The April Showers Blogathon: Thunder on the Hill (1951)

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Hooray! I’m already back with my first post for April! Today I’m celebrating the coming of the new month with The April Showers Blogathon, celebrating the best uses of rain in motion pictures. I’d like to start off as always by thanking the host of this blogathon, Steve over at Movie Movie Blog Blog, for creating such an interesting topic for everyone to write about. I shower the blogathon with love and hopes that it’s a great success, and if you’d like to read all of the other soggy entries, check out this post! Without further ado, let’s begin!

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Theatrical poster for Thunder on the Hill (1951).

Of all types of weather that’s displayed in film, you could say that rain is the most important. Rain can make a romance more tender or dramatic, a noir more heartwrenching, or a horror even more chilling. Rain can stop the plot of a picture or even help it along, and when I was thinking about great uses of rain on the silver screen, my mind immediately went to Thunder on the Hill (1951), an underrated gem starring two incomporable stars of the day, Claudette Colbert and Ann Blyth, the latter being one of my favorite actresses of all time and the namesake for my two blogs. The film begins with a heavy downpour, so heavy that it floods the county of Norfolk, England. The innundated streets prevent ambulances from getting to county hospitals, and the only shelter and medical center available for miles is the convent and hospital Our Lady of Sorrow that rests on top of a steep hill, safe from the floods and headed by Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) and Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert). Though she has no real authority, it appears that Sister Mary attempts to run the convent and hospital with a self-righteous need to do everything her own way, which causes tension between herself and some of the nurses in the convent. It’s later revealed that Sister Mary has strived to make no mistakes due to one that she made in her past which led to her sister’s death; Mary forbade her union with a man whom Mary felt was unfit for her, and her sister committed suicide as a result.

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Ann Blyth and Claudette Colbert in a publicity photo for Thunder on the Hill (1951).

Even more chaos erupts in the convent when two guards, Sergeant Melling (Gavin Muir) and Miss Pierce (played by Norma Varden, one of the most recognizable character actresses of classic film), arrive with their prisoner, Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth). Valerie is considered a notorious murderess and practically evil incarnate by the townspeople who seek refuge in the convent due to her cold-blooded murder of her brother, composer Jason Carns. In fact, she was in the process of being transported to Norwich for her execution when the floods came and left them stranded at the convent in the first place.  Sister Mary informs Valerie and her guards that the floods cannot allow anyone to be transported anywhere, and that the three will have to wait a few days until the water recedes before going on their way. Valerie is in despair when she hears the news, unable to bear waiting longer and longer to die, and Sister Mary attempts to comfort her while Valerie remains cynical. In spite of everything, she still maintains her innocence, and the closer Sister Mary gets to Valerie, the more she too believes that Valerie did not kill her brother. All too quickly Mary begins to become obsessed with the case and with clearing her new friend’s name, even involving the other Sisters in her attempt to save Valerie’s life. But will the holier-than-thou nun be stopped before she can bring out the truth? Will Mary endanger everyone when the real killer is revealed?

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Ann Blyth in a scene from Thunder on the Hill (1951).

As I mentioned before, rain can either halt the plot of a film or help move it along. At the start of this film, one might suspect that the floods would stop the action by not allowing Valerie to be transported to her execution. It’s soon revealed that quite the opposite is true when Mary begins her journey to solve the murder of Jason Carns almost singlehandedly. The movie is filled to the brim with stellar leading as well as supporting performances, and there’s no shortage of suspense despite the action basically being limited to just the location of the convent. It’s easy to see how utterly vital the rain is in this film when you think about how different it would have been without it. If the flood hadn’t swept over the county of Norfolk, Valerie Carns would have simply been led to her demise, Sister Mary would not have discovered the real murderer, and essentially all of the events that occurred in the duration of the film would have simply ceased to exist. If that doesn’t show how important weather can be to a picture, I don’t know what does.