Soldier In the Rain is a film that apparently died at birth, being released the same week as President Kennedy was assassinated. Today, with a provenance that includes Blake Edwards with co-production and co-writing credit, Director Ralph Nelson (who had directed the teleplay and movie of Requiem for a Heavyweight the year before, the latter also with Jackie Gleason), a William Goldman novel as it basis and starring Jackie Gleason, Steve McQueen, Tuesday Weld and Tom Poston you just know there has to be something good going on here and there most certainly is.
Other than the poor timing of its release, I have no idea why Soldier in the Rain has been so ignored through the years as it has never garnished a fraction of the attention it deserves. Perhaps its archetypes are seen as slightly off to one side or its story a little bit too episodic; whatever the reason, I have always been utterly charmed by Soldier in the Rain.
Soldier in the Rain is an eccentric film to be sure; it darts here and there and what passes for a plot really consists at its heart in the relationship at a U.S. Army base between a career Army Master Sgt. who knows all the tricks and ins and outs played by Jackie Gleason and his not quite so bright erstwhile apprentice Sgt. played by Steve McQueen.
The relationship and friendship between the two is an odd one, consisting of an older mentor named Maxwell Slaughter with the heart of a con man and a younger and somewhat ditzy Sgt. Eustice Clay who shares Slaughter's instincts as a con man if not the polish but who nevertheless has his own emphatic view of the world and how it should work. The onscreen chemistry between Gleason's character and that of McQueen is undeniable however odd and has its little traditions between the two presented to show us how well they know one another such as a game they play with a soda pop machine reluctant to give over it free bottles to Eustis as opposed to Slaughter or the close-eyed visions of life on a South Sea island Eustis presents to Slaughter in order to entice him into the idea of retirement; this is an idea that drives part of the plot of the film.
Together McQueen and Gleason have a tireless stream of scams which consists of breaking annoying army rules or unlikely schemes to make money. The story itself alternates between a somewhat screwball comedy and some serious drama that some have found to be uneasy bedfellows but I have always found the drama moving and the comedy funny. It is the only instance I can think of where McQueen plays a man stupider than he actually is and there is somewhat the feel of Ollie and Stan being channeled. I myself see the sudden swings between drama and comedy to blend into one the other not only effortlessly but in a way that provides unexpected nuance and verisimilitude.
Although the casting is indeed somewhat of an odd duck when it comes to the two leads, it works marvelously for me and includes Tuesday Weld at her own befuddled and Southern sexy best as well as a very good Tom Poston as an over officious Lieutenant who is a foil for McQueen and Gleason. Sgt's Slaughter and Clay live in their own worlds, separated by intellect and age but whose friendship nonetheless conveys a sense that it is so intimate in the end that everyone else is just a guest in it their world, subservient to their wishes but never in a way that is mean spirited.
What I can say about the story is that it is at once recognizable in a way that allows one to easily relate to it but interspersed with some surprises that I found very moving. Usually a film that is a classic is thought to have elements about it that address easily recognizable archetypes but really at its heart a classic film is one that captures the imagination of the film going public. The problem with Soldier in the Rain is that one cannot admire a film if it is not shown and even a channel like Turner Classic Movies, known for digging out the gems, has given short shrift to this film.
To me, Soldier in the Rain is a better film than much more recognizable and famous movies like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) or Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) which are films that seem to fly aloft more on perception and reputation than any example of a sure handling of their material in a film sense.
Li'l Abner is, in my opinion, one of the best dance musicals in the history of American film and yet it languishes in an obscurity that is entirely undeserved. Li'l Abner has that one-off quality to it, performers who are seen and never seen again or people who hit their stride in otherwise lackluster careers, all mixing together in a perfect storm to make what is a movie with powerful artistry and a sure handed grasp of its material.
Li'l Abner was a hugely popular comic strip that ran in American newspapers across 5 decades until 1977, created and drawn by Al Capp. In 1956 it was adapted into a musical on Broadway. The 1959 film was in turn adapted from the stage musical and reprised virtually the entire cast and look of the stage play.
