Friday, June 27, 2014

THE RAINS CAME (2oth Century-Fox 1939) Fox Home Video

Widely regarded as the most prestigious year in motion pictures, 1939 remains a cultural touchstone in the annals of movie making and the standard bearer for Hollywood’s industry standards. With so much iconic entertainment being produced during this twelve month stretch it is almost forgivable Clarence Brown’s The Rains Came (1939) escaped the Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  Cribbing from Louis Bromfield’s celebrated novel, screenwriters, Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson managed a minor coup; faithfully adapting Bromfield’s dense prose into comprehensively enthralling cinema language. The Rains Came is book-ended by romance and tragedy; also by spectacle and sin – always a winning combination at the box office.   
The picture is permeated with some of the finest travelling matte special effects, and, exceptional performances throughout. For once, 2oth Century-Fox studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck looked outside his own stable of stars, acquiring the loan outs of leading man, George Brent from Warner Bros. and Myrna Loy and director Clarence Brown from rival MGM. The machinations Zanuck must have gone through to secure these talents (in an era when stars remained indentured to one studio under ironclad contracts, and the cross-pollination of the star ‘gene pool’ was virtually unheard of) must have been considerable. The fruits of their participation in this movie are nothing short of commendable.   
The rights to The Rains Came had actually been acquired first by David O. Selznick. Alas, beginning in 1938, Selznick became embroiled in the many production delays incurred on what would ultimately become his opus magnum – Gone With The Wind. It is likely Selznick relinquished his stakes to Zanuck simply because he had neither the time, money, nor even the patience to produce another hefty adaptation. Whatever the circumstances, Zanuck acquired the rights to Bromfield’s book without much of a struggle, rumored to have paid a cool $25,000 for the honor.
Today, Louis Bromfield’s literary distinction has been all but mislaid. However, in his own time he was one of the most prolific authors of that rarified ilk with an uninterrupted streak of thirty best sellers, rivaling the prowess and popularity of such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hollywood courted Bromfield like no other; writers considered a dime a dozen then - and paid almost as little for their wit and prose. But to Bromfield the gates to Tinsel Town were thrown open with great fanfare and admiration, affording the author unprecedented access to these movie-making empires, and, the opportunity to befriend some of the biggest and brightest names working in the industry; many of whom became lifelong friends (Greer Garson, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, Mae West, Lana Turner, and James Cagney among them). You know what they say about Hollywood: it’s all about the nepotism. 
Bromfield’s novels were among the very first to be adapted into feature-length films. By the mid-1930’s he was already a legend in his own time; considered something of a cultural mandarin in two forms; literature and the movies. Bromfield’s own celebrity extended well beyond these fabled walls. Indeed, his engaging personality, occasionally prone to fits of pomposity, had won him the respect of Indian maharajahs and British royalty. He would spend a lifetime torn between two great loves – writing and farming; his experimental concept of crop rotation (then considered brazenly unorthodox) eventually accredited with bringing about an end to America’s dust bowl. At the height of his affluence and influence on popular culture, Bromfield threw it all away to move back to Ohio and establish Malabar Farm – a conservationist preserve that continues to operate as both a functioning farm and state park to this day. It is here where he wrote his two most acclaimed novels; The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington; each imbued with Bromfield’s inimitable brand of unvarnished critique and steeped in period and history.
In hindsight, The Rains Came is the beneficiary of Clarence Brown’s astute gifts as a storyteller. Like Zanuck, Brown worshipped great literature as his God; his back catalogue of accomplishments at MGM reveal a very fine array of screen adaptations, spanning the intellectual chasm from Leo Tolstoy to Eugene O’Neill, from Enid Bagnold to James Fenimore Cooper and beyond. Working very closely with Zanuck and screenwriters, Dunne and Josephson, Brown tempers Bromfield’s more unvarnished portrait of British colonialism with a warm rose-colored patina that harks even further back to England’s supremacy on the world stage; Bromfield’s fictionalized province of Ranchipur the beneficiary of Brown’s beloved valentine.
Today, we tend to forget Britain never ruled the whole of India, but rather principalities and provinces within its vast and socio-politically complex makeup; occasionally working with the Indian aristocracy to ensure a general continuity of culture, though not without infusing these newly acquired dominions with their own time-honored traditions and laws; often at the point of a gun, always at the expense of even the most basic understanding for whatever social etiquette already existed. This disconnect in imperial colonialism, and its inevitable resentment by the indigenous peoples, is completely absent from The Rains Came; Zanuck determined to open his film instead with that warm and fuzzy declaration of communal well-being, also adding his own prescient commentary on the looming European conflict soon to engulf half a hemisphere in flames. Our protagonist, Tom Ransome (George Brent) is thus seconded to the cause of instilling this sad-eyed clarity, made from the comfort of his veranda (an obvious reference to America’s own affinity for home and hearth) as he admiringly stares at a statue of Queen Victoria.  
