Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Rains Came

One would assume that “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone with the Wind” took the 1939 Academy Award for Best Special Effects. But no, the winner was “The Rains Came”, a stirring drama from 20th Century Fox that mixes disaster, romance and colonialism in a most entertaining and exotic blend.

Though it stars Fox’s top male attraction, Tyrone Power, it hardly seems like a Fox production. Leading lady is Myrna Loy, on loan from M-G-M. Also on loan from M-G-M is director Clarence Brown. And George Brent too, shows up on loan from Warner Bros. More on him later.

This is one movie that really lives up to the title. The rains come. Boy, do they come. They even show up in the background of the opening credits to wonderful effect, with the credits disintegrating as if from a massive rainstorm.

Author Louis Bromfield’s “The Rains Came” topped the 1937 best seller lists for weeks and screen rights were grabbed by Fox. The rains refer to the monsoons that torment India every year.

The movie takes place in 1938 in the fictional Indian province of Ranchipur, when India was still under control of The Raj.

Tom Ransome (George Brent) is the film’s most interesting character, a somewhat dissolute painter who came to Ranchipur years ago and stayed, finding an uneasy peace with himself in Ranchipur. While he doesn’t like them, he does associate with Ranchipur’s (English) society. Ransome is invited to attend a dinner honoring the visiting Lord Esketh (Nigel Bruce) and his wife Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy). Edwina and Tom are former lovers. Edwina has had many lovers, so many that Lord Esketh keeps a running tally of them in a notebook.

For those who think Nigel Bruce parlayed his Dr. Watson character in every film regardless of genre, they are in for a revelation here. His Lord Esketh is an angry, bigoted man with a mean streak a mile wide. He’s excellent and one regrets he didn’t play more roles like this in his career.

Loy is also exceptionally good here in one of her best roles. Beautifully photographed by Arthur Miller (I think Loy rarely looked so beautiful as she does here), Edwina is, I think, a basically good person who can’t resist succumbing to her base instincts in an effort to stave off boredom and a stifling marriage to a man she despises.

She begins an affair with Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power), the local doctor and a great favorite of the ruling Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya) and the Maharajah (H.B. Warner), Major Safti is being groomed to take over the ruling of Ranchipur when the childless couple dies. Edwina is immediately attracted to this “pale Copper Apollo” and begins a scandalous affair with him. The romance threatens Rama’s position in Ranchipur.

Their affair is contrasted with that of Tom Ransome, who finds unexpected romance with young, hero-worshipping Fern Simon (18-year-old Brenda Joyce, in her film debut, channeling Lana Turner, who had tested for the part).

Amidst all this romance is criticism of The Raj, which was unusual for a film made during this period. Films like “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” (1935) and “Gunga Din” (1939) extolled the virtues of British rule, so its interesting to see the critical portrayal of the English here.

In a telling exchange of dialogue, one English woman says with the monsoon season coming, everyone leaves Ranchipur.

Ransome wryly counters, “Five million people stay behind.”

The woman, barely bats and eye and says, “The right kind of people I mean.”

It’s no wonder Ransome prefers the company of local missionaries Phoebe and Homer Smiley (Jane Darwell and Henry Travers).

Politics and romance is interrupted, alas, by natural calamities, and its here that “The Rains Came” earned its well-deserved Oscar. Not only is Ranchipur inundated by the monsoons, but a massive earthquake also hits the province. The waters have risen so much that the dam, damaged in the earthquake, breaks apart from the pressure and floods the province, killing thousands and rendering the area almost uninhabitable.

An outbreak of cholera leaves Major Safti and his loyal and love struck nurse Miss MacDaid (Mary Nash) desperately trying to quell the disease before any more deaths occur. Even former lady of leisure Edwina takes a job at the hospital scrubbing floors.

All the performances are good, but I think George Brent really shines as Tom Ransome. It may be his best performance. Not only is he playing an interesting character, but it’s almost as if he’s gleefully saying, “Let me show Warner Bros. what I’ve really got.”

The New York Times was not complimentary to Tyrone Power, saying, “Tyrone Power’s Major Safti suggests none of the intellectual austerity, the strength of character and wisdom of Mr. Bromfield’s ‘Copper Apollo.’ He is still Mr. Power – young, impetuous and charming, with all the depth of a coat of skin-dye.” Ouch.

As I noted earlier, the film won Best Special Effects Oscar and was the first official winner of that award. The year before, “Spawn of the North” won a special award for “outstanding achievement in creating special photographic and sound effects.”

For the record, the other nominees in the Best Special Effects category that year were: “Gone with the Wind”; “Only Angels Have Wings”; “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”; “Topper Takes a Trip”; “Union Pacific” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

The films Special Effects Oscar was the film’s only Academy Award, though it was also nominated in the Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography (Black and White); Best Film Editing: Best Original Score; and Best Sound Recording categories.

Fox would remake “The Rains Came” in 1955 in Cinemascope and DeLuxe Color as “The Rains of Ranchipur.” Filling in for Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent and Brenda Joyce, were, respectively, Richard Burton, Lana Turner, Fred MacMurray and Joan Caulfield. It is not as well remembered, or well regarded, as the original, though the Hugo Friedhofer score for the remake is superb.

