TCM Spotlight: Weather

April 18, 2023
Tcm Spotlight: Weather

Thursdays in May | 21 Movies

What’s noteworthy about this special programming is not that there are this many films in cinema history that depend on weather for their thematic and narrative impact, but that so many more might have been screened. Even without such obvious choices as Twister (1996) and Rain (1932) or more subtle examples like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), this spotlight provides a good overview of the ways weather has been used to set the tone and heighten the central conflict of movie stories. Even more remarkable: the ingenious and largely effective ways film artists created these natural phenomenon in the years before computer generated effects.

Stormy Weather Part 1

Thursday, May 4

The spotlight kicks off with perhaps the most iconic weather event in cinema history, the “twista” (to quote one of the characters) that sets in motion the plot of The Wizard of Oz (1939). The tornado that whisks Dorothy over the rainbow is credited to Arnold “Buddie” Gillespie, then head of special effects at MGM. A 35-foot muslin stocking was attached at the top to a rotating crane and at the bottom to a vehicle below the sound stage that moved it along a track behind miniatures of the Kansas farm. Wind machines and dust were added, and the twister was filmed from several angles and distances, creating a special effect that was highly effective and remarkable for its time.

A different sort of storm besets the characters of two other films showing the same night. In Key Largo (1948), adapted by John Huston from Maxwell Anderson’s play, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore are trapped by a violent hurricane in a hotel on the eponymous Florida island with nasty gangster Edward G. Robinson. The storm mirrors and amplifies the emotional struggles and personal conflicts of the story.

An even more ferocious storm threatens the lives of South Sea islanders in The Hurricane (1937), with “native girl” Dorothy Lamour tied to a tree in her trademark sarong to survive the natural disater that strips the remote island bare. The impressive special effects, described in The New York Times as “a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine,” were supervised by James Basevi, part of the team that created the earthquake in San Francisco (1936). 

Less common but no less devastating weather events animate the dramas of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – endless dust storms that force an Oklahoma farm family off its land – and The Last Wave (1977), Australian director Peter Weir’s vision of freak rainstorms and apocalyptic floods, starring Richard Chamberlain as a lawyer who discovers a mysterious spiritual connection with the country’s indigenous people.

The transcendant and spiritual is also at the core of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi allegory Stalker (1979), which takes place in a no-man’s land full of mud, water, decay and natural and man-made hazards. Nick James, writing for the British Film Institute, noted a filmography replete with “grasslands swirling, white mist veiling a house in a dark green valley, cleansing torrential rains…tracking shots across objects submerged in water” to conclude “Tarkovsky owns the weather.” 

The sequence depicting a storm blowing up over swelling marshland was shot over a lengthy period in locations harboring toxic materials. Tarkovsky’s early death at 54, along with the  deaths of others connected with the production, all from lung cancer, has been attributed to this exposure.

Stormy Weather Part 2

Thursday, May 11

The second night of the theme programming is the most waterlogged, beginning with the appropriately titled The Rains Came (1939), another brilliant example of 1930s pre-CGI special effects. Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy and George Brent are the love triangle at the center of this melodrama of illicit passions boiling over into a monsoon followed by an earthquake, a massive flood and a cholera epidemic. The film won the first-ever competitive Academy Award for Best Special Effects over such worthy contenders as Gone with the Wind, Topper Takes a Trip, and The Wizard of Oz.

Speaking of iconic weather moments on film: Gene Kelly and his umbrella dance their way into cinema history on the rainy Los Angeles streets in what is often considered the greatest musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Kelly reportedly filmed the number with a raging fever, but in a talk with film historian Leonard Maltin in 1994, he said it was an easy piece to perform and that the real props should go to the camera and lighting crew who had to back-light the rain to be sure it would show up on screen.

Like Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa is famous for his command of weather throughout his filmography, using mud, rain, fog, heat and more to set the tone of his stories, amplify the action and heighten the inner turmoil and external difficulties faced by his characters. In his most celebrated film, Seven Samurai (1956), the final battle between the heroes of the title and the bandits terrorizing a poor village takes place in a torrential downpour. The highly stressful shooting of this sequence, originally scheduled to take place in summer, was pushed to February in freezing temperatures. The sequence has been credited with influencing many similar rain-soaked action scenes in such movies as Blade Runner (1982), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and John Wick (2014), not to mention all the mud in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965).

In the savage satire of television  Network (1976), the angry, unhinged news anchor played by Peter Finch spends the day walking the streets brooding during a rainstorm and delivers his broadcast in a soaked raincoat and pajamas, concluding with the memorable line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

Ever the master of tense and exciting set pieces, Alfred Hitchcock sets an assassination in a downpour in Foreign Correspondent (1940), complicating the hero’s pursuit of the killer through a sea of umbrellas seen from a high angle.

