Joe Cook: Rain or Shine

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Okay, today is Louise Fazenda’s birthday; yesterday was Tom Howard’s.  I recently visited Joe Cook’s house and an exhibition about his life and career, and TCM played Rain or Shine a couple of weeks ago (I watched this past weekend). The stars are obviously aligned for a post about this movie.

Rain or Shine (1930) was the culmination of the career of a man many people thought was the top performer in show business. Today scarcely anyone remembers either Joe Cook or this movie or the Broadway show it was based on.  There is a lesson there of some sort. I don’t think Cook deserved his present obscurity; but you just don’t know what people will remember.

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You can read my full article about Cook here. He was regarded as one of the most skilled performers in vaudeville and certainly one of its top stars. Interestingly, unlike most of the top performers, Cook’s core (non-comic) skills were not as a singer or a dancer (although he could do those things) but as an acrobat. He was an amazing juggler, he could walk a slackwire, he could walk up a ramp atop a large ball. He had about ten other similar skills and then on TOP of this he was a brilliant, very zany comedian, very surreal, not unlike Ed Wynn or Groucho Marx or Bobby Clark. He did monologues, but he also used funny props. From vaudeville he stepped into Broadway revues (Earl Carroll’s Vanities) in the 1920s, and from there into his own solo vehicle, designed to showcase all his talents. Rain or Shine ran on Broadway for almost the entirety of 1928.

Based on the strength of its stage success, Columbia acquired the show and cast members Cook, his stooge Dave Chasen, and Tom Howard  to appear in it, and assigned the studio’s best director Frank Capra to direct it (four years before the breakthrough It Happened One Night). A circus story with the usual circus plot (so as to showcase Cook’s unique skills) Rain or Shine reminds me a lot of Marilyn Miller’s Sunny or W.C. Fields’ Poppy.

The Obligatory Romantic Plot
The Obligatory Romantic Plot

Former silent comedy star Louise Fazenda plays a young lady who has inherited a circus from her father but business has taken a downturn. Cook plays the circus manager who vows to save the show for her. William Collier Jr is his rival for the girl (and the more successful one – Cook, being a “clown”, can’t get the girl by definition, he just gets pathos). Collier is the male ingenue. His character has money he can invest in  the show and he also wants to marry Miller.

For comic relief, Tom Howard plays a local businessman who comes demanding payment on bills and gets swindled by Cook into being a partner in the circus. (Cook does a lot of his patented “doubletalk” in the film). Dave Chasen was of course Cook’s stooge on stage and screen. In the film I find him to come across as a rather annoying unfunny semi-mute….but interesting as a historical curiosity. (not unlike Fred Sanborn, Ted Healy’s fourth stooge). With his mop of big curly hair he seems like a third rate Harpo Marx.

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At all events, while the main circus plot is going on, a couple of ruthless guys at the circus plot a takeover and organize a strike.(none of the performers have been paid in weeks).  Other highlights of the film include a brawl, the titular rain storm, and a circus fire. They survive it all! (BTW, the show was originally a musical so there would have been songs as well, but these were cut from the film to accommodate changing tastes.) At the climax of the film, (a showcase for Cook’s famously diverse vaudeville skills) Cook fills in for all the other circus performers, doing their tricks, ball walking, slackwire, etc. Undeniably impressive.

Rain or Shine is an uneasy mix. Capra likes to craft real stories with “heart”…whereas Cook, Howard and Chasen are zanies. There is one scene where the tension is greatest, when there is an ebgagement dinner at Collier’s family’s mansion  and the plan is to impress his rich parents so our heroes can get money for the circus. But Cook and company embarrass her and tip their hand.  But the comedians are too crazy in the scene – it’s a bit of a vaudeville routine, and doesn’t accomplish what the scene is designed to because nothing real transpires. It’s funny but doesn’t serve the plot. It’s interesting because it’s the same sort of conundrum the Marx Brothers would face when they began to make pictures with MGM. An internal conflict between the surreal and the real.

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I’m on the fence though about Cook’s thespians skills, and somehow he clearly didn’t click with movie audiences. He returned to Broadway and did a couple more  shows which did moderately well and didn’t return to films for five years, in a series of low budget shorts with Al Christie. And he also made a low-budget western called Arizona Mahoney and a bunch of additional Broadway shows, culminating n It Happened on Ice (1941), his last hoorah.

Rain or Shine is an interesting curio, and I’d been dying to see it for over a decade so was thrilled to get to finally watch it.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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