I’m proud to be a part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association-sponsored blogathon looking at the miracle movie year of 1939. I urge readers to investigate these other blogs. There’s lots of insightful reading ahead. My sincere thanks to Rebecca of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Page at My Love of Old Hollywood for hosting the three-day event.

Sunday, May 15
It’s A Wonderful World
The Women
The Wizard of Oz
Another Thin Man
The Cat and the Canary
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
Dark Victory
Destry Rides Again
Dodge City
Five Came Back
Gone With the Wind
The Return of Dr. X

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Your Toes
http://www.classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/ The Gorilla
Q Planes
Gulliver’s Travels
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Idiot’s Delight
Golden Boy
The Light That Failed
Love Affair
Made for Each Other
The Starmaker
Only Angels Have Wings

Tuesday, May 17, 2011
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt
http://www.warren-william.com/ Magalordhttp://www.forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/ Ice Follies of 1939 http://www.myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/Midnight http://www.dawnschickflicks.blogspot.com/
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Never Say Die
Of Mice and Men
The Old Maid
Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
The Rules of the Game
We are Not Alone
The Whole Family Workshttp://www.forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/ Wuthering Heights http://www.bettesmovieblog.blogspot.com/
Watching A Year – All the Films Of 1939


Rick29 said...

Kevin, this is a stellar review of a film I haven't seen in a long time (the remake tends to be shown more often). I agree that it may be George Brent's best performance, but you're also right about Nigel Bruce in what was, for him, a real change-of-pace role. I do think Tyrone Power was miscast, but it's a hard role to pull off. You make an excellent point in highlighting the film's different attitute toward the British Empire. I definitely need to see this one again. By the way, I'm often amazed that some of the old Hollywood special effects are as impressive, in their own way, as the costly digital effects of today.

Classicfilmboy said...

Hi Kevin, You are always reviewing films I haven't seen. I'll put this one on the list -- you've really intrigued me wtih this super review. As a Myrna Loy fan, I definitely need to see this.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for this great review, and especially your observations on the criticism of the Empire versus the usual attitude in other films of the period, and your note on Nigel Bruce's transformation. I agree with Rick that the special effects of that era are sometimes very impressive.

The Lady Eve said...

Wonderful review, Kevin. "The Rains Came" is one of my absolute favorites of 1939. Great cast, dramatic story, gorgeous visually. I feel about Tyrone Power a bit like I do about Errol Flynn - they weren't the greatest thespians, but you can't take your eyes off them when they're onscreen (and don't want to). Power and lovely Myrna Loy are a pair to behold. But I agree with you that it's George Brent's solid and shaded performance that stands out.
Looking back, one has to admire the special effects artists of that era - such vision and creativity - and hard work. Great piece, Kevin.

Kevin Deany said...

I agree with everyone that the special effects in "The Rains Came" are every bit as good as what you see today. There's some flawless work on the screen. Fred Sersen was Fox's special effects guru and he's sadly underrated when one thinks of the great special effects artists of the past.

The portrayal of the British ruling class in this movie is not favorable. They're all portrayed as shallow, petty people, only concerned with themselves. If it were made today, it's likely the makers would be charged with political correctness. But maybe Louis Bromfield, and Fox, were looking ahead to the future and seeing what was on the horizon. Not too surprising that Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, the most liberal of the studio chiefs, made this. I wonder how different the film would have been, say, if it was made at M-G-M.

CFB, as a Myrna Loy fan I think you would enjoy this. She seems to be really into the role.

As a classic film fan, I've always loved it when a film has loan out performers. Watching something like "The Rains Came" and scenes featuring Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy and George Brent interacting with each other, is like watching a film from another dimension. One hadn't seen it before and it would be a one-time opportunity.

Page said...

Is it weird that when I think of Nigel Bruce I think of him carrying a fake dumb bell as Major Lacy?

As a huge fan of the Thin Man series I really was curious to see Loy in something so different. I agree that she was never more beautiful than in The Rains Came.

Although it's been at least 15 years since I've seen this film I don't recall just how fantastic the special effects are nor did I realize it won the Oscar for them. I'd like to revisit it with my focus on just that.

A beautifully done review on a top notch film.

Grand Old Movies said...

Thanks for your excellent review; you really highlight some of the ambiguity and shadings in this movie and its view of the British Raj. I can't recall Myrna Loy ever looking more gorgeous than she does here; the film also gave her an opportunity to play a brittle, dramatic, many-faceted character that she didn't seem to get at MGM (not that I have anything against her wonderful, iconic Nora, but it's great to see other aspects of her talent). I agree w/the Lady Eve about Tyrone Power and Erroll Flynn; poor Tyrone really was a serious actor, but everyone always reacted first to his looks. It would be interesting to compare this film with David Lean's Passage to India and its look at the colonial British.

ClassicBecky said...

