Frank Capra’s Big Top Adventure

One of the amazing circus stunts featured in Frank Capra’s Rain or Shine (1930), based on the Broadway play.

1934 was the year that Frank Capra became a household name in America with his box-office and Oscar-winning smash hit, It Happened One Night. In fact, he would direct his most famous and financially successful films in the thirties with such career highpoints as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). But his filmography before 1934 is more familiar to film buffs – not the average moviegoer. Some of these films are less predictable, more adventurous and entertainingly quirky than his more famous work such as Platinum Blonde (1931), American Madness (1932) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932). Among these earlier efforts is Capra’s rarely-seen curiosity, Rain or Shine (1930), which offers a fascinating glimpse of the director coming to terms with “talkies” and his developing aesthetic after starting his career in silent films.

After the box office success of Ladies of Leisure (1930), a Barbara Stanwyck melodrama, director Frank Capra was finally deemed important enough by Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn to have his name listed on movie marquees above the title of his new picture. At the time, Capra, who already had fifteen feature films to his credit, had boasted to a friend that he could make an entertaining film out of the phone book and, for his next feature, Rain or Shine, he proved beyond a doubt that he could work wonders with the skimpiest of storylines.  Based on a 1928 hit Broadway musical of the same name by James Gleason and Maurice Marks, Rain or Shine was the story of a circus manager trying to make a success of his traveling show despite bad weather, internal saboteurs, poor business and creditors. At first Cohn had rejected the idea telling Capra, “I can’t spend that kind of dough. Musical comedies cost a fortune to produce!” Cohn, however, changed his opinion when the director told him he’d throw out the musical numbers because he wanted to buy Rain or Shine for different reasons. “We’re buying Joe Cook,” Capra told him. “He’s mad, Harry. He’s unique – the darling of the literati, of the Algonquin Round Table! Percy Hammond calls Cook ‘the funniest man in America’; Brooks Atkinson says he’s ‘one of the greatest comedians of our times!’ And we’re buying two other great comedians in Rain or Shine – Tom Howard and Dave Chasen. Rain or Shine will cost us peanuts, Harry. I’ll shoot it all in a small two-ring circus tent. No other sets. No music, no chorus dames, no Busby Berkeley, no nothing. Just wild comedy.”

Director Frank Capra in the 1930s

After Cohn agreed to the purchase, Capra hired Jo Swerling and Dorothy Howell to rewrite Rain or Shine for the screen, removing all the musical numbers as promised and expanding a romantic subplot in which the circus owner, Mary Rainey (Joan Peers), hopes to marry Bud Conway (William Collier, Jr.), a new employee whose wealthy, class-conscious parents disapprove of his current vocation.

Joe Cook and Joan Peers are part of a traveling circus during the Depression in Frank Capra’s Rain or Shine (1930).

The real focus of the film though is “Smiley” Johnson (Joe Cook), the fast-talking manager of the Greater John T. Rainey Circus and his never-ending schemes and hustles to keep the circus operational and true to its promise to offer two shows a day, rain or shine. Dalton (Alan Roscoe), the ringmaster, proves to be the villain of the piece, working secretly to foil Smiley’s efforts. Meanwhile, a befuddled investor, Amos K. Shrewsbury (Tom Howard) and Dave (Dave Chasen), a food vendor and roustabout, provide comic relief.

Dave Chasen (left), Joe Cook (center) and Tom Howard provide plenty of comic relief in the Depression era drama, Rain or Shine (1930).

Some of Rain or Shine was filmed at the Burbank, California ranch of James J. Jeffries, a former world heavyweight boxing champion who also has a cameo in the film. Acts and members of the A. W. Copeland Circus were featured as part of the supporting cast and some of the incidental and background music from the Broadway score by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen was reused for the film. Seen today, Rain or Shine is an anomaly and not typical of the Frank Capra films that would follow. More than anything it is truly a showcase for Joe Cook’s unique vaudeville talents and motor-mouth character and at times the humor is as raucous and unruly as the early Marx Brothers comedies with an emphasis on zany dialogue and wordplay. Yet you can see glimpses of Capra’s emerging populist viewpoint that would flower in Platinum Blonde (1931) and American Madness (1932).

