Thursday 28 May 2009

Rain or Shine (1930)

Director: Frank R Capra
Stars: Joe Cook, Louise Fazenda, Joan Peers, William Collier Jr and Tom Howard

Made the same year as Ladies of Leisure, this has a utterly different feel, mostly because of the speed of delivery of lines. Ladies of Leisure was, well, leisurely, with especially Ralph Graves slow and stagy in delivery. Rain or Shine never lets up, mostly due to the leading man Joe Cook, whose job is to run his mouth off at rapid speed and confuse everyone he talks to with tall tale after tall tale. He comes off as half early Humphrey Bogart making even more of an idiot out of himself than he did in Swing Your Lady and half Chevy Chase in character as Fletch playing someone else.

He's Smiley Johnson, the general manager of the greater John T Rainey shows (twice daily, rain or shine) and it's his job to keep the circus on the road. That's no small job given that John Rainey is dead and the whole show has been suffering financially since his daughter Mary took it over. So as they head into Shrewsbury, Smiley has to find a way to avoid paying any bills, feed the animals and attempt to win the girl, who's in love with someone else. All in a day's work in the circus.

Based on a musical play by actor James Gleason that was produced on Broadway (the songs are removed here), this comes off as an attempt at copying the riotous Marx Brothers formula, aided by one circus character who's a pretty close rip off of Harpo, merely with voice. Cook is by far the most obvious actor in the film, given that much of it is set up to aid his gag routine, which is often set up with a local chump called Amos K Shrewsberry as the victim. Even the name suggests a Marx Brothers character. In fact these two characters get so much screen time that there's not much left for anyone else or anything else, there being a number of subplots that are mostly passed over in favour of the Cook shtick and the overriding consequences of the circus having no money.

There's a romantic subplot between Mary Rainey and Bud Conway, a member of the circus troupe who doesn't seem to have an actual job, with Smiley Johnson as a jealous third wheel, but that doesn't go very far. Neither does the possibility of Bud's family, who are well to do and live in Shrewsbury, investing in the show, mostly because Smiley sabotages it without even realising what's been set up. There's a mutinous takeover plot by the ringmaster and the lion tamer that gets forgotten until it's too late. There's even Louise Fazenda as the 'oriental princess' of the show, but she's utterly wasted on a couple of gags. There are more loose ends here than can be comfortably counted.

And all of this suggests a poor end result of a film, but that's not the case. Cook takes over far more than he should but he's actually pretty funny, especially given how dated he really should be by now. Some of the more obviously vaudeville oriented gags are terrible and for some reason the worst are left for last, but like many a Mel Brooks movie, there's so much thrown into this one that some of it has to stick. Cook is versatile and talented too, with one part of the film being effectively Smiley as a one man circus, obviously doing some of the stunts and routines that you might expect to go to a double.

Many of the circus folks are also obviously real circus folks, thrown into the film for authenticity and aided by some impressive camera angles. The film is nicely shot, with some true cinematic artistry underpinning the vaudeville shtick. The two approaches aren't necessarily compatible but in Capra's able hands they tie seamlessly together. All in all, it's an interesting piece and a slice of life of the circus industry of the time, but if you concentrate on anything other than Joe Cook's routine, you're going to end up disappointed.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I just did a DVR of Rain or Shine and it's fun stuff. It was like a crazy mix of Marx Bros. and Wheeler & Woolsey (Tom Howard looks like Woolsey's brother!).