“I’ve got faith in a lot of things…” Tom tells Major Safti (Tyrone Power cast as the copper Apollo of the piece), “For instance, Queen Victoria. To you she’s only a statue. But to me, she’s an old friend. A living reminder of the fine brave days before the world went to seed. When London Bridge did it’s falling to a dance step – not to the threat of tomorrow’s bombs. When every American was a millionaire…or about to be one…and people sang in Vienna. There she stands in her cast iron petticoat, unconcerned about wars, dictators and appeasement, as serene as ever. God bless her.”
Tom is a weary middle-aged romantic, misinterpreted by his contemporaries as something of a wanton, thanks to a series of discretions committed in his youth. But he is more clear-eyed and clairvoyant than any who surround him, able to see India for her innate value and beauty; also to appreciate the tenuous nature of his own presence – and that of the British consignment within her borders; telling his former flame, Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) “….in Ranchipur, the important things in life are the elemental things… crops, starvation, and weather. In Europe, when someone says ‘It looks like rain’, in all probability, he’s trying to make polite conversation. But here, where people die as easily as they’re born, they’re speaking in terms of life and death. You'll see what I mean, if you're still here when the rains come. You'll see them overnight turn the fields, the gardens and the jungles from a parched and burning desert, into a mass of green that seems to live, to writhe and to devour the walls, the trees and the houses.”
There is, of course, a sort of native prophesizing to Tom’s character, only possible when looking back on one period in history from the vantage – and advantage – of another considerably removed. But the Dunne/Josephson screenplay does more than its fair share of foreshadowing and rather successfully too. The Rains Came is imbued with all the exotic mysticism for this far off land. One of Hollywood’s great pictorial strengths has always been its ability to will verisimilitude from its own preconceived and glamorized notions about other cultures. There’s just enough of the ‘real India’ in The Rains Came to make one forget what we are seeing is not India, or even a reasonable facsimile, but the clever reconstitution of its finer points of interest, cleverly remade lush and idyllic on a back lot in Southern California. 

As many living in America then had never had the opportunity to see India firsthand, much less study it in any great detail in a book of pictures – this facsimile of Ranchipur both serves and satisfies the Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian impression of another place worthy of our need to daydream; Zanuck’s re-education of America’s fascination for foreign cultures complimentary to Bromfield’s rich tapestry of melodrama and Zanuck’s own compellingly opulent pictorialization of the tragi-romance.   
The Rains Came was an important film for 20th Century-Fox; Zanuck committed to elevating the overall tenor of his still fledgling studio in direct competition with Hollywood’s big leagues; most notably, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Indeed, The Rains Came manages not only to hold its own in a year of bright, shiny baubles put forth by the other dream factories, but also to stand head and shoulders above most any of its competition; save Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and, arguably, Gunga Din. Despite Zanuck’s zeal for nuggets of wisdom, the audience is never cheated out of the story’s intrinsic entertainment value. We get both style and substance; sumptuous visuals married to purpose and platitudes; all of it infectiously blended into one telescopically focused artistic mélange designed to impress, enthrall and, yes, entertain with a capital ‘E’.  
The Rains Came is also unique among the studio’s output for its rather superficial gloss. Zanuck was generally interested in stories that explored some sort of moral, social or political crises. The Rains Came does touch upon all of these factors at varying intervals. But never do any of the aforementioned become ‘the issue’ of the picture; in hindsight, allowing the audience their own refreshingly original perspective, while affording them the opportunity to bask in the supreme artifice of this doomed triumvirate of lovers; Edwina – newly widowed and caught between her past as a malicious mantrap, and future happiness never to be with the more altruistic, Major Rama Safti; who might have embraced Edwina’s reborn piety, if only she had lived to see the day.
The movie’s strength is, of course, encapsulated within these sexual intrigues; some more seriously handled than others; Edwina’s spurious former life given more critical merit and weight than Ransome’s carousing, viewed within the sexual politics of its day and context of the film and its’ even more Puritanical code of ethics, from an almost playfully screwball perspective, particularly George Brent’s scenes played opposite, Brenda Joyce, making her screen debut as the winsome – if gingerly sly – ingénue, Fern Simon.  Despite her youth, Fern is already a woman, and on par with Ransome’s predilections for sultry gals who know the score and aren’t afraid to keep a running tally besides, though it will take the better half of the movie – two natural disasters (an earthquake and a flood), and, a national crisis (the death of the region’s beloved Maharajah, played by H.B. Warner) - for Ransome to realize as much.