The first thing that strikes you about the film is that Li'l Abner is a tour de force of art direction and one that nicely encapsulated the design sensibilities of that era and in a very big way. The second thing that Li'l Abner has is energetic and wonderfully choreographed dance numbers which leave me with a sense that there are too few of them. Rather that being awkwardly inserted into and interrupting the flow of the film for their own sake as is too often the case, the dance numbers nicely dovetail into Li'l Abner and bolster the production rather than distract from it.
The stage version was directed and choreographed by multiple Tony Award winning Michael Kidd and it is perhaps this vision that is the core of why the film is so wonderful although Kidd was not attached to it. The dancers in Li'l Abner are dancers dancers and give of a sense of the fun and utter professionalism that people who are steeped in that culture convey. Michael Kidd also did the much lauded choreography for 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and it is no surprise that the same energy and exuberance are on display in Li'l Abner.
The music of the film, divided between the Broadway score by Phillip Lang and the film score by Nelson Riddle and Joseph Lilley for the film version, is as smart and lively as it comes; the movie soundtrack garnered both an Oscar and Grammy nomination and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture. Also from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers you have lyricist Johhny Mercer and Gene de Paul whose wonderful music and words are blended seamlessly into the soundtrack.
Li'l Abner is over the top and adult from cartoonish from its bright colors and make up to its overt and exaggerated sexuality. Daisy Mae is of course the highly delicious, delectable and desirable babe played wonderfully by Leslie Parrish and 2 women of that era noted for their sensuality, Julie Newmar and Stella Stevens, are at the height of their form. Peter Palmer, an unknown at the time, was a lucky find to cast as Li'l Abner and Stubby Kaye, forgotten now but very well known at the time, gives a fine performance.
Li'l Abner was filmed with the rather short lived Vista Vision which gives off a remarkable quality to whatever film stock is used and never was that quality shown off in better form than here; soon abandoned by American film studios, Vista Vision was used to great effect in the following years to make cheap European and Japanese films look classier than they actually are.
The chemistry provided by re-uniting so many elements and people from the stage musical shows off to fine effect and there is a very polished yet not tired feel to the way the characters interact with one another; the enthusiasm and fun the characters evidently felt for their roles is obvious.
One of the most striking aspects of Li'l Abner is its understanding of how to stage and edit dance on film, an area that many a film musical has fallen flat on. The sure handedness with which song and dance are handled on top of all the other elements that normally go to make up a film is really quite amazing to behold. Many reviewers of Li'l Abner have remarked on the purposeful decision to recreate the look of the stage play with flat, 2 dimensional sets and the entire movie was, thank heavens, shot indoors. The vast majority of people who saw Li'l Abner were probably blithely unaware of of the film's stage provenance and so the sets, look and design of the film dovetail nicely with the look and feel of a cartoon strip quite separately from any decision to maintain the look of a stage play.
The plot of Li'l Abner almost gets lost in the amazing artistry presented on screen. Dogpatch, U.S.A. becomes designated by the U.S. government as the most unnecessary town in America and so slated to become a nuclear bomb test site. The residents of Dogpatch are forced to come up with something that would make Dogpatch necessary or face being forced out.
Look for a teen age Valerie Harper who came to fame in The Mary Tyler Moore show and Beth Howland from the TV series Alice as two of the dancers who are also featured in a song called "Put 'Em Back". There is also a walk on role by Donna Douglas pre-Beverly Hillbilies and a cameo by an at the time very famous Jerry Lewis.
The fact that Li'l Abner is so neglected rather than cherished for the high American art that it is is a crime in much the same way as what happened to The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another American film that was seemingly lost for many years but word of mouth about the film kept its reputation alive and today The Manchurian Candidate is regarded, and rightly so I think, as a classic. Li'l Abner has not been re-discovered and I don't know that it ever will be. The DVD of the film is no frills yet nevertheless very high quality visually, sharp and with saturated color.