Soldier in the Rain
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Reviews of this film have often noted its uneasy mix of comedy and drama, but that can be traced back to the source material, William Goldman's 1960 novel, based on his own experiences in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954. Goldman's publishers pressured him to change what they considered a downer ending. The author quickly agreed, if the company could guarantee him the change would make it a best seller. When they said they obviously could not do that, Goldman told them he obviously could not change the ending.
The downer in question involves the fate of one of the two characters, and we won't spoil things by telling you who it is or what happens. Much of the movie, however, is given over to a lighthearted look at the unlikely bond that develops between Army lifer Jackie Gleason and a rube colleague played by Steve McQueen. Gleason was an old hand, of course, at blending laughter and pathos in his characters, whether on the big or small screen. McQueen, on the other hand, plays his bumpkin a little broadly, but considering this picture was sandwiched between his iconic star-making role in The Great Escape (1963) and a hit romantic comedy-drama, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), he probably wasn't too worried about his career at this point. In fact, so solid were his chances for big movie success that his three pictures for 1963 were all released around big holidays: Escape on July 4, Stranger on Christmas Day, and Soldier in the Rain on Thanksgiving weekend.
That release date--not the "downer" ending--was most likely the real reason this affecting and overlooked little production did so badly at the box office. Audiences were not in the mood for movie entertainment less than a week after President John F. Kennedy's assassination and weekend-long televised funeral.
The best notices for the film have not usually gone to either of the two stars. Tuesday Weld, beginning to emerge from her sex kitten persona into more substantial roles worthy of her considerable talent, got high marks for a character that was barely in the story as originally conceived. As Goldman was struggling with writing the novel, he gave it to his then roommate John Kander (later the composer partner of lyricist Fred Ebb, the award-winning duo famed for Cabaret and Chicago). Kander advised Goldman to make the female character a more major figure in the story, helping the author to get over his block and giving Weld a good role. After two television appearances the following year and the Bob Hope comedy I'll Take Sweden (1965), Weld appeared with McQueen again in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
Other praise has gone to composer Henry Mancini's score. The soundtrack was never released on LP, but Mancini re-recorded a version of the beautiful title theme on his "Dear Heart" album in 1964. Around the time of the film's release, Jackie Gleason's orchestra recorded both the title theme and the comic theme from the picture, "Bird Brain," on a 45.
Director Ralph Nelson came out of what is often referred to as Television's Golden Age, when high-quality live dramas with notable actors were frequent entertainment staples. His first theatrical film was Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), which he had directed on TV in 1956 for the dramatic anthology series Playhouse 90. Gleason was in the film version. Just before Soldier in the Rain, Nelson scored big with Lilies of the Field (1963), which received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and a Best Actor award for Sidney Poitier.
Soldier in the Rain was produced by Blake Edwards, who also loosely adapted the screenplay from Goldman's novel along with Maurice Richlin. Edwards is best known as a director. This same year, he had released his hit comedy The Pink Panther (1963). Prior to this production, he had directed Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962).
Director: Ralph Nelson
Producers: Blake Edwards, Martin Jurow
Screenplay: Blake Edwards, Maurice Richlin; based on the novel by William Goldman
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Art Direction: Phil Barber
Music: Henry Mancini
Cast: Jackie Gleason (MSgt. Maxwell Slaughter), Steve McQueen (Sgt. Eustis Clay), Tuesday Weld (Bobby Jo Pepperdine), Tony Bill (Pfc. Jerry Meltzer), Tom Poston (Lt. Magee).
By Rob Nixon