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Tonight I Recommend a Must-See Movie on TV That 50 Years Ago Received One of Worst Reviews Ever Given by The New York Times. Plus, One of the Funniest Movie Anecdotes I've Ever Heard

Chuck Ross Posted August 9, 2013 at 3:48 PM

I remember it as if it was yesterday. When I was nine-years-old I took the Greyhound bus for the first time—and took it alone--as my parents put me on the bus in Santa Monica to visit my grandfather in Oxnard, up the coast about an hour away.

When I arrived, I was met by my grandfather, who was a widower in his 70s. He was my dad’s dad, and I didn’t see him too often. He was very nice and I liked him, though I remember that he smelled very old to me. That night we went to see “The Honeymoon Machine” at the local movie house, starring Steve McQueen, Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss. It was a romantic comedy and I remember thinking it was a fun, enjoyable movie.

That was back in 1961, and I don’t think McQueen made another romantic comedy quite as light as that one. But he did exercise his comedy chops in one other film, made in 1963, that New York Times' movie reviewer Bosley Crowther characterized at the time as “an odd sort of comedy-cum-pathos,” which is a wonderfully accurate description of the movie.

But those may be the only words in Crowther's review of the movie with which I agree. I’ve read a lot of movie reviews by Crowther and his successors over the years in The New York Times, but I don’t know if I’ve ever read one more scathing.

The movie is “Soldier in the Rain.” It stars McQueen, Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld. It’s on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) tonight, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, at 11:45 pm here on the West Coast (which is 2:45 a.m. tomorrow morning Eastern time). I suggest if you can’t watch it then, you DVR it. That’s because it’s not available to stream on either Netflix or Amazon, and it’s never had a regular DVD release. You can order it on DVD through Amazon or TCM’s website, but those are DVD’s made-on-demand, and will cost you near $20.

“Soldier in the Rain” is based on a novel by William Goldman. A few years later Goldman was writing screenplays himself, including “The Princess Bride” (also based on his novel), “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All The President’s Men, “ but this was before that period. So the screenplay is by Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, who Edwards worked with on a number of his films. The film is listed as a "Blake Edwards Production."

As a screenwriter, Edwards has given us such movies as the Pink Panther series, “Victor Victoria,” and a terrific Western, “Wild Rovers.”

Edwards was both writing and directing movies back in 1963, and I don’t know why he didn’t direct this movie. It might be that the shooting of “Soldier” coincided, at the time, with Edwards directing “The Pink Panther.” So “Soldier in the Rain” was directed by Ralph Nelson. Nelson, who directed a lot of early TV shows, also directed many feature films, including “Lillies of the Field,” “Charley,” and Cary Grant’s penultimate film, “Father Goose.”

Times critic Crowther was merciless in his disdain for “Soldier in the Rain.” I love the performances of both Gleason and McQueen in this movie. Crowther said “Both actors are really quite unpleasant in this broad and insensitive display of human stupidity and duplicity…” I find the movie funny and full of pathos that is not insensitive, stupid nor duplicitous.

Crowther goes on to say that “Mr. McQueen is simply callow…and Mr. Gleason is merely offensive.” Again, he’s wrong on both counts. Both actors nail their characters – McQueen’s Eustis Clay is no stranger to comic flamboyance, and Gleason gives an excellent nuanced take on his Maxwell Slaughter.

Crowther also says, “Right in the middle of the picture, there in a barroom brawl comes up, in which Mr. McQueen and Mr. Gleason mix with two military police. It is a vicious, sadistic demonstration of hoodlum street-fighting techniques, likely no doubt to teach teenagers how to stomp an adversary to death.” Huh? The brawls in “From Here to Eternity,” made ten years earlier than “Soldier” (and just to name one other movie) are much more disturbing.

Perhaps one reason for Crowther’s disliking the film so much was that he was in no mood for hijinks when he saw it. The movie was released just five days after JFK had been assassinated.

“Soldier” also has an excellent score by frequent Edwards collaborator Henry Mancini. Besides the “Pink Panther” movies, Mancini also wrote the superb music for some of the films Edwards directed, but did not write, such as “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and, most notably, music-wise, the autoharp-rich score for “Experiment in Terror.”

Here’s what Mancini wrote about “Soldier in the Rain” in his 1989 autobiography “Did They Mention the Music?”: “In 1963 I did ‘Soldier in the Rain’ one of the most touching films I have ever seen about the relationship between two men, played by Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen.” Saying how tough it was to write the theme, Mancini added “it became, along with the theme of ‘Two for the Road,’ my favorite among my own themes. It was introduced over the credits by a haunting trumpet solo by Mannie Klein.”

Mancini continued, “Every once in awhile I see the film. There is a scene at the end. McQueen is all alone in the dayroom, looking at the soft-drink machine.” In the movie, “only Gleason’s character can kick it just right to get a free soda. This is the only scene in all the films I’ve scored where the music has an effect on me. It’s so touching it brings me near to tears. ‘Soldier in the Rain’ was a slice-of-life kind of film…” Mancini ended the passage by adding that “Soldier” is a lovely, small movie. I agree.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

As mentioned earlier, “Soldier” is based on a novel by William Goldman. Goldman has written some very funny stories about his experiences in Hollywood. I recommend highly his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”

Here’s one of my favorite anecdotes that Goldman tells. It’s got nothing to do with “Soldier,’ by the way. It’s just a great anecdote. This is not in “Adventures,” but was written by Goldman in an introduction to a paperback edition of his novel “The Marathon Man.” This particular edition came out after the movie version of “The Marathon Man,” for which Goldman also wrote the screenplay. All you need to know is that the movie starred Dustin Hoffman as the protagonist and Laurence Olivier as the bad guy who also happened to be a dentist. The movie was directed by John Schlesinger, who won an Academy Award for directing “Midnight Cowboy.” Here’s the anecdote, as told by Goldman:

We had hired a dentist to be there [during rehearsals] to assist Olivier and we all sat around this large table for the first script reading. A big moment for me. An Oscar-winning director, Schlesinger. Wonderful actors like Hoffman…and, of course Olivier (one of my heroes, along with Willie Mays and Bronko Nagurski and Irwin Shaw).

And I am, as I always am at such moments, tired and scared.

I’d written several drafts of the novel and a lot of versions of the movie and I was whipped and I hoped, at last, I’d gotten it down okay. Because I didn’t have much more to give the project. That happens to a screenwriter, at least to this one. You’ve thought about it so long, done it so often, in your head or on paper, that you start to get punchy, silly, dry. I wanted the reading to work so I could leave it behind, begin to rebuild my head.

The reading more than worked, it went wonderfully. There was a pause after the ending. A treasured pause. A sense of contentment in the air—

--and then, from some dimwitted blue, the dentist starts talking. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but, frankly, I have a lot of problems with the screenplay…

Nightmare.

If you write movies, you never know who the enemy is. Someone is going to fuck you, that’s a given. I knew Hoffman was the enemy—he felt he was too old for the role and he was right, of course. I knew Schlesinger could be an enemy; he only took such a commercial piece of work for the same reason that all the good ones do—the fear that their careers are in trouble. But those two were momentarily happy. I was free. I was home and dry. Until this dentist turns into Brooks Atkinson.

I screamed at him. “You’re here for teeth! Leave the goddamn script alone!” He did not know how crazy writers can be. The fact is truly this: if I’d had a gun and thought I could get away with it, the guy was dead.”