Set in the author’s native Texas, The Traveling Lady, a play by Horton Foote (1916-2009), about the wife and daughter of a ne’er-do-well dreamer newly released from jail and their personal struggles to confronts the truths of their tenuous familial commitment, ran only five weeks on Broadway in the fall of 1954 after its own confrontation with mixed critical notices and insufficiently sized audiences. It benefitted from a noteworthy lead performance by Kim Stanley as the wife Georgette, and though the play overall failed to satisfy The New York Times’ drama critic Brooks Atkinson, the latter considered some of the writing “wonderfully honest” and found “genuine and very poignant scenes in this play.” Foote returned to the material for an April 1957 Studio One live television adaptation, again starring the memorable Stanley alongside Robert Loggia as her errant spouse, this time directed by the talented Robert Mulligan. Years later, Foote and Mulligan worked together again, quite successfully on the acclaimed film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Foote earned a Best Adaptation Screenplay Academy Award® for his efforts – and Mulligan and his producer partner Alan J. Pakula thought that for a next project, Foote might revisit the Lady for a silver screen outing, with filming to take place in the author’s Wharton, TX, birthplace, and Foote agreeing to help as a location scout.
In his 2009 biography Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller, Wilborn Hampton relates that Pakula and Mulligan wanted Foote “to open up the action a bit more and tailor the parts for the two stars they signed for the lead roles – Steve McQueen as the singing convict Henry Thomas and Lee Remick as Georgette, the wife he deceives. [McQueen had dramatically scored opposite Natalie Wood in the recent Pakula/Mulligan production Love with the Proper Stranger (1963).] In turning the play into a movie, Foote also made several changes, slight but significant, in the storyline and introduced a couple of new characters. He altered the names of some of the characters, and the story even got a new title that switched its focus from the traveling lady to her roving husband. The title of the movie ended up as Baby the Rain Must Fall , taken from a song Henry sings, but until its release, Pakula, Mulligan, Foote and the studio heads back in Los Angeles pondered over different ones. As he had done in To Kill a Mockingbird, Foote injected more social content in the screen adaptation than had been in the original stage version. If racial intolerance was a major theme of Mockingbird, the target in Baby the Rain Must Fall was the pettiness and hatreds that can poison a small town and its inhabitants. Henry emerges as a more sympathetic character than he had been in the stage and television versions, and Foote uses his character’s dreams of becoming a singer as a metaphor for the perils of greed. Part of his inspiration for using pop music came from his brother John Speed. Although they occasionally exchanged letters, Foote had never been close to his youngest brother, mainly because of the difference in their ages. During Foote’s trips to Texas for Baby the Rain Must Fall, he got to know his young brother better and discovered that he had long been a devotee of country music, and that his one secret dream had been to be a country-and-western singer.”
The retooled script and narrative focus also energized McQueen; in The Films of Steve McQueen, author Casey St. Charnez wrote: “It is a quiet little Texas pastorale, this movie, in which almost nothing happens in an action sense. McQueen gets into one knife fight, but that’s all he does physically. He plays down intensely, but Mulligan pulls the deep inner resources to the surface: ‘He’s alive,’ goes Mulligan’s analysis of McQueen. ‘He has great vitality. He’s not afraid to be himself when he acts. He has a kind of daring and theatricality, the same kind of daring as in racing his car. He does not leave that behind when he comes on stage.’” Despite the higher starpower of her male co-star, Remick, following soon after her heartbreaking Oscar®-nominated work on Days of Wine and Roses (1962), fully inhabits the naïve but hopeful Georgette; Sight and Sound’s reviewer noted that “Lee Remick, temperamentally ideal for the role, gives a kind of faultlessly low-key performance that is in itself sufficient reason to see the film.”
Other reasons to revisit Baby the Rain Must Fall include a sturdy supporting cast (Don Murray, Paul Fix, Josephine Hutchinson, Ruth White, Estelle Hemsley and the young and gifted Kimberly Block as the Thomases’ daughter), evocative black-and-white cinematography by Ernest Laszlo (an eight-time Academy Award® nominee who would take home the trophy for that same year’s Ship of Fools) and a spirited and soulful score by the great Elmer Bernstein, highlighted by the memorable title song (lyrics by Ernie Sheldon) that became an iconic hit single for the great balladeer Glenn Yarborough. (Another musical Glen, by the name of Campbell, marks his first movie appearance playing in a bar band backing up McQueen, whose vocals were dubbed by the formidable singer/songwriter Billy Strange.) Family ties run deep, caringly and turbulently for Horton Foote’s richly drawn characters in Baby the Rain Must Fall, debuting May 21 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open May 8.