Although Twentieth Century-Fox had already released a substantive amount of CinemaScope productions since the widescreen format’s debut in 1953, the studio still showed a certain reliance on the charisma of stars and exotic locations to sell the films, especially when the screenplays were a little undercooked.
The Rains of Ranchipur feels like a high concept production, especially when compared to Fox’ first version of Louis Bromfield’s novel, The Rains Came, which starred Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, and George Brent in 1939 [M]. Instead of revising Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson’s screenplay, a new script was banged out by newcomer / novice screenwriter Merle Miller (Kings Go Forth), with the volume of characters considerably condensed, a few main characters radically altered, and illicit behaviour toned down.
The core story remains the same: Lady Edwina Esketh (Lana Turner) and her husband Albert, a man of wealth and convenience (Michael Rennie), travel to Ranchipur, India. Edwina immediately decides to seduce the attractive Indian doctor Rama Safti (Richard Burton, colored in Indian Bronze Paint No. 12), a man with an important position among the state’s elite upper class. Edwina and Safti also share a best friend – drunkard Tom Ransome (Fred MacMurray), who also resides in Ranchipur and is being unexpectedly courted by young ingénue Fern Simon (Joan Calfield).
After waiting for the monsoon rains to bring water and save crops and livestock, the storm’s sudden arrival brings a surge of destruction in the form of earth tremors which crack a nearby dam and flood the valley. With most of the infrastructure nearly destroyed, jealousies and illicit love are put on pause in order for the leads to save lives.
More than the 1939 film, Ranchipur contains all the key ingredients of a modern disaster film: characters of disparate social standing and cultural backgrounds converge in a wondrous natural locale or in technologically advanced building or vehicle, and a natural disaster brings out the best and worst in people, with lost lives including those noble and ignoble before calm returns, resetting everyone’s moral compass, and offering fresh hope for formerly ruined, strained, tarnished or unexpected relationships.
Whereas the 1939 film included two subplots – Safti is being groomed to succeed the childless rulers of Ranchipur; and a plague outbreak motivates Edwina to humble herself and ultimately sacrifice her life for the benefit of Safti’s imminent position as ruler of his province – the remake wholly sticks to the on / off, back and forth romances of the main characters, with significant changes.
In the ’39 version Edwina’s husband Albert is an arrogant English shit, but Michael Rennie turns him into a long-suffering husband who secretly loves Edwina and bears her incessant affairs with whomever catches her eyes in a new province or country. Ennie’s also stuck playing another archetypical wounded soul that Fox kept sticking to the actor when he could play a much broader range of characters, and unlike the ’39 film, Albert isn’t killed off halfway into the picture; in the revised film, Albert enjoys a second chance with Edwina in the ‘all’s well that ends well’ finale. The problem with this revision is Albert literally disappears from the film for a huge chunk of time before reappearing in a hospital ward; even upon his return, writer Miller doesn’t have anything for the character, so Rennie stands around and follows other characters without adding anything significant to the scenes.
Edwina is essentially a temptress, but instead of succumbing to a tragic finale, she’s accepts a second chance with Albert. It’s a very fifties wrap-up because it remains true to the ensconced Production Code: the complete disallowance of an affair blossoming into a fully sanctioned relationship meant Edwina would either have to die, Albert would have to die, or Safti would have to die to ensure her romance wouldn’t succeed. The solution is a phony ‘all’s well that ends well’ wrap-up where Safti chooses destiny over love, and Edwina returns to Albert and attempts a reconciliation.
END OF SPOILERS
Like a standard disaster film, there’s always more than one romance, and the oddball relationship between drunkard Tom and waifish Fern offers some teasing behaviour between a young woman and an older man, but without the plague subplot from the ’39 film, there’s no event that forces Fern to take on adult responsabilities, nor Tom to reform himself, so their potential romance is just a tease for audiences.
The ruling Maharani is more distrusting of Edwina in the ’55 version, and she’s already a widow instead of losing her husband to an illness halfway through the film. She’s also more of a protective den mother than ruler, whereas the plague subplot in the prior film displays her snap ability to coordinate her administrators and handle the disaster relief with decisiveness.
Colour, stereophonic sound, and Oscar-nominated special effects are the real stars in Ranchipur, and Miller’s script is just tedious moments of romantic interludes. There’s also none of the sly, wry humour in the ’39 version: original Tom makes repeat self-deprecating remarks and is pickled in booze for the film’s two-thirds, whereas the new Tom drinks to dull his self-hatred that seems to stem from being secretly in love with ex-flame Edwina. Miller’s dialogue is flat and clichéd, and the characterization of Edwina is particularly grating because she’s a classic fifties archetype of a woman pushed to incessant wimpering when her emotions ‘go wild.’ Myrna Loy’s interpretation makes Edwina a classic thirties dame who can defend herself with wit, take emotional punches and stand up again without the aide of a man’s ‘sturdy’ hand. It’s an amazing devolution of a female character who ought to be able to fight instead of crumple in the arms of whatever man’s nearby.
