Film History: It’s Raining at the Movies

Somewhere, there’s got to be a meteorologically minded film fanatic (in the British Isles would be my first guess) who has probably compiled a list of every major rain scene in the movies. Well, this post is not that list. No Baby, the Rain Must Fall. No Rains of Ranchipur. Next time, Blade Runner. Back off, Back to the Future Part II.

These notes are only a few impressionistic sketches of rain and a few of its cinematic uses, to darken the deeper notes of drama or even, once in a while, to express the simple joy of splashing in puddles. That’s why Singin’ in the Rain (1952) begins this post, although the one scene everyone remembers is less remembered for its singing, but its dancing, joyously embracing the rain as a romance begins.

Times change. Ten or fifteen years later, in what was already a more jaded, realistic age, musical scenes of dancing in the rain looked silly, even effeminate. By the time I was in high school, boys laughed scornfully at the strutting, prancing Jets in West Side Story. But the Hollywood screen back in 1952 was still largely an innocent place, and the very idea of falling in love wasn’t yet regarded cynically. (Well, okay, except for Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder. See @titustechera for details.)

Besides being one of the final, beloved films of the Golden Age, Singin’ in the Rain is more-or-less true to film history, simplified for the purposes of comedy. Hollywood did shrug off sporadic Twenties experimental sound films until Warner Bros. struck it rich with The Jazz Singer in late 1927. Over the next two years, other studios turned themselves inside out trying to compete, spending fortunes to master the new contraption. There were technical problems to overcome and microphones to hide, which is why 1928’s actors tended to speak passionate words of love into lampshades and flowerpots. But Singin’ in the Rain also touches on the human cost of the sound revolution: actors, especially famous ones, whose voices didn’t measure up to their physical appearance, until then all that anyone cared about.

As in Singin’ in the Rain, plenty of New York stage actors were rushed aboard the Santa Fe Chief in a tragicomic attempt to bring perfect diction and elegant elocution to the talking screen. About 95% of them were so stagy, pretentious and affected they were sent back on the next train, but a handful of the Broadway imports held on and did well, like Humphrey Bogart, the pampered son of a wealthy Manhattan doctor and the pioneering feminist art editor of the most famous avant-garde fashion magazine, The Delineator.

The most widely believed supposed victim of the sound revolution was leading man and romantic idol John Gilbert. People who don’t know anything else about the period might have heard a vague story about a handsome actor who looked like Clark Gable but talked like Tiny Tim (the Sixties one, not the Dickens one). There was never much truth to that, yet everyone “knows” it. There’s no question that Gilbert’s career did crash in the early talkies, and part of the legend is true: there did come a moment when audiences started to laugh at the histrionic high-falutin’ speeches that came out of his mouth. But the real truth is provided by the late UK film critic Alexander Walker in his book The Shattered Silents. (Walker was one of the most politically conservative cultural writers in Britain, BTW; he knew how to do his homework well enough to stand up to hostile criticism.) “Talkie” audiences had already heard Gilbert in several films by then and thought he was just fine. Even years after Gilbert’s crushing fall, he’d appear in more sound films. Gilbert’s voice wasn’t the problem; it was the type of role he was identified with that went out of style almost overnight.

Think of Twenties audiences, the women sighing over Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Gilbert, fanning themselves at a time when air conditioning had not quite yet reached theaters. Those stars didn’t write their own stuff: audiences wanted them to be Great Lovers, over the top in the florid film acting style of the time. The stars, the studios, and the writers were happy to comply. Singin’ in the Rain spoiler alert: The mean girl is revealed to have a bad voice, and the nice girl dubs her lines with her nice voice, and true love triumphs. In those days, that was no spoiler: Of course, true love triumphs. But the romantic spirit of the early Thirties screen would be different, more along the lines of Jimmy Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Mae Marsh’s face.

Which brings us to our next chapter in It’s Raining at the Movies; film noir. It’s hard to define, but everyone sort of knows what it is: a particular type of murder story, usually involving a detective, himself a flawed human being who is stunned by the depravity of the wealthy and powerful people who hired him. It’s been said that in film noir, it’s always a rainy night in Los Angeles in January 1946.

One great example where that’s certainly true is The Big Sleep, one of the films Bogart co-starred in with wife-to-be Lauren Bacall. When I first saw this film in 1966, a self-projected 16mm screening after hours in high school when I was fourteen, it was a black and white vision of men in suits and hats, women in white gloves and veils, a dark rainy world of mansions, servants, old fashioned ideals, and decidedly odd-looking cars. That’s now 53 years ago, but it was already a message from a long-vanished world when I saw it; we’d passed through some sort of irreversible cultural barrier by then.

The last film they appeared in together was Key Largo, when the two of them stood up to a hurricane. That cost the studio a few bucks, but they were the hottest couple in Hollywood, so it was spent.

Now, I hate to brag, but uh…one rainy late afternoon in Bohemia, I gave Lauren Bacall my umbrella.

Hold it, I must stop here. That is so pretentious that even the Film Critics Police is threatening to revoke my license. But it’s a true story. It happened eighty miles outside of Prague, in the ancient spa town of Carlsbad, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998. A group of us walked out of a Czech restaurant into a thundering torrent. Suddenly, ‘Betty’ Bacall was like the Morton Salt girl (“When It Rains, It Pours!”) but without the umbrella.

I knew she’d talk to me. I knew she’d have a weakness for a short, cynical, world-weary middle-aged man in a trench coat. As we stood in the heavy rain of a Central European summer storm, I gruffly handed over the umbrella. “Here, Miss. You’re going to need this”. Then I walked away into the rain until she was out of sight in the mist. I knew I’d never see her again. But sometimes in this fallen world a man, even a knight errant, must stand up for his moral code.