Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1921 short story of the same name, Lewis Milestone’s Rain pivots around a heated clash between puritanism and hedonism. By transposing this age-old battle for the human soul to the remote island of Pago Pago, Rain shrewdly examines both the extensive reach of America’s domineering and often hypocritical brand of religious fundamentalism and the lengths that those persecuted by its practitioners’ judgments will—and, perhaps, must—go in attempting to escape it.
From the opening montage that recalls the fragmentary style of Joris Ivens’s 1929 avant-garde short of the same name, the rain is a constant presence throughout. It’s a natural force that sonically and visually enhances the intensity of the moral tussle that ensues between two of the dozens of people stranded on the island until the cholera outbreak on their ship clears up: carefree sex worker Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) and stoic, prudish missionary Mr. Davidson (Walter Huston).
The two archetypes are stark contrasts not only in their morality and appearance, but in everything down to their movement and speech. Crawford’s legendary entrance instantly announces Sadie as a force of nature. Five quick cuts reveal each of her jeweled hands, then her high heel-clad feet, and finally, in a wider shot, her head swaying into the frame as a cigarette dangles dangerously from her lips. Where Crawford moves around almost instinctually, almost cat-like, drawing men toward her with her sultry voice and inviting eyes, Huston is permanently stiff and carefully measured. Even Davidson’s strongly worded pleas for Sadie to repent for her sinful ways are delivered without any semblance of the passion that Sadie subsists on.
Rain’s sometimes blunt portrait of a familiar conflict is complicated by a milieu that, as a whole, is indifferent to Davidson and his wife’s (Beulah Bondi) demands for piety. Various soldiers who keep Sadie’s company stand up for her and the owner of the island’s general store, Joe (Guy Kibbee), is a Nietzsche-quoting bohemian who bemoans the fact that Americans are now “bein’ made to behave.” That’s likely a reference to the post-Jazz Age comedown and rise of religious reformation, which would trickle down into Hollywood with the full implementation of the Hays Code just two years later. Indeed, Joe’s statement that his problem with reformers is that “they won’t let it alone” plays out both within and outside the reality of the film.
For as good as Crawford is in the role of Sadie—the actress detested her performance, but it’s easy to imagine her perception being swayed by critics and audiences who were fans of earlier iterations of the character played by Jeanne Eagels and Gloria Swanson—Kibbee’s comic relief character and blasé attitude is the film’s real secret weapon. The man’s sardonic, world-weary humor cuts through the didacticism and dourness that occasionally permeates the two-handers between Crawford and Huston, lending the film a much-needed levity.
Joe has seen countless men like Davidson and sizes him up as a hypocrite from the start. But as prepared as he is for the man’s patronizing treatment of Sadie, he’s ultimately powerless to protect her and is caught off guard by the absurd lengths that Davidson goes to in order to antagonize and punish the young woman. The film’s gradual reveal of just how devious Davidson is, as well as his connection to American politicians, makes for a shocking transformation of how we perceive him. Where Sadie brushed off much of Davidson’s browbeating earlier in the film, his displays of increasing, unbridled power make him a genuinely terrifying and timeless foe. In the end, his actions expose his hypocrisy, but like most men of his ilk, that doesn’t prevent him from leaving a maelstrom of destruction in his wake.
VCI Entertainment has transferred a new 4K restoration that’s virtually flawless. From the opening shots of rain drops falling on sand and leaves and in buckets of water, the image is rich in detail and texture. The contrast is equally impressive, especially in nighttime outdoor scenes where characters and objects, even with the smallest light flickering on them, remain clearly visible. The audio is also fantastic, particularly for an early sound-era film. Dialogue is clean and crisp, with only the occasional hint of tinniness common to early-‘30s films, and while the near-constant patter of rain is there, it never affects the clarity of anything on the soundtrack.
The two audio commentaries included here are entertaining listens and cover different ground. In his track, film historian Mick LaSalle discusses the enormous success of the Broadway play starring Jeanne Eagels and spends a lot of time dissecting the film’s various performances, including the supporting roles played by Guy Kibbee and Beulah Bondi. In the second commentary, writer and historian Richard Barrios pays more tribute to the film’s visual style and how director Lewis Milestone used camera tricks, editing, and location shooting to distance the film from its stage origins. The disc also includes an unrestored version of the 76-minute cut of the film released in 1938, the 1932 Betty Boop cartoon “Poor Cinderella,” and the original trailer. The package is rounded out with a bound booklet with a brief essay about Joan Crawford’s involvement with the film and its failure at the box office.
With two captivating audio commentaries and a dazzling new restoration, VCI’s Blu-ray of Rain is a must-own for fans of Joan Crawford and Pre-Code films alike.
Cast: Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi Director: Lewis Milestone Screenwriter: Maxwell Anderson Release Date: September 13, 2022 Buy: Video