It’s Raining at the Movies

 

Somewhere, there’s got to be a meteorlogically minded film fanatic (in the British Isles would be my first guess) who has probably compiled a list of every major rain scene in the movies. Well, this post is not that list. No Baby, the Rain Must Fall. No Rains of Ranchipur. Next time, Blade Runner. Back off, Back to the Future Part II.

These notes are only a few impressionistic sketches of rain and a few of its cinematic uses, to darken the deeper notes of drama or even, once in a while, to express the simple joy of splashing in puddles. That’s why Singin’ in the Rain (1952) begins this post, although the one scene everyone remembers is less remembered for its singing, but its dancing, joyously embracing the rain as a romance begins.

Times change. Ten or fifteen years later, in what was already a more jaded, realistic age, musical scenes of dancing in the rain looked silly, even effeminate. By the time I was in high school, boys laughed scornfully at the strutting, prancing Jets in West Side Story. But the Hollywood screen back in 1952 was still largely an innocent place, and the very idea of falling in love wasn’t yet regarded cynically. (Well, okay, except for Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder. See @titustechera for details.)

Besides being one of the final, beloved films of the Golden Age, Singin’ in the Rain is more-or-less true to film history, simplified for the purposes of comedy. Hollywood did shrug off sporadic Twenties experimental sound films until Warner Bros. struck it rich with The Jazz Singer in late 1927. Over the next two years, other studios turned themselves inside out trying to compete, spending fortunes to master the new contraption. There were technical problems to overcome and microphones to hide, which is why 1928’s actors tended to speak passionate words of love into lampshades and flowerpots. But Singin’ in the Rain also touches on the human cost of the sound revolution: actors, especially famous ones, whose voices didn’t measure up to their physical appearance, until then all that anyone cared about.

As in Singin’ in the Rain, plenty of New York stage actors were rushed aboard the Santa Fe Chief in a tragicomic attempt to bring perfect diction and elegant elocution to the talking screen. About 95% of them were so stagy, pretentious and affected they were sent back on the next train, but a handful of the Broadway imports held on and did well, like Humphrey Bogart, the pampered son of a wealthy Manhattan doctor and the pioneering feminist art editor of the most famous avant-garde fashion magazine, The Delineator.  

The most widely believed supposed victim of the sound revolution was leading man and romantic idol John Gilbert. People who don’t know anything else about the period might have heard a vague story about a handsome actor who looked like Clark Gable but talked like Tiny Tim (the Sixties one, not the Dickens one). There was never much truth to that, yet everyone “knows” it. There’s no question that Gilbert’s career did crash in the early talkies, and part of the legend is true: there did come a moment when audiences started to laugh at the histrionic high-falutin’ speeches that came out of his mouth. But the real truth is provided by the late UK film critic Alexander Walker in his book The Shattered Silents. (Walker was one of the most politically conservative cultural writers in Britain, BTW; he knew how to do his homework well enough to stand up to hostile criticism.) “Talkie” audiences had already heard Gilbert in several films by then and thought he was just fine. Even years after Gilbert’s crushing fall, he’d appear in more sound films. Gilbert’s voice wasn’t the problem; it was the type of role he was identified with that went out of style almost overnight.

Think of Twenties audiences, the women sighing over Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Gilbert, fanning themselves at a time when air conditioning had not quite yet reached theaters. Those stars didn’t write their own stuff: audiences wanted them to be Great Lovers, over the top in the florid film acting style of the time. The stars, the studios, and the writers were happy to comply. Singin’ in the Rain spoiler alert: The mean girl is revealed to have a bad voice, and the nice girl dubs her lines with her nice voice, and true love triumphs. In those days, that was no spoiler: Of course, true love triumphs. But the romantic spirit of the early Thirties screen would be different, more along the lines of Jimmy Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Mae Marsh’s face.

Which brings us to our next chapter in It’s Raining at the Movies; film noir. It’s hard to define, but everyone sort of knows what it is: a particular type of murder story, usually involving a detective, himself a flawed human being who is stunned by the depravity of the wealthy and powerful people who hired him. It’s been said that in film noir, it’s always a rainy night in Los Angeles in January 1946.

One great example where that’s certainly true is The Big Sleep, one of the films Bogart co-starred in with wife-to-be Lauren Bacall. When I first saw this film in 1966, a self-projected 16mm screening after hours in high school when I was fourteen, it was a black and white vision of men in suits and hats, women in white gloves and veils, a dark rainy world of mansions, servants, old fashioned ideals, and decidedly odd-looking cars. That’s now 53 years ago, but it was already a message from a long-vanished world when I saw it; we’d passed through some sort of irreversible cultural barrier by then.