Our story begins at Tom Ransome’s home; Ransome, something of a disgraced – although highly eligible – aristocrat, lazing around his front porch on a stiflingly hot afternoon, content to pick off playful monkeys from a nearby tree with his slingshot. At once we sense Ransome is a dabbler; bored with life and its shallower pursuits, finding himself the best company of all – except perhaps for Major Rama Safti, who in short order arrives for his afternoon call; the car driven by nurse Mac Daid (Mary Nash). Noticing the half-completed portrait of the Maharani resting on a nearby easel, Safti questions whether Tom has plans to ever finish anything he starts. In reply, Ransome offers Safti a drink, the men enjoying each other’s company until the unwelcomed intrusion of enterprising, Mrs. Simon (Marjorie Rambeau) and her daughter, Fern.  Simon has come with an invitation to a party she is giving at the British Colonial Club later in the afternoon for the newly arrived, Lily Hoggett-Egburry (Laura Hope Crews).
Ransome attempts to disentangle himself from this invite but to no avail. A short while later he attends under duress, but not before making a momentary stop at Mrs. Phoebe Smiley’s (Jane Darwell) modest abode facing the club. Smiley, who is also Ransome’s aunt, runs a small missionary and school house. In short order, we are introduced to her better half, the Rev. Homer Smiley (Henry Travers). Alas, duty calls and Fern is flung at Ransome’s head, much to her father, Rev. Elmer’s (Harry Hayden) displeasure. Elmer is a pious man. Moreover, he’s apt to believe the wild rumors about Ransome; dead certain his daughter will not be among Tom’s future conquests. To stave off the inevitable, Elmer elects to send Fern away to school.
Ransome is spared Elmer’s penetrating glare and Fern’s fawning by a royal invitation to the palace. Dressing for the occasion, Ransome arrives early and is heartily greeted by the Maharajah and Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya); also by Victor Bannerjee (Joseph Schildkraut) an Indian desperate to fit in and who has adopted British customs as his own. It seems the party is being given for Lord Albert Esketh (Nigel Bruce) and his bride, Edwina (Myrna Loy).  Albert is an arrogant snob. Moreover, he’s boorish toward Edwina, who seems perfectly content to have married ‘a title’ rather than the man. Unhappy circumstance for all, Ransome and Edwina were once lovers; or rather, Tom was desperately in love with her once upon a time. Albert senses their transparency of lingering emotions but is unable to pinpoint the true significance of their past relationship.
On advice of the Maharani, who can plainly see there is something more between Tom and Edwina, Ransome is asked to take Edwina on a private tour of the palace. In private, these two old flames exchange cordial stories about what has happened in their lives since; Ransome rather dolefully hoping Edwina might still be the girl he remembers rather than the woman she has since become. It’s no use. Time and experience have had their corrupting influences. Moreover, upon rejoining her husband and the group in the main ballroom, Edwina is instantly attracted to Major Safti whom she nicknames the ‘bronze Apollo’. Ransome quietly discourages Edwina of her infatuation. Safti has important work to do as a newly graduated physician, recently ensconced at the local hospital. Moreover, it is hinted the Maharajah and Maharani, though childless, have been contemplating making Safti their heir apparent.
The next day Albert falls ill with malaria. Bedridden and unable to keep tabs on his wife, Edwina exploits this opportunity to invite Safti to their home – presumably to gain his physician’s expertise on a diagnosis for Albert; but later, plying Safti with a polite cup of tea and some fairly obvious hints she would like him to show her around the city. At first, Safti declines. He has heard something of Edwina’s reputation from Miss Mac Daid. Moreover, he is a very busy man. Still, Edwina is charming, and quite persuasive. So Safti elects to make time for Edwina, showing her various points of cultural interest, including the hospital and a music conservatory where famed Rajput singer of songs, Jama Singh (Lal Chand Mehra) entertains them with an old chant. The mood is mysteriously dark and foreboding, sending a sudden chill down Edwina’s back. Meanwhile, Fern has run away from home in the pouring rain to pledge her love to Ransome. He is, understandably, taken aback by her impetuosity and sends her home almost immediately. 