Director Jean Negulesco managed to reign in Richard Burton’s theatrical style, but there are scenes where the actor stands blank-faced, either showing his character in some bizarre catatonic state, or overcome with an emotional shock that requires slow, tedious processing. Burton’s prolonged frozen visage looks ludicrous, and makes the affected scenes unintentionally amusing.
Like the ’39 version, the casting seemed to mandate using German or European actors as Indians, perhaps because their accents sounded sufficiently exotic to most audiences, hence Eugenie Leontonovich as the Maharani, and John Banner (Schultz from TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) as police chief Lachmaania. The best performance belongs to neither stars nor character actors, but former model Joan Caulfield, precisely because her character is allowed to sway between more diverse emotions, and she has a sense of humour – a quality lacking in everyone else.
Negulesco’s direction is slick, but with a script lacking much depth, the film could arguably have been directed by any of Fox’ directors. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is lush and romantic, and he smartly avoids crafting pseudo-Indian sounds in favour of a more sophisticated score with subtle hints of the culture; it’s also another example of the composer’s complex writing style which can function in any time period and location.
Unlike the ’39 film where thunderclaps and spastic rainfalls hint of the imminent storm, the remake brings the whole mass of chaos at once, although the actual disaster sequence runs longer in the ’55 version. Fox’ team of special effects whizzes did a marvelous job of compositing complex opticals, making the destruction of the city and smothering of its people very convincing. It’s the film’s raison d’etre, with most of the danger scenes lifted and marginally expanded from the ’39 film, including the ground breaking apart, the dam’s cracking and flooding, and crowds hurrying across a flooding bridge. (The studio in fact used the same bridge.) In 2013, the effects still hold their own, and the optical seams between effects, miniatures, and footage with actors are less glaring in HD compared to later films, such as Fox’ far pricier dud Damnation Alley (1977).
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are mostly dedicated to director Negulesco, a genuine talent with film noirs, dramas, social critiques, and CinemaScope extravaganzas in his C.V., and she makes a strong case for his later Fox films which were / are often marginalized by critics because of the films’ populist stories and emphasis on colour and composition. Negulesco always worked with the best talent, but few of his ‘scope films have a brooding darkness or edginess, and perhaps Negulesco felt colour and the wide 2.55:1 (later 2.35:1) ratio was more interesting that revisiting the grimy tones of his forties work.
Being a former painter, ‘scope and Color by Deluxe gave him the biggest palette onto which he could compose every kind of elegant moving image, with full stereophonic sound. Ranchipur isn’t one of his best works, and he strangely revisited (or was perhaps cajoled several times by the studio) the template of three women experiences romantic adventures one too often, but then a huge chunk of his work remains unavailable on home video.
His populist work – How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and The Best of Everything (1959) – discolour his broad directorial career, so perhaps Twilight Time’s future releases will dig into some of his long unavailable work.
TT’s Blu-ray features a lovely HD transfer with booming surround sound, and an alternate music-only track featuring the surviving mono dupes of Friedhofer’s excellent score. (The handful of undamaged stereo tracks are available on CD.) Also included are both theatrical and rare TV spots, of which the latter example includes not teaser footage of the film, but a weirdly dated animated sequence of actor heads on floating celestial stars – perhaps a sign Fox’ marketing department felt only paying cinema audiences deserved to see real trailers.
Other adaptations of Louis Bromfield works include One Heavenly Night (1931), 24 Hours (1931), Night After Night (1932), A Modern Hero (1934), The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), It All Came True (1940), Johnny Come Lately (1943), and Mrs. Parkington (1944). He also co-wrote Brigham Young (1940) with Fox’ in-house ace Lamar Trotti.
Michael Rennie’s status at Fox seemed to slide in the coming years, and in spite of major roles in Island in the Sun and Omar Kayyam (both 1957), he slowly moved into TV, with Irwin Allen’s cardboard version of The Lost World (1960) being his last film for Fox.
Joan Caulfield similarly moved into TV, eventually starring in the series Sally (1957-1958), while her husband Frank Ross – the furiously determined producer of The Robe [M] (1953) and Kings Go Forth (1958) directed Caulfield in the 1951 comedy The Lady Says No (1951).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan