers who are going to cause trouble for her.  There’s two married couples, and all four of these people are missionaries.  The most alarming of these is Walter Houston as man with rock-solid convictions which cannot be changed.  Beulah Bondi plays his wife in what may be one of the most joyless performances I have seen.

All these people are going to be stuck on the island for at least two weeks while the ship deals with a potential cholera outbreak among its crew.  They find rooms in an inn operated by Guy Kibbee, who seems to be the hub of all commerce on the island. 

He’s married to a native woman with whom he has many children, and I was very surprised Bondi did not feel compelled to comment on that.  Also, I would be very surprised if she and Huston had any children, as that would mean they have had sex at least once.

But Bondi has the most to say about Crawford.  That she and her husband are portrayed as intensely unlikeable tells us this is a pre-code film.  Starting in 1924, it would be forbidden to portray representatives of Christianity in a negative light.  Of course, any other religion would be fair game for mockery.

I was surprised by how good Houston is as her husband and fellow missionary.  I always think of a him as a cad (and father of legendary cad, John Houston), who brought a telling orneriness to roles like Old Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster.  He brings that same energy to his portrayal as an obstinate jerk here, showing how righteousness and sinfulness are often two sides of the same coin.  And, sometimes, it can be a very thin coin.

Despite strong performances from all the leads, the material feels a bit thin.  Also, despite the excellent production values, this rarely feels more than a stage play opened up for the big screen.

Speaking of those production values, this film looks astonishing, especially in the restoration on VCI’s blu-ray.  Of particular note are the advanced shot compositions, editing and camera movements, like a film made decades later.  Probably the showiest and most astonishing shot has the camera follow a ship captain face-on as he completes an orbit around a table. 

The movie begins with gorgeous visual poetry, as we see scattered raindrops pelting a variety of surfaces, such as sand and a pool of still water.  As the rain increases, the cuts gets shorter, establishing a building tempo culminating in a deluge.  After a couple of scenes, the rain subsides and we see roughly the same sequence again, but with the tempo slowing until the downpour subsides.

This type of imagery is more reminiscent of the best pictures of the silent era.  One aspect of this which could only have been possible as of a couple of years prior is the excellent dialog, most of which is given to Crawford.  On booze: “I was born hooched.”  On boredom: “There’s so much time on this island, people ought to bottle it up and send it where they need some.”  For some reason, I really liked a moment that felt potentially ad-libbed, when she sees her high-heeled shoes are ruined by mud: “Farewell, my pretty ones.”

That’s as much as I care to say about Rain, though there is far more of merit there than I wrote about here.  I’m not sure it is a great movie, but it has so much to offer that I recommend it for everybody.  There’s stellar camera work and brilliant dialog.  Best of all, it has Joan Crawford in the kind of role I’m not sure she ever attempted again, and she obviously relishes every minute of it.

Dir: Lewis Milestone

Starring Joan Crawford, Walter Houston

Watched on VCI blu-ray