As the monsoon season approaches, Edwina is invited to Banerjee’s home for cocktails, along with Miss Mac Daid, Safti, Ransome and a few other locals. Alas, the evening will take a harrowing turn; an earthquake leveling Ranchipur and causing its nearby damn to collapse, decimating the village. Safti and Miss Mac Daid make it to higher ground before the bridge is washed out behind them. But Lord Esketh is doomed; caught in the raging flood waters. At the palace, the Maharani feverishly works to free her husband from fallen debris. Mortally wounded, the Maharajah is moved to more comfortable quarters. The Maharani calls upon Ransome and Safti to mobilize the rescue efforts; Safti dedicating himself at the hospital while Ransome goes in search of survivors. Mercifully, his Aunt and Rev. Smiley have been spared, taking refuge in the mission along with many children who are now orphaned by the disaster.
As plague rips through Ranchipur, Fern and Ransome’s bond of reunion is strengthened, growing into sincere love. To prove hers to Safti, Edwina enlists at the hospital. Miss Mac Daid sets an itinerary of mostly appalling tasks for Edwina to complete, certain she will fail and thus discrediting her in Safti’s eyes. Instead, Safti is disturbed by Mac Daid’s lack of compassion and has Edwina reassigned to nursing duties where she dutifully tends to the sick and the dying with never a selfish thought for herself. Even Ransome is impressed by Edwina’s newly discovered sense of duty and propriety; coming to believe she is, at last, the sort of woman who might make Safti a noble wife.
Tragically, it is not to be. For Edwina, pulling double duty at the hospital, and momentarily made forgetful with exhaustion, drinks from a contaminated glass belonging to a dying patient instead of her own, thus infecting herself with a lethal dose of the plague. A short while later, Edwina collapses while on duty, dying with Ransome, Fern and Safti at her side. Tortured by the sudden loss, Safti momentarily slips into self-despair; stirred and spurred on to assume his rightful duty as the heir apparent to the throne of Ranchipur; the movie ending with the Maharajah’s passing and Safti’s coronation.
Made in any other year, The Rains Came not only would have been nominated for Best Picture, it almost certainly would have won. Although Zanuck’s supremely entertaining disaster classic was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Cinematography and for Alfred Newman’s Original Score, the singular statuette went to Fred Sersen and Edmund H. Hansen for their special effects, beating out Buddy Gillespie’s formidable efforts on The Wizard of Oz (no small achievement). Viewed today, The Rains Came has lost none of its appeal. Perhaps most startling of all is Tyrone Power’s stoic performance as an East Indian; able to convince – or at least bamboozle – the audience in all its faux glamorization, and, in a way Richard Burton’s Safti in Fox’s 1955 remake ‘The Rains of Ranchipur’ never even comes close to achieving.
Still, it’s George Brent’s compassionate charmer who steals the show, and – to a lesser degree – Myrna Loy’s sinful cum self-sacrificing fallen woman, redeemed only to be martyred to the cause in the end. We tip our hats too to Brenda Joyce; a novice among these ripened talents, but an undeniably effervescent presence; also, Maria Ouspenskaya – an ensconced and beloved character actress and acting coach; one of Hollywood’s ‘fixtures’ who is more indelibly etched into our collective memories in a small role than most actresses have become in much bigger parts.  In the last analysis, The Rains Came is ‘boffo’ big-budget/big-time box office entertainment. It excels, as so many films from 1939 did, in telling its’ human saga. The movie’s message is potently clear and ultimately life-affirming. Try as they might – the rains cannot wash away the inevitable march of mankind. No doubt, today’s environmentalists will scoff and say, “Pity that.” Bottom line: an absolute must!
Fox Home Video’s DVD transfer is mostly marvelous. Although age-related artifacts are present, the gray scale is perfectly rendered. Solid blacks, clean whites and some very sharp contrast levels are all to the good. On the negative side, there is some light sprocket damage, noticeable in infrequent gate weave and the occasional flicker. We also have some damage in the second reel, looking faintly reminiscent of ‘Technicolor mis-registration’ if only The Rains Came were not shot in B&W!  Distracting halos suddenly appear around Fern and Tom in the scene where she skulks off to his home in the pouring rain to profess her love. It’s a brief sequence; the anomaly briefer still. Otherwise, the image is fairly refined and with a goodly amount of fine detail that will surely not displease. 
The audio has been remixed to faux stereo. I’m not a huge fan of this, since the effect is not all that impressive; sound re-channeled to come out of all the speakers instead of one, but with no ‘discrete’ channeling between sound effects, music and dialogue. Thankfully, we also get the original mono, which is more than adequate. The only other extra of merit is an interesting audio commentary by film historians, Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard. The stills gallery is little more than an excuse to slap together a handful of movie poster art and a few B&W photographs taken on set. We also get a severely worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended for content. Recommended for presentation. Now, if we could only get Fox Home Video to commit to a Blu-ray...hmmm.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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