Walter Huston (right background) addresses the crowd in Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932).

In his biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride wrote that “Rain or Shine gives mixed political signals, probably because of the clash of Capra’s fundamentally conservative attitudes with more liberal ideas that were in the air at the time. The precarious financial state of the circus echoes the state of the country, and Cook’s Smiley, the indefatigable optimist, can be seen as a Franklin Roosevelt precursor, galvanizing the demoralized troupe with his energy and courage. His black organist, Nero (Clarence Muse), plays an instrumental version of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” the Broadway show’s pep tune that FDR would adopt as his theme song in the 1932 presidential campaign.”

A typical scene from the circus comedy-drama Rain or Shine (1930), directed by Frank Capra.

Easily the most memorable sequence in the film is the fiery climax when the angry circus patrons cause a riot which starts a blaze that eventually consumes the big top and reduces it to ash. Sound technician Edward Bernds later said, “Working with Frank Capra, I soon realized what a wealth of guts and daring he had! In Rain or Shine, for instance, he very casually burned down an entire circus! It was a one-shot thing. He just put enough cameras on to cover everything he wanted and he burned the whole thing down. He shot it with, as I recall, about a dozen cameras. He had guts and originality!”

Former vaudeville entertainer Joe Cook steals the spotlight in Frank Capra’s circus tale, Rain or Shine (1930).

Rain or Shine proved to be a modest success at the box office and some critics even stated that Capra had improved upon the original Broadway show, making it even funnier. The Variety reviewer wrote, “A circus story with plenty of comedy, much sightlines, a thrill or so and a real big top fire for the finale make Columbia’s Rain or Shine with Joe Cook a first run candidate. It’s a much better than average circus picture….Joe Cook’s ready reasons for anything get a laugh here whenever used, as does Cook’s mannerisms and his general work…Toward the finish the story does go a little ragged and without a smooth finish, but that doesn’t injure the whole impression.”

William Collier Jr. and Joan Peers play the young lovers in Rain or Shine (1930), a Depression era tale about a traveling circus.

Capra would move on next to Dirigible (1931), an action-adventure picture with a love triangle, but Joe Cook, the real star of Rain or Shine, never quite clicked with movie audiences like he did with theatergoers. A veteran circus performer, he made a handful of comedy shorts and features after the Capra film but was struck down by Parkinson’s disease at an early age and was forced to retire from show business in the early forties (he died in 1959).

Dalton (Alan Roscoe), the circus ringmaster, tries to bully Mary (Joan Peers), the owner of the traveling fair in Rain or Shine (1930).

As for Dave Chasen, who had appeared in numerous vaudeville shows with Cook and a few comedy shorts, he is more famous today as the restaurant owner who opened Chasen’s in Hollywood in 1936. His restaurant was particularly famous for chili, which was so loved by Elizabeth Taylor that several orders of it were flown to Rome for her during the making of Cleopatra (1963). Chasen’s was a mainstay for years and popular with such celebrities and dignitaries as Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Alfred Hitchcock and President Ronald Reagan. Chasen’s was located at 9039 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles and closed down in 1995.

Tom Howard and Louise Fazenda provide some of the more memorable comedic moments in Rain or Shine (1930), directed by Frank Capra.

For several decades Rain or Shine proved to be an elusive Capra film; it rarely aired on television and was unavailable in any format until 2012 when Sony Home Pictures Entertainment released Frank Capra: The Early Collection which included Rain or Shine and four Pre-Code films starring Barbara Stanwyck (Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden and The Bitter Tea of General Yen). To date, this is the only available option to view Rain or Shine and you have to purchase the entire DVD collection to see it. There is an upside to that because the disc also includes the international version of the film which has alternative scenes, a different ending and is semi-silent with sound effects. It is also 20 minutes shorter than the U.S. version and some Capra fans prefer this one because they feel it works better as a drama (some of the less successful comedy scenes are deleted.)  Article sources: Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride; The Name Above the Title by Frank Capra; The Films of Frank Capra by Victor Scherle, William Turner, & William O. Douglas

*This is a revised and updated version of an article that was first published on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other websites of interest:






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