The first film translation of The Rains Came - Louis Bromfield’s 1937 best-selling romance / disaster novel where the arrival of an old flame and her cuckolded husband stirs up trouble in the fictitious Indian province of Ranchipur - remains the best version, primarily due to the perfect assembly of talent which Fox gathered from its own quarters, and loan-outs from MGM - director Clarence Brown (Anna Karenina), and star Myrna Loy (The Thin Man).
From Fox’ end, the decision to use screenwriters Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Egyptian [M]) and Julien Josephson gave the production a rock-solid screenplay, bristling with witty and occasionally politically charged dialogue, and a dramatic structure vastly superior to the distilled 1955 [M] version which Fox produced in CinemaScope and colour.
According to the DVD’s excellent commentators, Bromfield’s story was originally bought by David O. Selznick, but censors objected to the proposed script. Fox’ subsequent attempt seemed tailor made for the Production Code’s allowances, even having the story’s most sexually aggressive character – Lady Edwina Esketh (Loy) - die in the end, since adultery had to receive some kind of punishment; and the unusual romance between drunkard Tom Ransome (George Brent) and ‘barely legal’ Fern Simon (Brenda Joyce) is permitted to endure because the couple are set for a proper marriage.
The script’s arc of illicit affairs and hot & bothered longings being punished or interrupted by Bromfield’s triple-threat of monsoon, earthquake, and flooding allowed the writers to work in some frank behaviour more typical of the pre-Code films made up to 1934, and Brown also snuck in sly visual gestures to insinuate who had just boffed who. (Major highlights are the unexpected seduction scene between Tom and Edwina during a thunderstorm, and Edwina’s first gaze upon “pale copper Apollo” Rama Safti (Tyrone Power) which simply and cleanly outlines her determination to bag the boy, post-haste.
The Oscar-winning disaster sequences – pretty much replicated in the ’55 version – are outstanding, but they’re on equal footing with several memorable dramatic scenes, and a wealth of small character roles (several of which were excised in the remake). Maria Ouspenskaya is surprisingly strong as the Maharani, as is Jane Darwell and a collage of veteran actors who play the mix of American and British members of a do-good mission.
Perhaps the biggest surprise – certainly when compared to the remake – is how well Power fit into the role of stoic, idealistic Safti. Not even bothering with an affected accent (the inference is that Safti was schooled in America), Power manages to avoid critical ethnic stereotyping and hold his own with pros Loy and underrated co-star Brent, and he has only one genuinely awful scene: a spastic breakdown where he crumples, recovers, and resumes his role as a community leader when Edwina’s life is almost gone.
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Loy underplays her role which ensures she’s not loathed as a black & white harlot, and Brent plays Tom as a perpetually inebriated former painter who only gains control of his moral fortitude when a plague strikes the ruined province. His relationship with Fern is also legitimized when she too matures into a responsible young adult, working as his administrative assistant in coordinating aide during the outbreak.
Tom’s drinking is somewhat played for laughs (his quick consumption of tumblers before driving is quite Wrong in today’s light), but the screenplay is filled with exceptional repartee from all parties, especially between Tom and Edwina; in her most piquant moods, Edwina brands Tom’s attraction to Fern as “calf love.”
Perhaps the most striking political commentary isn’t in Tom’s bizarre fixation on a stature of virtuous Queen Victoria and his love for her seeding the success of the colonial empire – displayed in the opening scene, and sounding like a speech designed to instill anti-fascist fervor against armed Germany, circa 1938, but at least according to the commentators is typical of Dunne’s own leanings - but little jabs at the colonization of India (and other ‘exotic’ countries) by snotty Europeans. As much as Tom seems to celebrate the virtues of the East India Company, there’s the clear display of arrogance by the so-called missionaries (bored Americans and Brits who detest any association with the natives), and the uniquely coarse characterization of Edwina’s cuckolded husband Albert (Nigel Bruce) as ‘the ugly Britisher’: intolerant, abrasive, and living in a Victorian mindset that’s wholly out of touch with 1938. Even if the political critiques are pure coincidence and / or misreads, they make The Rains Came a much more dynamic and engrossing film than the politically flat ’55 remake.
Fox’ DVD features the aforementioned commentary track, plus a trailer and stills gallery, and while a good transfer, it’s taken from a print that’s not in the best of shape. A few splices are pretty nasty, and there are two incidences where the image suffers from what may be shrinkage or water damage, making frames ripple and severely diffused. The cinematography by Arthur C. Miller (The Mark of Zorro, How Green Was My Valley) plus uncredited work by Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Dive Bomber [M]) is quite beautiful, especially the high contrast lighting which paints patterns and textures across sets.
Like other Fox Studio Classics entries, the transfer sports the original mono mix, and a bullshit stereo mix which adds heavy reverb and should be avoided, especially since Alfred Newman’s Oscar nominated score is one of his best and doesn’t deserve to sound like it’s emanating from a drainpipe.
As Fox is slowly re-issuing some of their best-selling classics on Blu-ray, Rains Came is a worthy contender for a proper restoration, with new extras – especially an isolated score track.
An underrated and forgotten classic where virtually every talent shines.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan