When one thinks of Steve McQueen, his most notable movies such as Bullitt, The Great Escape, and The Thomas Crown Affair usually come to mind. Up until yesterday, Baby the Rain Must Fall was still on my list of unseen McQueen movies and unfortunately, I can honestly say I wasn't missing much. A lot of McQueen fans rave about this film and consider it one of his most underrated efforts. I have to disagree. A shoddy script, poor character development, misplaced harpsichord soundtrack music, and cheesy fight scenes are not the stuff that Oscars are made of. Did I mention that McQueen lip-synchs in this movie?
Halfway through the running time I began to wonder why McQueen chose this movie, until I realized the character he was playing mirrored the off-screen King of Cool in many ways. McQueen himself never knew his dad and his mother was an alcoholic prostitute. He was raised by his grandparents and uncle, but still managed to get himself in and out of trouble after returning to his mother and a new stepfather that beat him. McQueen also drifted to Texas as a teen, holding various jobs. No doubt he saw something in Henry Thomas, his troubled character in the film, that deeply resonated with him.
In the film, Henry is out on parole after spending several years in the pokey for stabbing a man during a fight. He's married to Georgette (Lee Remick) who travels to Columbus, Texas to reunite with Henry and introduce him to Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), the young daughter that he hasn't met yet. Henry was an orphan who was raised by a strict old lady named Miss Kate, but now lives with a couple called the Tillmans. Miss Kate has advised Henry to return to night school and make something of himself, but Henry prefers singing lead in a rockabilly band around the local honky tonks.
The reunion between Henry and Georgette is one of the most awkward ones ever played out on the big screen. After traveling by bus for hours, Georgette is finally able to locate where her husband is staying, thanks to the help of the local deputy, Slim (Don Murray), who has known Henry since he was younger. Henry's reaction to seeing his wife for the first time in several years is to shake her hand (!) and his attitude upon learning he has a daughter seems to be indifference.
Despite the aloofness, the couple and their child move into a shack on the outskirts of town, and Henry is attempting to become the next Elvis Presley. He has lofty dreams of selling his music and becoming a movie star. The music scenes where McQueen is singing are the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. They're so overacted and hammy you can practically see the veins popping out of his neck, and I was genuinely embarrassed for him watching them. Billy Strange was the man actually singing the two Elvis wannabe songs that get repeated during the movie -- the title song and another that I can only guess was called "Treat Me Right." Considering the movie was released in January 1965 -- almost a whole year after Beatlemania swept the U.S. -- the music already sounds dated.
There is one way of looking at the musical performances: Henry is a loser, and perhaps his awful stage presence was intentional, since it's inherent to his character. We know that the best thing he could at least try to do is secure a day job just in case that moonlighting career never takes off but alas, that doesn't happen.
Against Henry's wishes, Georgette takes a job at a local drive-in diner to help make ends meet. At first Henry makes a half-hearted attempt at family life, but old habits die hard. One night after playing a set with his band, he makes a move on another man's woman, which result in fisticuffs. Henry flashes his blade, but still gets beat up pretty badly. Back at home, nursing his wounds, he feeds Georgette a fabricated story as to how he ended up with sores and bruises all over his face.
Meanwhile, mean old Miss Kate is dying -- and after what seems like a long, drawn-out deathbed scene where we're forced to listen to old witch's labored breaths, she opens her eyes, sees Henry, and mutters, "You're no good, Henry. You never have been. You're not worth killing."
After her death, Henry rummages through the house (I got the impression he was looking for any money stashed away somewhere) and then desecrates the late woman's grave until Slim stops and arrests him.
I won't give away the film's ending, but I think you can guess by now that it doesn't have a happy one. Afterwards, it's Georgette and her daughter that are forced to pick up and pieces and move on.
The main problems I have with this movie are the lack of dialogue and any interactive emotion between so many of the characters; namely, Henry and Georgette. They barely speak to one another. Georgette never asks him about his time in prison or makes much of an effort to encourage him to keep himself on the straight and narrow. It's so strange because there's a great scene at the beginning of the movie between Georgette, her daughter, and an older woman who boards the bus and begins chatting with them about the convicts working in the field. Margaret Rose is concerned, unaware that her daddy was one of them. Yet we never see any kind of relationship redevelop between the two lead characters, and the only hint of their love is when Henry overhears Georgette telling Margaret Rose the story of how she met his father. Remmick isn't given much to do in the film and just kind of accepts Henry and the way things are, right up until the end credits.
Likewise, we get the impression that Miss Kate is still a formidable presence in Henry's life, but we don't know much about Henry's upbringing other than catching a glimpse of the leather strap still hanging in Miss Kate's wardrobe (that we assume was used to discipline Henry.) If the movie were made today, we would see flashbacks of Henry's early life that may help us understand better why he became the man that he is.
One notable tidbit of trivia about Baby the Rain Must Fall: although I missed him, Glenn Campbell has an uncredited role as one of the band members in Henry's group. Also, the Texas setting seems to work for the mood of this film, with its unpaved roads and empty plains. (Be prepared to hear crickets during several scenes. Lots and lots of crickets. I've never heard so many unnecessarily in a film before; drove me nuts.) Kudos must also be given to child actress Kimberly Block, as Margaret Rose. She honestly delivers one of the best acting performances, and it's a little surprising that Baby the Rain Must Fall was her only film.
Then of course, there's the eye candy which comes in the way of McQueen wearing jeans and an unbuttoned shirt (at 35 years of age and before the drugs of the swinging '60s took hold of him, he DID look good in this film) but that's really all I can give it. No surprise, audiences didn't receive it too well at the time of its release, either. It's a disappointment for sure when McQueen is missing his cool.
Here's one of the singing scenes from the movie; it isn't as bad as when McQueen is performing in the honky tonks...but, well, you get the idea.
Hi, I'm Pam - thanks for visiting Go Retro! If you've ever been called an old soul like I have, or you were lucky enough to actually live during the mid-20th century in America, then you're in the right place!
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