Random Film of the Week: Soldier in the Rain

(thanks, Mind Hunger!) 

Steve McQueen may have been the “King of Cool” in his prime, but if his performance in 1963’s Soldier in the Rain is any indication, he was also a pretty lousy comedian. On the other hand, the film is all Jackie Gleason’s, and he makes it well worth viewing. The film is one of those interesting comedy/drama hybrids that tends to lean too far into either direction when a more subtle middle ground would have worked better. Despite the flaws, this Blake Edwards-produced film has enough laughs and some fine performances throughout. McQueen plays Eustis Clay as a goofball caricature who’s great at whipping up scams that never net him the fortunes he dreams about. Gleason’s Master Sargent Slaughter (no relation to the 90’s TV wrestler) is a career man, heavyset and aging who humors Clay and his crazy schemes partially because they brighten his usually dull days.

After a few of Clay’s schemes go awry, the film introduces Tuesday Weld into the plot as a seemingly dopey high school senior who Slaughter frightens before insulting her intelligence. To make up for this, Clay sets the pair up on a double date that’s destined for disaster until the twosome find they share the same passion for crossword puzzles. Gleason and Weld are a fine, odd pairing at first, but you can see them become friends of a sort as the evening ends. Later, more bumbling by Clay and some dramatic story jiggering lead to a surprising bar fight (Jackie Gleason is no Jackie Chan, but he does get in a nice knock on some poor guy) that leads to a bit of a depressing yet sort of upbeat ending. While the direction by Ralph Nelson is solid, one has to wonder how Blake Edwards would have handled McQueen’s distracting acting.

If you can get past McQueen’s mugging it up, there’s a great speech by Gleason that sounds as if he’s speaking for every unhappy overweight guy in the theater. He also gets the bulk of the best lines in the film (possibly because he ad-libbed much of his dialog), running rings around poor Steve in their scenes together as the younger star tries too hard to keep up. William Goldman’s fine writing saves the film, but it would have been interesting to see how it would have played as a straight drama with light comedic touches as opposed to bouncing around tonally as it does. A pre-Batman Adam West is here as well, but even he’s not much compared to The Great One. While the film pretty much dropped off the map thanks to being released a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated, today it’s getting more attention thanks to the parts that work more than the ones that don’t.

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