The last film they appeared in together was Key Largo, when the two of them stood up to a hurricane. That cost the studio a few bucks, but they were the hottest couple in Hollywood, so it was spent.  

Now, I hate to brag, but uh…one rainy late afternoon in Bohemia, I gave Lauren Bacall my umbrella.

Hold it, I must stop here. That is so pretentious that even the Film Critics Police is threatening to revoke my license. But it’s a true story. It happened eighty miles outside of Prague, in the ancient spa town of Carlsbad, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998. A group of us walked out of a Czech restaurant into a thundering torrent. Suddenly, ‘Betty’ Bacall was like the Morton Salt girl (“When It Rains, It Pours!”) but without the umbrella.

I knew she’d talk to me. I knew she’d have a weakness for a short, cynical, world-weary middle-aged man in a trench coat. As we stood in the heavy rain of a Central European summer storm, I gruffly handed over the umbrella. “Here, Miss. You’re going to need this”. Then I walked away into the rain until she was out of sight in the mist. I knew I’d never see her again. But sometimes in this fallen world a man, even a knight errant, must stand up for his moral code.

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  1. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Gary McVey:

    Now, I hate to brag, but uh…one rainy late afternoon in Bohemia, I gave Lauren Bacall my umbrella.

    Hold it, I must stop here. That is so pretentious that even the Film Critics Police is threatening to revoke my license. But it’s a true story. It happened eighty miles outside of Prague, in the ancient spa town of Carlsbad, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998. A group of us walked out of a Czech restaurant into a thundering torrent. Suddenly, ‘Betty’ Bacall was like the Morton Salt girl (“When It Rains, It Pours!”) but without the umbrella.

    I knew she’d talk to me. I knew she’d have a weakness for a short, cynical, world-weary middle-aged man in a trench coat. As we stood in the heavy rain of a Central European summer storm, I gruffly handed over the umbrella. “Here, Miss. You’re going to need this”. Then I walked away into the rain until she was out of sight in the mist. I knew I’d never see her again. But sometimes in this fallen world a man, even a knight errant, must stand up for his moral code.

    You are a gentleman Gary. As for me, I keep a flask of rye handy for when it rains.

    • #1
  2. Hank Rhody-Badenphipps Esq Contributor
    Hank Rhody-Badenphipps Esq
    @HankRhody

    Gary McVey: It’s been said that in film noir, it’s always a rainy night in Los Angeles in January 1946.

    That must be how they did it! The dramatic needs of the detective requisitioned up all the rain clouds, leaving all the years after 1946 warm and sunny in LA.

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    We need the sunlight for the Venetian blind shadows and the backlit cigarette smoke. 

    • #3
  4. danok1 Member
    danok1
    @danok1

    tigerlily (View Comment):
    You are a gentleman Gary. As for me, I keep a flask of rye handy for when it rains

    Good rye, if you please.

    • #4
  5. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    tigerlily (View Comment):

    Gary McVey:

    Now, I hate to brag, but uh…one rainy late afternoon in Bohemia, I gave Lauren Bacall my umbrella.

    Hold it, I must stop here. That is so pretentious that even the Film Critics Police is threatening to revoke my license. But it’s a true story. It happened eighty miles outside of Prague, in the ancient spa town of Carlsbad, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1998. A group of us walked out of a Czech restaurant into a thundering torrent. Suddenly, ‘Betty’ Bacall was like the Morton Salt girl (“When It Rains, It Pours!”) but without the umbrella.

    I knew she’d talk to me. I knew she’d have a weakness for a short, cynical, world-weary middle-aged man in a trench coat. As we stood in the heavy rain of a Central European summer storm, I gruffly handed over the umbrella. “Here, Miss. You’re going to need this”. Then I walked away into the rain until she was out of sight in the mist. I knew I’d never see her again. But sometimes in this fallen world a man, even a knight errant, must stand up for his moral code.

    You are a gentleman Gary. As for me, I keep a flask of rye handy for when it rains.

    First thing that came to mind. 

    Yes, I know some people knock the film because nobody knows who killed the chauffeur. But it has some of the snappiest patter ever put on the screen.

     

     

    • #5
  6. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    Yes, I know some people knock the film because nobody knows who killed the chauffeur.

    Even Raymond Chandler couldn’t figure it out.

    • #6
  7. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    I’ve often thought if it rained as much in LA in actual life, as it appears to do in the movies, California would have no more water problems.  And it especially seems to rain at night – so many night scenes have wet streets.

    • #7
  8. Slow on the uptake Thatcher
    Slow on the uptake
    @Chuckles

    Gary McVey: one rainy late afternoon in Bohemia

    Coulda been Georgia

    • #8
  9. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Gary McVey: Next time, Blade Runner.

    Gary McVey: Which brings us to our next chapter in It’s Raining at the Movies; film noir.

    Blade Runner is among a limited group of stories referred to as cyberpunk. The subgenre of science fiction focuses on human augmentation technologies and other tech of daily city life within a film noir setting. Thus, the characters are cynical loners struggling to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. Thus, it is always night and always raining. 

    At least, that is the usual formula. One of the most anticipated video games of next year is Cyberpunk 2077, based on a D&D-like tabletop game of the same name. It is set in an extravagant yet dismal place called Night City; like Detroit covered in neon lights. The characters are typically jaded and looking out for themselves. 

    But the game’s developers at CD Projekt Red, a studio in Poland, want to bring cyberpunk out of the rain. This time, noir will include both day and night, both sunny skies and moody downpours. 

    Keanu Reeves will star as one of the game’s pivotal characters, the digital ghost of a famous Night City punk rocker. I expect he is not the only Hollywood talent brought onto the project. 

    • #9
  10. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member
    Misthiocracy grudgingly
    @Misthiocracy

    The main purpose of rain in movies is to increase image contrast.  Also, it reflects lights in the distance.

    • #10
  11. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Slow on the uptake (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: one rainy late afternoon in Bohemia

    Coulda been Georgia

    It was filmed in Georgia, but set in Bohemia.

    • #11
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I would have linked a fairly recent R> post about The Big Sleep, but I gave up trying to find it. The Ricochet cyber-platform is far more stable than it used to be, but the search engine is weirdly slow and buggy. That’s not the site’s fault–I think they use plain ol’ Google–but somehow here it acts like a pre-Alta Vista searcher circa 1996. 

    • #12
  13. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    I’ve often thought if it rained as much in LA in actual life, as it appears to do in the movies, California would have no more water problems. And it especially seems to rain at night – so many night scenes have wet streets.

    My impression is that rain increases the “dark and foreboding” feeling of a scene. I also notice that it is very difficult to make artificial rain look convincing in daylight.  

    • #13
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I’ve seen cases where a crew was pushed to keep shooting even after rain began falling in a formerly rain-free scene. If the rain isn’t backlit, it’s surprising how well they can get away with it. This is generally a desperation measure to get a scene wrapped before sunset. 

    • #14
  15. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I would have linked a fairly recent R> post about The Big Sleep, but I gave up trying to find it. The Ricochet cyber-platform is far more stable than it used to be, but the search engine is weirdly slow and buggy. That’s not the site’s fault–I think they use plain ol’ Google–but somehow here it acts like a pre-Alta Vista searcher circa 1996.

    I always search for Ricochet posts by Googling “Ricochet.com” followed by my query. But searching for anything on the Internet is an art. I often can’t find what I’m looking for. 

    Bogart and Bacall had more than a few good films together. 

    • #15
  16. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the August 2019 Group Writing Theme: Raining Cats and Dogs. Our September theme is “Autumn Colors.” There are plenty of dates available. Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #16
  17. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gary McVey: There were technical problems to overcome and microphones to hide, which is why 1928’s actors tended to speak passionate words of love into lampshades and flowerpots.

    “Well, I cain’t make love to a BUSH!”

    Jean Hagen in 1952 (GOP voters in 2016)

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Remember, the exclamation point at the end of Jeb! denotes excitement. 

    (To be completely fair, that’s one of the best self-deprecating jokes I’ve seen a politician tell on himself.)

    • #18
  19. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    I don’t know about the movies, but the song writers would perish without the rain…

    I mean, Have You Ever Seen the Rain? The November Rain, the Purple Rain? I’ve seen Fire and I’ve seen Rain. I’ve had those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.

    I’ve heard the Rhythm of the Rain, I’ve Blamed it on the Rain (and on a Rainy Day Woman), and I’ve been Singin’ in the Rain and Cryin’ in the Rain (in the Kentucky Rain, the Georgia Rain and the Alabama Rain.)

    But it’s inevitable, isn’t it? Because, Baby, the Rain Must Fall and Into Each Life some Rain Must Fall.

    Tomorrow’s another day, I’m thirsty anyway, so Bring on the Rain…

     

    • #19
  20. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    EJHill (View Comment):

    I don’t know about the movies, but the song writers would perish without the rain…

    I mean, Have You Ever Seen the Rain? The November Rain, the Purple Rain? I’ve seen Fire and I’ve seen Rain. I’ve had those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.

    I’ve heard the Rhythm of the Rain, I’ve Blamed it on the Rain (and on a Rainy Day Woman), and I’ve been Singin’ in the Rain and Cryin’ in the Rain (in the Kentucky Rain, the Georgia Rain and the Alabama Rain.)

