On DVD: Soldier in the Rain (Warner Archive Collection)

Steve McQueen was not a good comedian, and I've always thought Jackie Gleason was more threatening than funny. They were co-billed as the stars of 1963's Solider in the Rain, the title of which certainly doesn't evoke smiles. Nonetheless, it is a comedy, with a screenplay by Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards from an early novel by William Goldman. The movie struggles against low production values and pat TV-friendly material that doesn't invite either actor to inhabit their characters beyond the level of overly-familiar types.

McQueen is supply Sergeant Eustis Clay, a happy-go-lucky schemer in league with Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter (Gleason). Slaughter lives the good life in his well-appointed peacetime office, thanks in part to the machinations of Clay, who helps Slaughter gain access to the newest and most sought-after goods coming through the base. Slaughter is a career officer, but Clay, who can hardly wait to get out of the Army, tries to lure the older man into civilian life so they can go into business together. Slaughter regularly extracts Clay from one jam or another, and in return, Clay sets Slaughter up with a blonde chippy less than half his age named Bobbi Jo Pepperdine (Tuesday Weld). However, the next time Slaughter comes to Clay's rescue, it has unexpected consequences that lead to the film's rather mawkish conclusion.

Tone is a problem in Soldier in the Rain, which has dramatic pretensions that come off as forced. But the "comedy" is problematic, too. The movie just isn't funny. Gleason has a handful of decent moments, but I keep thinking he's going to hit someone - which is ridiculous, because the character he is playing is a sweetheart. McQueen is horrible - mugging idiotically and putting on a completely made-up "hick" accent. He plays Eustis Clay as a "dimwit," but for those of us paying attention, Clay isn't actually that dim as written - so what's with McQueen's performance? Watching Soldier in the Rain has made me re-assess other McQueen roles - roles that I've never bothered giving much thought - and I'm realizing that there may be a gross falseness to everything the actor ever did. Even worse, however, is Tony Bill who, as the resident goofball, tries to channel Jerry Lewis and fails spectacularly.

Soldier in the Rain could have been a funny, acerbic take on the complacency of the US Army in the 1950s and 1960s - on the ridiculous wastefulness of the biggest and best-armed military force in the history of the world, its men and women spending their days daydreaming and cooking up prison-like schemes to trade surplus mattresses for electric fans. But satirical angles are wholly ignored; in fact, the movie takes time out to honor the military establishment. There's nothing wrong with that, except that there's nothing very honorable about the film's characters. They are layabouts and scatterbrains, and they would have been more at home in a military satire as opposed to a straight comedy.

Director Ralph Nelson adds nothing visual to the film, shooting it as one might a live television play. The plot moves along quickly enough (the movie only runs 87 minutes), but there are no ups or downs - the story and tone are flat to the extent that scenes become indistinguishable from one another in the memory. 

Read the full review here

No comments:

Post a Comment