Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Rains Came (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie I’d recorded from TCM during their “31 Days of Oscar” commemoration: The Rains Came, the 20th Century-Fox film from 1939 that won the first Academy Award ever given for special effects. The film takes place in contemporary times (the characters discuss the coming war in Europe with surprising frankness for a 1939 film) in the Indian kingdom of Ranchipur (the 1954 remake was actually called The Rains of Ranchipur) on the eve of monsoon season, which this year happens to encompass not only horrific rains but also earthquakes and massive floods which destroy a good chunk of the city.

20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck produced this film personally and managed to get his leading lady, Myrna Loy, and director, Clarence Brown, as part of the loanout deal with MGM by which he supplied them Tyrone Power for the part of Count Axel Fersen in Marie Antoinette. Zanuck, who was notorious for making high demands for his stars (not surprisingly since he really had only two major names under contract in the late 1930’s, Shirley Temple and Tyrone Power; to loan Temple to MGM for The Wizard of Oz, he demanded Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for the leads in In Old Arizona — only Jean Harlow’s death ended that deal, Judy Garland got Wizard and Zanuck made In Old Chicago with his own people, Power and Alice Faye), not only demanded Loy and Brown for this film but also asked for — and got — Spencer Tracy to star in Stanley and Livingstone.

Alas, The Rains Came simply isn’t a very good movie; it has its good points — notably spectacular, luminous black-and-white cinematography by (the other) Arthur Miller (if Miller won the 1941 Academy Award for How Green Was My Valley that Gregg Toland deserved for Citizen Kane, one might make an equally good case that Toland won the 1939 award for Wuthering Heights that Miller deserved for this film) and some quite good setups from director Brown reminiscent of his similarly plotted 1927 Garbo vehicle Flesh and the Devil — but it’s hamstrung by a plot (Philip Dunne and silent-era veteran Julien Josephson adapted a novel by Louis Bromfield) that’s so soapy it almost should be called The Suds Came.

It’s essentially a romantic pentagon in which Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) is married to Lord Albert Esketh (Nigel Bruce) but isn’t going to let that stop her from having affairs with two leading men, Indian doctor and army officer Rama Safti (Tyrone Power, looking like a white guy who’d been to a really good tanning parlor and utterly unconvincing visually as a person of color) and disreputable British something-or-other Tom Ransome (George Brent). The fifth point of the pentagon is Fern Simon (a thoroughly annoying Brenda Joyce), a teenager (or at least she acts like one) with an unrequited crush on Ransome that eventually becomes requited more through her sheer persistence in wearing him down than anything else.

Brent actually gets more screen time than either Loy (inexplicably top-billed) or Power, and that’s no help because he remains what he always was, a decent-looking but insufferably boring and wimpy actor who was O.K. in his films with Bette Davis — there had to be an anodyne leading man in those to play off Davis’s fiery intensity — but almost unwatchable in anything else. Nor are the Academy Award-winning special effects all that special; according to the American Film Institute Catalog, “350 grips, carpenters and other laborers worked for more than a month on those sequences. To create the effects in the flood scenes, a tank holding approximately 50,000 gallons of water was erected on a studio soundstage” — but the film as it stands offers almost no evidence of these labors; all too many of the collapsing buildings are obviously models, and though it would be unfair to compare the effects work in this film to a modern movie with access to digital imagery, in an apples-to-apples comparison the sequence is quite a bit less exciting than the similar one in MGM’s San Francisco three years earlier.

The plot ends with Loy’s character conveniently dying (she must have thought this movie an unwelcome return to her early typecasting as a Third World nymphomaniac in movies like The Mask of Fu Manchu and Thirteen Women), leaving Brent with Joyce and Power to return to his ambiguous duties for the Ranchipurian government, nominally headed by maharajah H. B. Warner but actually run by his wife, maharani Maria Ouspenskaya — who quite frankly out-acts all of the leads even though her accent is flagrantly unbelievable coming from someone who’s supposed to be royalty from India. The AFI Catalog lists two songs from this film, a title song by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel which I certainly don’t remember hearing and a “Hindoo Song of Love” written and performed in the film by one Lal Chand Mehra, which is actually one of the more delightful scenes in the movie, less despite than because of its absurd campiness!