    But it’s inevitable, isn’t it? Because, Baby, the Rain Must Fall and Into Each Life some Rain Must Fall.

    Tomorrow’s another day, I’m thirsty anyway, so Bring on the Rain…

     

    The real question is, Who’ll Stop the Rain?  Not song writers, I guess.

    • #20
  21. Shauna Hunt Coolidge
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    A-ha has my favorite version of Crying in the Rain. They also have a song called The Soft Rains of April. I love songs about rain!

    • #21
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Artificial rain scenes are a pain to shoot. Even in daytime, there’s a tremendous amount of electricity coursing through a film set, mostly for lights, and the risk of electrocution or short circuits leading to a fire is always present. Sound recording is often poor due to the noise. The actors are cold and wet, which can lead to surliness by Take 23.

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    There are whole chapters in camera books about what to do if the movie camera gets soaked. The short answer is “Get ready to shell out $125,000”, but sometimes they can be saved if they’re immediately stripped down and air dried. Once a film magazine is soaked, though, it’s the opposite: it has to be kept in water and not exposed to air. There have been cases (Jaws was one) where the wet film was transported in a bucket of water all the way to the door of the film lab. 

    • #23
  24. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    actors are cold and wet, which can lead to surliness by Take 23.

    Hmm. Method acting advantage?

    • #24
  25. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    There are whole chapters in camera books about what to do if the movie camera gets soaked. The short answer is “Get ready to shell out $125,000”, but sometimes they can be saved if they’re immediately stripped down and air dried. Once a film magazine is soaked, though, it’s the opposite: it has to be kept in water and not exposed to air. There have been cases (Jaws was one) where the wet film was transported in a bucket of water all the way to the door of the film lab.

    Did they have to edit the salty footage to meet MPAA rating requirements?

    • #25
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    There are whole chapters in camera books about what to do if the movie camera gets soaked. The short answer is “Get ready to shell out $125,000”, but sometimes they can be saved if they’re immediately stripped down and air dried. Once a film magazine is soaked, though, it’s the opposite: it has to be kept in water and not exposed to air. There have been cases (Jaws was one) where the wet film was transported in a bucket of water all the way to the door of the film lab.

    Did they have to edit the salty footage to meet MPAA rating requirements?

    You mean of the manager of Universal’s camera department? “He dropped it in the water? Number 113? The #$%^&*( newest Arriflex we owned? You tell that punk director that he is never coming back to helm any Universal TV series, never!”

    • #26
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    For decades, the Hollywood standard for non-sync footage, the kind of “extra” shot you could grab of a real street, say, was the Bell and Howell Eyemo, developed for the services in WWII (it was called a JAN camera, joint Army-Navy), incredibly rugged and relatively cheap. Without the “Mickey Mouse ears” film magazine accessory it took only a 100 foot load, just a fraction over one minute of film. But they were indestructible. Bunches of them were still being sold used, ex-USAF, ex-AEC atomic testing, on Selma Avenue in Hollywood in the Seventies and Eighties. Lots of independent filmmakers bought them. We used to joke that the steel bodies emitted so many gamma rays that you had to film fast, before the film got fogged by radiation.

    Yeah, I know, it’s a real knee-slapper of a gag.

    • #27
  28. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Artificial rain scenes are a pain to shoot. Even in daytime, there’s a tremendous amount of electricity coursing through a film set, mostly for lights, and the risk of electrocution or short circuits leading to a fire is always present. Sound recording is often poor due to the noise. The actors are cold and wet, which can lead to surliness by Take 23.

    Interesting. And you didn’t even mention Russian movies, much Marlen Khutsiev’s July Rain.  Maybe it would be easier to list the old Russian movies that don’t include a rain scene than the ones that do.

    I’ve heard some people try to attach deep significance to the rain, but others say the rain simply makes for more interesting cinematography.  There are reflections that make a wet street look a lot more interesting than a dry one.  Of course, that doesn’t mean it was easy to film them. 

    • #28
  29. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    All this talk about rain in movies (and song) and no mention of the closing scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

    • #29
  30. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Seen through a man’s eyes, there’s incredible beauty in that scene. The cab’s a 1959 Plymouth, the background cars include a Studebaker Lark, and best of all, a 1960 Buick. Those curves. Those elegant proportions. 

    I’d forgotten people used to smoke in cabs. That must be the tamest cat in Hollywood. Cats don’t know they’re lucky to be in the movies; all they know is some pretty dame is dragging them into the rain and then squashing them against some guy’s chest. 

    • #30
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