I watched Soldier in the Rain (1963) for the second time in my life this week. The initial viewing was on a local New York television station some four decades ago. I was many things different back then starting with “impressionable” followed by “young”. Soldier in the Rain resonated with me as a soulful vibe back in the long ago . . . and I discovered that it still does.
The film, based on William Goldman’s novel, comes to life through the wonderful texture of the friendship between the Army lifer, MSgt Maxwell Slaughter, played with seamless verve by Jackie Gleason and the cone-pone, simplistic Sergeant Eustice Clay, portrayed by an amazingly unaffected Steve McQueen.
Clay idolizes Slaughter as the consummate inside operator with the plush air conditioned office complete with executive desk and Pepsi machine. He would love to emulate his hero, but knows he never can. The naïve Southerner compensates by repeatedly conjuring up get-rich schemes for the pair of them when his hitch is up. If only Maxwell would ditch the stupid Army and join him on the outside, they’ll have it made. Clay’s absurd notions tend make Walter Mitty a pragmatist and his much wiser pal humors him along as he looks forward to hearing about the next screwball idea.
For his part, Slaughter is an ultra-confident sharpie who seems to have his world licked, but inwardly knows he is a lot closer to the end than the beginning. The Army’s equivalent of a Zen Master, he becomes distinctly uncomfortable while briefly pondering his future. Letting his guard down for a moment while the two are having ice-cream at the base PX, Slaughter confides, “Eustice, I’ve always been fat. It’s not funny. Do you know what it is like to be the only fat kid on the block? I remember that world and I am not looking forward to joining it again.” The naïve Clay doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand that his hero is vulnerable and Slaughter quickly changes the subject as the moment passes. The two men finally agree to meet at an island that Slaughter visited briefly during World War II. It is the G.I. version of Nirvana. “The women who live there”, enthuses Slaughter as McQueen’s eyes open wider than Peter Lorre’s “wear nothing at all and their breasts… well Eustice, they’re inverted upwards!
Just when you start to wonder what the hell this movie is really about, Bobby Jo Pepperdine, a bodacious Southern belle played by the perfectly-cast Tuesday Weld enters the picture. After a brush with the law involving Bobby Jo and a pair of hardass M.P.s, Eustice decides to fix up his best buddy Maxwell with the teen-aged Bobby Jo on a double date. Gleason, an extraordinarily underrated dramatic actor, is at his best opposite Weld as both of them come to terms that their relationship cannot be sexual – Slaughter is a man with a moral compass – but is nonetheless affectionate. There is a sequence at an amusement park that is wonderfully touching and beautifully played by both actors. Talk about incongruously delightful: Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld having a private moment together!
Although brutal reality and tragedy inevitably intrudes into the relationship between the two soldiers who, aside from the Army, had nothing in common but their friendship, Soldier in the Rain is a sweetly whimsical movie with unusual nobility and charm.
The director of Soldier in the Rain, Ralph Nelson, is a largely forgotten filmmaker. A pioneer of early television – Climax! Studio One Playhouse 90 – his transition into feature films in the early 1960’s couldn’t have been more distinguished. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Lillies of the Field (1963), Fate is the Hunter (1964), and Charly (1968) comprise pretty heavy lifting for any director. Add to it, the great Blake Edwards who produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Maurice Richlin. Although Edwards was already busy with The Pink Panther (1964), he believed in Soldier in the Rain enough to give it his all.
To pursue this line of thought: In 1963, Jackie Gleason was still the king of television and although he had been Oscar nominated for The Hustler (1961), his indelible image of comic excess reinforced weekly – “LIVE FROM MIAMI BEACH, IT’S JACKIE GLEASON’S AMERICAN SCENE MAGAZINE!” gained nothing from a dramatic role in a modestly budgeted Allied Artists production.
Clearly The Great One believed in Soldier in the Rain as did Steve McQueen who was red-hot coming off of The Great Escape. Unfortunately, timing means both everything and nothing. Soldier in the Rain was released on 27 November 1963; five days after the assassination of President Kennedy. No one was thinking about movies or much of anything after November 22nd. Soldier in the Rain quickly disappeared from public view.
So I was pleasantly surprised to discover Soldier in the Rain had been recently reissued in DVD via the Warners Archive Collection. Something that always stayed with me from when I originally saw the film was Gleason responding to McQueen’s salutation of “See you later Maxwell” with, “Until that time, Eustice, until that time.” I am glad that this particular time …and film has come back around to me again
Speaking about the Warner’s Archive, another notable film that hit the street this month from WB that was previously available only via TCM and bootleg DVDs is The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) aka I Married a Communist. I am fond of this movie and screened it at two different festivals over the last several years. Produced at RKO by the redoubtable Howard Hughes, whose hatred for Commies – domestic, foreign and reputed – was legendary, The Woman on Pier 13 is more than a Red Scare period curiosity piece.
Although the film’s premise that the threat of domestic Communism was personified by a gang of waterfront gangsters led by Thomas Gomez and William Talman (his film debut, btw) is patently absurd, The Woman on Pier 13 plays extremely well. The entertainment value is principally due to the triangle between the angst ridden Robert Ryan, an appealing Laraine Day and one of my favorite noir fatales, Janice Carter. Carter, who seduces Ryan’s brother (John Agar) into becoming a fellow traveler, primarily labored in the trenches of the Columbia “B” unit playing a series of tawdry, backstabbing waitresses, models and nightclub chanteuses.
Metaphorically speaking, if femme fatales were hotels, Stanwyck and Crawford might be the Ritz Carlton, but Janice Carter is Courtyard by Marriott; always credible, dependable and frequently underrated. Carter’s sexy élan really makes The Woman on Pier 13 go.