Most of her time in the movie Miracle in the Rain Jane Wyman is listening to other actors. She smiles, her eyes bright, intelligent, and interested, and sits in rapt attention. The movie’s world spins around her but she holds her one still, small spot in it, watching it whirl by. Seeing Wyman’s performance, and thinking about it, I suddenly thought of John Wayne’s acting advice: “Don’t act. React.” Meaning, as I interpret it: Keep it simple. Keep it straight. And listen. Wyman does precisely that and she does it beautifully. You become interested in other characters because she’s interested. There’s nothing showy about her. Wyman keeps it natural and direct, occupying a small, quiet niche on the screen and your eyes are drawn to her, as to a plain corner in a too-fussy room: one promising peace, solitude, and a space to contemplate, within this big, noisy world.
In the film Wyman plays Ruth Wood, a not-so-young woman in New York City who lives quietly with her invalid mother, supporting them by working as a secretary in a shoe-manufacturing firm. The time is 1942; America’s at war and one of Ruth’s co-workers, a young office clerk (Arte Johnson) keeps a war map pinned to an office wall and loudly proclaims how he thinks the generals should plan their battles. Soldiers and sailors can be seen on the street, but little else occurs to remind anyone of what’s happening abroad. Until Ruth, taking shelter in an office lobby during a rainstorm, is addressed by a soldier on leave, Art Hugenon (Van Johnson), who’s looking for company. He invites himself to dinner at Ruth’s place, even purchasing the food (Ruth protests that Art is buying too much while secretly pleased that he does so). In contrast to shy Ruth, Art is brash and gregarious, taking a strenuous interest in everything around him. He’s new and fascinating to Ruth, drawing her out of her shy, restricted corner; he, in turn, is glad he’s found someone willing to listen.
As expected, the two fall in love; and when Art’s division is suddenly called overseas, he promises to marry Ruth as soon as he returns. Ruth continues much as before, but with a new sense of contentment; for the first time in her life, she feels happy, feels an interest in all that’s going on around her, feels that her existence matters to someone else. Alas!; three months later, Ruth receives a letter from an army chaplain, informing her that Art has been killed in the Pacific, his last thoughts of her. Once more in solitude, a grieving Ruth, slowly bled of all interest in life, slowly declines. Neither the sympathy of her best friend, Grace (Eileen Heckart, in a lovely performance), nor visits to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, provide the scarcest comfort to her. Then late one night, during another downpour, a feverishly ill Ruth staggers out of her apartment and heads once more down to Saint Pat’s, where she encounters another miracle in the rain.
As my description indicates, the film is slight and deeply sentimental. I won’t fool you: it goes all out to milk the tears. Reviewers did not care for the movie on its release (“saccharine,” said The New York Times); and, per Wikipedia, various film guides have used words like “schmaltz,” “soaper,” “weepie,” and (my favorite), “lump of goo,” to describe it. Yes, it’s a “hankie-grabber,” a three-tier one, and I can imagine how a group of cynical and sophisticated adolescents or twenty-somethings would blow a few raspberries at it. Just to show we’re all so above such eye-drenching mush.
Thank god I’m old and decrepit and can let myself have a good cry. All right, the film’s sappy, and it’s no work of art. It’ll tug at your heartstrings like an impatient kitten, but won’t wrench your guts out, the way a De Sica masterpiece can. Cynics can easily point out its flaws; I’m way ahead of ya there. Too many subplots are packed in, to begin with. The source work was a 52-page novella by Ben Hecht, of all people, which had previously been adapted four times for television in half-hour and hour-long formats. But its 1956 cinematic incarnation runs an hour and 48 minutes. The producing studio, Warner Bros., had a big budget ($1.1 million) and obviously wanted to spend it. So Hecht’s screenplay piles it on, dragging in a lecherous boss, a run-away father, a burlesque dancer (complete with dance), and an elderly yachtsman (played by the always-delightful Halliwell Hobbes; it was his last film). Filming was done on location in Central Park and in the cathedral itself, the first time its interiors were filmed for a commercial movie. Even a theme song was written, “I’ll Always Believe in You,” which Van Johnson bangs out on a piano like the Anvil Solo.
