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Sentemental military comedy revolves around two contemporary army buddies, Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason), a smooth operator, who supply Sergeant Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen) idolizes and hopes will join him as a civilian in a private business enterprise. Clay endeavors to be a player in the military, just like Slaughter, but it seems as though Clay still has a lot to learn from his mentor. They are joined by Tuesday Weld as a shrill dizzy blonde teenager named Bobby Jo Pepperdine and Tony Bill as bumbling Private First Class Jerry Meltzer, McQueen's screwball sidekick. Written by
The unlikely pairing of Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason generates surprising on-screen chemistry in this sweet little film depicting the equally unlikely friendship of enlisted man Eustis Clay and his mentor/idol Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter.
Country boy Eustis is counting the days until his hitch is up, while the erudite, knows-all-the-angles Maxwell has made a home of what Eustis calls "this stupid old army." Theirs is a rather symbiotic relationship; Maxwell guides and educates Eustis, as well as helping him out of his little scrapes, while Eustis, with his devil-may-care enthusiasm, coaxes Maxwell from his comfortable cocoon and into various adventures.
McQueen gives an uncharacteristically animated performance, while Gleason displays ample justification for his nickname, The Great One. Indeed, it can be imagined that Master Sargeant Slaughter is exactly the person Gleason would have become had he chosen a career in the military rather than show-business. There is not so much a story here as a series of episodes in the day-to-day lives of the two friends and the colorful characters with whom they interact. There is able support from Tom Poston as a clueless lieutenant ("What's the poop, Sargeant?"), Tony Bill as Eustis' own sort-of protégé and Tuesday Weld, demonstrating the versatility for which she was already coming to be known. A pre-Batman Adam West also shows up, and has one of the film's best lines. Escorting a Batallion Major to Poston's office, he says "This company's in charge of Lt. Magee." "You mean, Lt. Magee's in charge of this company," corrects the officer, to which West replies with an uncertain shrug, "Well....."
SOLDIER IN THE RAIN moves deftly from farce to drama, and at 88 minutes, packs a lot into a small package. One can't help but wonder what the set of this film was like. Both Gleason and McQueen were uncompromising, take-charge kind of guys and, with the possible exceptions of billiards and broads (excuse the terminology), probably found little common ground over which to relate. Maybe that was enough. Whatever the case, they play off of each other beautifully.
Ralph Nelson was a more than capable director who had associated with Gleason the previous year on "Requiem For a Heavyweight." He wisely lets the charisma of his two lead players dominate, and the result is an unusual but thoroughly charming picture. Not available on video except for a years-old VHS release, it may be hard to find, but catch it if you can. "Until that time, Eustis, until that time."
Update: It's now available from TCM (online only) as part of their "From the Vault" collection, at a very affordable price.
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