Outstanding piece, Kevin! The Rains Came is a superb movie that was undercut by the ridiculous remake with Richard Burton in a turban - sad. The funniest dirty joke I know includes a reference to The Rains of Ranchipur, a silly name if I ever heard one!

Your critique is very good. I agree that George Brent does one of his best performances here. Power is gorgeous, but Brent is handsome too, and perfect in the part. I envy Myrna Loy's character -- just goes to show that "succumbing" to baser instincts" can be fun!

What a great cast. And I am one who was glad to see the snobbish, bigoted British get a comeuppance on film.

Many thanks for your very special contribution to the blogathon, Kevin! It is great!

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. I like Power a lot, as readers of this blog know. I know he wasn't taken seriously as an actor, and "The Rains Came" is hardly his best work. But the role calls for a sincere, handsome surgeon and Power fits the bill nicely.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, an outstanding post. How have I never seen this movie? Probably because TCM rarely shows movies made by 20th Century-Fox. The cast sounds fantastic. From your well-chosen photos, I can see what you mean about the wonderful and lovely Myrna Loy never looking better. The most surprising thing you say about the movie is that George Brent gives the best performance. I always think of him as such a pill, playing all those thankless parts at Warners. And your comments about Nigel "Dr. Watson" Bruce make his performance sound most intriguing. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening post.

Caftan Woman said...

What a cast! Your interesting article has me very intrigued to see this picture. George Brent gets a lot of gaff in some quarters, but I always look forward to seeing him.

As I recall Myrna Loy's autobiography, she was pleased with the role, and was quite fond of Tyrone Power.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D, and Caftan Woman, I do hope you get to a chance to see the movie one day. I think you would enjoy it.

C.W., thank you for the reminder about the Myrna Loy autobiography. I have that on my shelf and I was going to reference it when writing the blog. Alas, I was a bit under the weather when I wrote it and it slipped my mind.

That is a fabulous book though, isn't it? One of my all-time favorite movie star autobiographies.

Moira Finnie said...

Great review, Kevin!

I love Nigel Bruce's nasty aristocrat (and the scene when he gets his just desserts). It would have been intriguing if he could have been a malefactor more often, but typecasting was pretty powerful then and now. I wonder if Nigel may have consciously avoided similar dark characters after witnessing his friend and co-star's experience as a baddie? Basil Rathbone, who capably played villains as well as heroes, eventually felt that--other than being Sherlock--he was only being cast in roles as sophisticated miscreants. Besides, Bruce's persona exuded a teddy bear warmth so naturally, I suspect that he may have loathed Lord Esketh as much as the rest of us. My only regret for Nigel's career was that he had to play Watson as dumb but lovable and that he died relatively young at 58, thanks in part, I've read, to old WWI wounds.

I also concur completely--Myrna Loy never looked quite so gorgeous at MGM. And when Arthur Miller photographed her feverish face on a pillow, she was really breathtaking. Only in studio era movies could someone look so good when succumbing to something as nasty as cholera. ;-)

Maybe I'm sort of weird, but there were moments when I thought that Maria Ouspenskaya's wise and quite worldly Maharani had her eye on Tyrone Power for more than his medical skills and future figurehead potential. I particularly liked the moment near the end when Power is waiting to go to his coronation as the next Majarajah. "What is it?" the Maharanee (Ouspenskaya) asks the splendidly dressed young man just before he goes out to meet his worshipful people and his fate. "What do you hear?" she asks.

"Nothing, your Highness, only a song," replies Tyrone Power, with a faraway look in his eye, no doubt thinking of his lost love, Lady Esketha.

I suppose Ty was just eye candy in this movie instead of a real human being, but I still liked him and thought that there was considerable heat generated between Loy and his character. His vaguely zen-like, "wisdom of the east" portrayal almost seemed to be an initial sketch for his more ethereal moments of transcendence as Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge (1946). I remember that in her autobiography, Myrna Loy described Tyrone Power as "A lovely gentleman with a great quality of imagination," and found him to be a bit of a dreamer, even out of character.

My favorite "special effects" scene: when George Brent clings to the old girl Queen Victoria for dear life.

Reading your review was as enjoyable as seeing this movie again. Thank you for your superb capacity for descriptive and critical analysis. (Btw, I loathed the remake, though now you're going to "make me" watch it again sometime just to hear the Friedhofer score).

Laura said...

Kevin, I thoroughly enjoyed this review -- as well as the wonderful discussion it generated in the comments. I picked up this Fox DVD but haven't yet seen it, although it stars three favorites of mine in Power, Loy, and Brent -- really a unique blending of star power from three studios! The more I see of Brent, the more I have come to think he's been unfairly underrated over the years -- and so I was intrigued by your description of the strength of his performances.

I will bump this up in my viewing stack. Thanks again for a most enjoyable post.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Kevin, you sound like a fascinating man. I live in Chicago, too. I heard that you recently recommended "The Rains Came" - your opinions are famous in Illinois. I'm going to watch it and let you know. -Your Secret Admirer

Kevin Deany said...

Always glad to have a secret admirer. Hope you enjoy the movie.