Sometimes a big budget may not be a good a thing. There’s so much temptation to add too many plums to the pudding, just to show you can. The film’s subplots are basically padding; and the insides of Saint Pat’s, while gaudily resplendent, aren’t really necessary. Any small church could have served the same purpose. The heavenly choir oozing off the soundtrack at the end is a distracting cliché; just the patter of the rain would have been effective. And Johnson, an actor who grates on me, is, as always, the Big Loud Noise in the center, playing all his scenes as if he wants to make sure that spectators up in the rear balcony don’t doze off whenever he’s on.
The story is a simple one and its power rests on that very simplicity: that love never dies, and that something of the beloved always stays with us. It doesn’t need the cranberries and stuffing. What it does need, what a sentimental film like this always needs, is a clear, honest performance, and it gets that from Jane Wyman. It’s what the great Celia Johnson showed us in Brief Encounter: when you deal with teary material that can easily drown in cornmush, you need a counterweight; someone who can dig down and then hold back—refusing anything cheap or mawkish, instead opening up to deep, raw pain. To do so calls not for misty moonlight and flowers but for the strength of a stevedore, applied with the brush of a butterfly.
Wyman has that strength and she brings it to the film with delicacy and grace. Everything she does is artless and pure in its effect, radiating from the core of her character like light from a lamp. As a grief-stricken Ruth she doesn’t suffer nobly or play for sympathy; she actually does very little that’s different from what Ruth has been before. Instead, she shows what happens to people in sorrow: Ruth withdraws, back into her little corner, curled up and quiet like a small, sick animal. Her one peculiar solace is in an isolated statue of Saint Andrew she discovers in the cathedral, and over which she worries that, tucked into its own dark corner, with no candles lit before it, will be left alone to suffer in the dark.
It’s in front of this inert marble that Ruth gives voice to her despair–“How can there be a god,” she demands, “if things like this happen, people getting killed?” That’s the ageless question that no religion can ever answer to our satisfaction (“You’re not listening,” Ruth cries to the statue, “Nobody’s listening”). Wyman plays the scene in extended close-up, her large, round eyes staring in uncomprehending agony, but she doesn’t go for heavy dramatics or the star turn. It’s Ruth’s anguish we see (Wyman doesn’t even raise her voice), plain, simple, and quiet. Wyman lets us understand, in devastatingly hushed, intimate detail, how the best thing that ever happened to this woman has been wrenched from her, and that she’ll never face another day without pain. Ruth’s corner will now serve as both her refuge and her prison.
Any tears that spring from watching this scene and Wyman’s performance in it—to paraphrase Orson Welles, it would make a stone cry—are come by honestly. Wyman’s brave honesty in her acting will get past your eye-rolling defenses. She reaches into our own dark, shy corners, to those hidden feelings we may be too arch, or blasé, or even too frightened to acknowledge are there, touching them with a tender, precise art. Are performers like Wyman still around, are movies like this still made anymore? Or are we all now too cool and ironic to be taken in?
Anyway, if you were to let out even the tiniest sniffle while viewing, well, I wouldn’t laugh. (I’d just share my tissues with you.) And if they (that big, mysterious ‘they’ out there) don’t make movies like this anymore, I for one am glad they once did. Even with all the flaws, the schmaltz and the goo, Miracle in the Rain has got a little bit of the miraculous in it. Plus that little touch of pathos that I think so many of us feel at year’s end—when we can get past all the holiday noise and bluster, the frantic merrymaking and loud cheer, and seize a chance, however briefly, to retire to our own private little corners and allow ourselves to reflect on who and what we are, while letting this big world, for just a bit, whirl by.