Friday, November 19, 2004

MOOM PITCHERS!

Whaddaya know, a film review after what...five years already?!?!?!



RAIN OR SHINE (Columbia, 1930)-Best known more for its director (Frank Capra) than leading man, RAIN OR SHINE stars vaudeville/Broadway legend and future Educational Films mainstay Joe Cook (in an adaptation of his 1927 stage hit) as the head of an on the brink of bankruptcy/disaster circus that he's more or less running (while staying one step ahead of the creditors) for Louise Fazenda, the daughter of the deceased owner whom Cook (like these things usually work out) loves although her's is purely platonic, Fazenda naturally going for the handsome rich guy played by Buster Collier Jr. Meanwhile the deceitful lion tamer and German strong-man have plans to take over the entire shebang after the local sheriff forecloses, with things naturally devolving to the point where the circus falls apart right before showtime as everyone goes on strike and Cook and a few loyalists have to do the entire performance themselves (resulting in a fine showcase for Cook's at-time amazingly unbelievable juggling and balancing expertise). And as you'd kinda expect, everything ends in a huge fire that destroys the entire enterprise, and although I'm not a circus movie expert by any stretch of the imagination I gotta say that this has to be one of the first of the oft-cliched circus-destroyed-by-fire scenes that seems to have been part and parcel of most of these films for at least the next quarter-century!

Joe Cook naturally shines as the shifty screwball running the show, and all two of you who have laughed yourself silly at Cook's Educational comedy shorts from a few years later will undoubtedly want to see how he "looks" in a feature role. Like in those comedy shorts, many of Cook's vaudeville routines pop up (such as in his pointless story about how as a child he once had to eat his cornflakes without condensed milk!) and seeing the man's stage routines within the frame of a feature-length film is a rather, uh, strange though tantalizing experience in itself. Also on hand are Cook's old right-hand man Dave Chasen, another screwball resembling a cross between Harpo Marx and Gene Wilder playing some obscure sidekick character who seems to have just wandered into the film without any real explanation (he later gaining even more fame as the owner of Chasen's restaurant in El Lay), and Tom Howard, this William Burroughs-esque fellow vaudevillian (and future Educational Films star in his own right) as Shrewsberry, a local merchant after Cook for an unpaid bill who naturally gets doubletalk hornswaggled in the process and becomes a part-owner of the circus and fair-weather ally of Cook's. (There's a strange, bizarre scene at a fancy dinner party where Cook, Chasen and Howard tangle with a load of twine/spaghetti that comes off weirdly surrealistic on one level and maybe pointless on another...I found it both entertaining and uncomfortable at the same time though I've read one account which really lambasted the futility of it all.)

As for Capra...well, the acting abilities of Cook and the play's adaptation (which introduced the song "Singin' In The Rain" long before Gene Kelly danced to it to every square film fan's delight) aren't harmed in any way by this over-rated director's hamfistedness. However, considering the brief mention of Cook and this film in Capra's autobiography I kinda get the feeling that the two didn't get along too swimmingly, which kinda pleases me in a strange way given how much I loathe Mr. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and all of the sappy cinema he "influenced." An interesting aside to the brief mention in that book is that the extremely-hated Columbia boss Harry Cohn was a big fan of Cook as was the infamous gathering of intellectual gasbags collectively known as the Algonquin Round Table, which I guess finally says something good about all of 'em! It's too bad that Cook's film career ultimately fizzled out after Educational Pictures went under in 1939, because I'm sure that Columbia could have found good work for him in their shorts department, at least until the Parkinson's Disease that ultimately doomed his career (and doomed Cook himself) began to take hold in 1942.

Anyway, if you're a fan of thirties nutzo humor RAIN OR SHINE better be on your film list (check ebay as well as lists of old films on VHS/DVD for sale via your fave classic cinema magazine), and before I tune out for the day I also gotta mention that it's even surprising that some people are still talking about Cook and his infamous schtick even all these years after-the-fact. (And hey, before I totally forget I better tell you that I never even mentioned Cook's trademark "Four Hawaiians" skit...which the man never even performed in his thirtysome-year career adding all the more to his nutzo mystique!) Heck, I even got some book on the screwball comic strips of the past...y'know, those wild, crazed funnies created by the likes of Milt Gross and Gene Ahern which included such unfortunately now-forgotten faves like SMOKEY STOVER and THE SQUIRREL CAGE whose pre-Ernie Kovacs/SNL/MONTY PYTHON sense of strange sure fit in well with the comic readers of the first half of this century. Anyway the author, in giving us a background of the screwball idiom from whence these classics came, mentions Joe Cook as one of the originators of the form! Well, he sure would have been great as the lead in a SMOKEY STOVER feature film had Monogram thought up such an idea around 1940!

Also check out W.C. Fields' autobiography where he namedrops Cook as a guy who "didn't have writers, he had carpenters!" (A reference to the strange visuals Cook used not only on stage but in some of his Educational comedies...such as the "Fruit and Flower Getter" and the door hinged to the floor!) Also, for an easy-to-find still from RAIN OR SHINE get hold of a copy of HOLLYWOOD BABYLON II for a pic of Cook and some circus underling looking upon the fat lady, whom Kenneth Anger jokingly refers to as the portly Liz Taylor!

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Hi-I noted a mistake in the above review that I'm (not so) surprised nobody else caught...Louise Fazenda doesn't play the female love interest in this film, but a comedia snake charmer!!! I forget who does play the femme lead, but such information can be found on the web.