April Showers: The Rainmakers (1935)
Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May, so if it's raining, have no regrets. It isn't raining rain, you know. It's raining violets. Join us as we play in the rain this month.
ADAM WILLIAMS: A magical tree that can tell when a person is lying…a dynamite-laden train…King Kong…Parcheesi! See all this and more in Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey’s 19th feature film, The Rainmakers.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Can you imagine how much that King Kong poster would be worth today, even torn in half?
AW: The fact that it was a prop from a Wheeler and Woolsey movie might devalue it for some collectors. On that note, I understand they are not the most popular comedians, so I’ll try not to oversell this movie. Here are the main components The Rainmakers:
· The story has Wheeler and Woolsey go west with a questionable rainmaking machine to save a town from a drought—and the conniving businessman who hopes to capitalize on this calamity.
· The love interest is cute-as-a-button Dorothy Lee, who appeared in a lot of Wheeler and Woolsey movies and not much else.
· The song is “Isn’t Love the Grandest Thing?” with lyrics by Jack Scholl and music by Louis Alter.
· The exciting conclusion has less to do with the rainmaking machine than might be expected.
SG: I discovered Wheeler and Woolsey at Cinevent years ago when they screened Cockeyed Cavaliers in 2008. I liked them well enough and saw Hook, Line and Sinker on VHS tape, if that tells you how long ago it was. Since then, nothing. I’ve focused my energy on other pursuits. So it was a pleasant surprise to me how much I liked The Rainmakers. Right from the jump I was laughing and enjoying the film; even the secondary love story was pleasant.
AW: Having only seen a few of their films, I fully admit that I’m a Wheeler and Woolsey novice. So, for the benefit of those like me who have a problem remembering which one is Wheeler and which one is Woolsey, I’ve come up with a handy mnemonic. Wheeler is the one with the “wheels,” i.e., the round glasses. Woolsey is the one with the thicker head of hair, i.e., the “wool.” Let me pat myself on the back for that one! Yes, indeed, you can all thank me later. Ever seen that film they did called The Mnemoniacs?
SG: Which is hilarious, because you’ve got it wrong! Bert Wheeler is the romantic-type and Woolsey wears the spectacles. (Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but how many passes did Woolsey receive I wonder?) Was it a requirement in vaudeville for comedians to have a cigar? George Burns, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields-- Woolsey got the memo.
AW: Like many feature length comedies, this is too long and not funny enough. That’s the effect of stretching madcap two-reeler material to feature length—the jokes are spaced out, the pace slackens, there’s too much focus on romantic subplots, and the conclusion is gratuitously elaborate. That’s certainly the case here. The scene in Goober County at the beginning is promisingly surreal. Woolsey’s machine has inadvertently kicked up a dust storm and the natives are irate, pelting the flimflammer with stones. As he flees the sooty borough in his old jalopy, he’s attacked by RKO’s famous beast King Kong (or a facsimile thereof). He eventually winds up at Wheeler’s cyclone cellar where the two go into a surprisingly dark routine about self-destruction. They could’ve wrapped it up in 10 more minutes and had a solid short but no…
SG: Comedy about suicide all the way back in 1935. I laughed, both because of the shock value and the jokes. And there is a great sight gag when the tornado lifts the house up right around them with no damage done to the people or furniture inside. In the scene where Wheeler woos Lee in the garden, the action is expertly cross-cut with comic bits by Woolsey inside with her father. In Marx Brothers comedies, the romantic storylines often drag the action down, but here, the contrasting sentiments were perfectly balanced. And the villains are appropriately slimey, so we want to hiss at the screen when they appear. While I will agree that this feels like an extended two-reeler, there are enough jokes and merriment inserted to keep it interesting, that is until the grand finale. I can’t say I’m a fan of thrill comedies. I don’t find them to be particularly funny, especially in scenarios where they look real, because I feel for the hero too much and can’t laugh at his misfortunes. The runaway train gag doesn’t look all that real, we can tell when scenes were done on a sound stage, when stuntmen were inserted in lieu of the stars, and when backgrounds were used. There was potential for laughs, and I enjoyed a few. But the scene goes on entirely too long, slowing the pace to a standstill, in spite of the frantic motion on screen.
AW: I honestly couldn’t tell if the out of scale rear projection during the train scene was purposefully done badly for the sake of wackiness.
SG: One thing I really appreciated about this movie is how completely rooted in the past it is. The concept of a rainmaker sounds right up the same alley as a medicine show. The leading lady and her love interest play croquet to pass the time, and do so dressed in a fancy chiffon dress and a full suit. Even some of the pop culture references, like quoting the song "Rocking Chair," only elicit a chuckle if you know the source. I especially loved the scene in the bank manager's office. The window is open and the fan is on. Where except maybe in a very small town or the past can you find a business that doesn't have air conditioning, or even windows that can actually open? These two comics are products of the vaudeville stage with jokes and delivery to match. They don't make 'em like they used to.
AW: Keep your peepers wide open for a slew of bit players. There’s Hal Roach regulars Eddie Dunn and Billy Bletcher. Silent comedian Billy Dooley is one of the switchmen. Possibly the film’s funniest throwaway line—“Excellent caviar, major!”—delivered by one of the hobos is former stuntman and one of the kings of the uncredited bit role George Magrill. There’s a trio of Cincinnatians: lanky Don Brodie, crotchety Clarence Wilson, and Edward LeSaint as a fed-up train engineer. LeSaint is especially noteworthy because he made his mark in the 1910s directing for IMP, Selig Polyscope, Columbia, and Fox among others. Success is fleeting—the man who helmed six Tom Mix features in 1919 had been relegated to bit parts in a few Tom Mix talkies by 1932. Don’t get me wrong, donning bib overalls for a Wheeler and Woolsey is good, honest work. It’s just a long fall from directing.
SG: The film was shot in the Imperial Valley and the temperature was 116 degrees, so the cast and crew stayed cool by chugging 10 gallons of iced lemonade.
John Milligan of the Broadway Theater in Shuylerville, New York said, "The rainmakers were a complete washout for me on this one. Too long locomotive sequence killed what little chance it had." Fay Wiklund at the State Theater in North Dakota was more positive, calling the film, "A lot of hokum, but good fun if you're not too particular."
Mind over matter. I don't mind and you don't matter.
AW: Frank Nugent’s review for The New York Times faulted the film’s screenwriters for relying on locomotives rather than the rainmaking machine for the film’s finale. He wrote, “If you happen to be the kind who yelps when cinema trains seem destined for head-on collisions, this bit of the film will be altogether satisfying. Not being in the class ourselves, we must confess to our boredom.” As a member of the lowly yelping-class, I take exception to this statement. Us yelpers have rigorous standards for our big-screen havoc and this train sequence in The Rainmakers elicited neither hoot nor holler.
SG: Yes! What he said. It would have made more sense if the rain machine turned out to do something different but spectacular than its original intention. Something for shock value. Maybe it turned men into women, or caused pigs to fly. The choice to rely on the train gags to wrap the story up was a bad one. But I enjoyed the ride anyway. Three stars.
AW: Despite the somewhat tedious climax, this is a hard movie to dislike. I went into this expecting a few funny lines, some great bit players, and a nice song and I was not disappointed. I give it a solid two stars.