Snow Days

Thursday, May 18

Things get frostier in this segment of the spotlight, which also offers a bit of romance and comic relief, starting with Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin was inspired by photos of an endless line of prospectors trudging through the snow during the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush and by a book about the infamous Donner Party, snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and forced to eat their shoes and the corpses of their dead comrades to survive. Committed to his long-held notion that comedy and tragedy were never far apart, Chaplin turned these dark historical episodes into humor, subjecting his Little Tramp character to freezing cold, starvation, isolation and the dangers of wild animals and murderous rivals. In his hands, the terrible stories of the Donner “diet” became memorable scenes of Chaplin attempting to eat his shoe and a desperate fellow prospector seeing a big edible chicken when he looked at him. The production began with the recreation of the prospector photo in the mountains near Truckee, California. The bulk of the shoot, however, took place on an astonishingly accurate studio set, employing miniatures and special effects.

Snow also covers much of the landscape in David Lean’s historical romance Doctor Zhivago (1965). Some of the winter scenes were filmed in Finland and Canada, but much of it was shot not far from Madrid on sets that took a year and a half to build. Tons of marble dust recreated snow in the middle of the Spanish summer, and the famous Ice Palace scene achieved its effects with rolls of cellophane covered with dripping wax over the furniture and soap flakes on the floor.

Robert Altman’s uniquely compelling alternative Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), mostly eschewed such trickery, instead filming on extensive sets constructed in British Columbia to create the ramshackle fictional town on endlessly muddy terrain. Despite reported opposition from star Warren Beatty, Altman chose to film the final scenes of a burning church and McCabe’s showdown with his enemies in the snow that fell near the end of the shoot. The final shot of Beatty may well bring to mind a similar shot of Jack Nicholson near the conclusion of The Shining (1980), another movie where weather plays a significant part (but not incuded in this month’s line-up).

Barbara Stanwyck plays a bogus Martha Stewart type forced out of her Manhattan comfort zone and onto a wintry farm in the romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Soap flakes once again did the stunt work for real snow in the runaway sleigh ride scene, filmed on the Warner Brothers backlot. To cut costs, Stanwyck’s fur coat was recycled from Joan Crawford’s wardrobe in Mildred Pierce (1945), a role Stanwyck almost played.

In the action thriller Ice Station Zebra (1968), based on the novel by popular writer Alistair MacLean, Rock Hudson plays a submarine commander whose vessel is sent to aid a weather station at the Arctic Circle. Filming between spring and early fall meant extensive special effects, to the reported tune of nearly $2 million. Considering what some reviewers said about the fake snow, ice and other substitutes for the real North Pole settings, the money may not have been particularly well spent. Nevertheless, Hal Millar and J. McMillan Johnson were Oscar-nominated for their Special Visual Effects.

Sweltering Skies

Thursday, May 25

Heat is often used on screen as both an excuse and a metaphor for uncontrolled passions, wildly impulsive actions and even criminal activity, as the final night’s programming shows.

Without the blistering New York summer weather, would we have had that immortal shot of Marilyn Monroe’s dress being blown up as she tries to cool herself over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955)? Of course, in reality these grates offer little in the way of cool refreshment, leading one to wonder if the filmmakers had ever actually been in the city in oppressive temperatures, but such details hardly matter to a comedy about the many ways a sexy neighbor (Monroe) unwittingly tempts a married man whose wife and son are at an upstate resort for the season. She also drives him to distraction by appearing naked (strongly suggested) on the balcony above his and telling him about cooling her underwear in the icebox.

Things are equally steamy but a lot darker and more dramatic in Elia Kazan’s much praised adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), set in a sweltering New Orleans. Roles are reversed here as Vivien Leigh, on the brink of madness, tries not to succumb to a frequently half dressed and sweaty Marlon Brando. Unfortunately for Leigh, the heat becomes just too much for her co-star and tragedy follows. 

The real-life bank robbery on which Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) is based occurred in August 1972, as the title suggests, but the film was shot between September and a chilly November 1974, forcing the cast, led by Al Pacino in one of his most acclaimed performances, to cool their mouths with ice so their breath didn’t show during the exterior scenes. 

It’s not so much the heat as the lack of humidity that drives the plot of the epic The Good Earth (1937), about Chinese farmers (mostly played by Caucasian actors, including Oscar winner Luise Rainer) struggling to survive a devastating drought and resulting famine.

The Japanese film noir Stray Dog (1949) – Kurosawa again – takes place during a miserable Tokyo heat wave. Toshiro Mifune, in the second of 16 pictures he would make with the director, plays an inexperienced homicide detective who descends into the city’s underground to retrieve his stolen gun. In this vivid portrayal of post-war urban life, everyone on screen sweats profusely and comments on the unrelenting heat, which film scholar Andrea Grunert writes “contributes to the film’s portrayal of a society filled with a feverish energy and of human beings trying to escape from the anxiety and misery they endured for many years.”