‘The Rains Came’ Reigns Supreme

review by Trevor Talbott

The Rains Came added to a stellar year of motion pictures, easily holding its own among its 1939 rivals, the better-known films Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of OzThe Rains Came offers a more old-fashioned looking epic film experience than its in-colour contemporaries, with its crisp black and white images, pipe-cleaner-thin mustaches, and the extravagance of dinner parties attended by men wearing white tie and tails, and women wearing red-carpet-worthy evening gowns.  Featuring an all-star cast, including Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power, and George Brent, this “prestige picture”, as the studios refer to them, shows that even though MGM dominated the box office in 1939, the folks at 20th Century Fox were capable of releasing an epic picture of their own, strong enough to rival the winds, witches, and wizard of their competition.

Based on the 1937 novel by Louis Bromfield, and directed by Clarence Brown (Anna Karenina, National Velvet), The Rains Came boasts lavish costumes, stunning sets, and dazzling special effects (for which it won the first ever Academy Award in that category).  Highlighting the film are the striking cinematography by the renowned Arthur C. Miller (Little Miss Broadway, How Green Was My Valley, The Mark of Zorro) and the strong performances given by all.  The film’s music is expertly handled by legendary composer Alfred Newman, who composed the scores for many cinematic masterpieces, including Wuthering Heights, How Green Was My Valley, and All About Eve.  He is also notable for being the man behind the musical flourish that accompanies 20th Century Fox’s opening logo.  Newman’s score both underpins the romance of the movie and the danger, unobtrusively adding to the feelings I had while swept away by the impressive visuals.  The mark of a good score.

The film is set in India, in the fictional city of Ranchipur, and starts off like a romantic comedy, then, in its second act, turns into an epic disaster film worthy of today’s world.  The plot focuses on Thomas Ransome (Brent), also known as Tom, a charming drunkard and layabout, who has stalled as artist in favour of day-drinking and enjoying the nightlife of India.  These pursuits have garnered him an unfavourable reputation among some of the town’s upper-class Britons.

We see the first glimmer of romance at an afternoon get-together when Tom is pulled aside by the daughter of a missionary.  This young woman, Fern (Brenda Joyce in her first film role), takes a romantic interest in him, spurred on by his devilish reputation.  Fern sees Tom as her saviour, a white knight capable of taking her away from the life she despises in India.  Fern dreams of being an actress, and asks for Tom’s help in escaping the doldrums of missionary life to pursue a career on the stage.

Tom rebuffs Fern’s advances at first, seeing her as a child, but Joyce is beautiful and quite becoming in her star-marking role as the young ingénue, and this left me wondering why he would not be interested in her.  It quickly becomes apparent that Tom’s more worldly experience is far beyond the young and doe-eyed innocent.

Brenda Joyce in her first film role (Credit:  20th Century Fox.)

Tom’s attention ends up being pulled in another direction, after receiving an invitation to the maharaja’s palace, where he encounters his former love, now Lady Edwina Esketh, played by Loy.  Since Tom has last seen her, Edwina has married the old and miserable Lord Esketh (Nigel Bruce, playing against his usual lovable character type) and taken on an unhappy life of aristocratic leisure.  (Audiences will recognize Bruce as Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in the long-running film series.)  Sparks seem to be rekindled between Tom and Edwina after the rains of India’s monsoon season arrive, which causes a power outage in the palace.  However, at the next event, Edwina takes an interest in a Hindu surgeon, Major Safti, played by Power.  Edwina’s interest in another man seems to be setting up a love triangle—or rectangle—between Tom, Fern, herself, and Safti.  However, Tom makes it clear he is no longer interested in her and she begins her pursuit of Safti, while her husband lies sick in bed.

We feel for Edwina, since her husband is a miserable old codger who abuses his staff and only thinks about money and enriching himself.  So, in spite of her pursuit of two other men in the film, Edwina comes off as more damaged and lonely than conniving.  Loy plays the part with the sour sting of a cup full of vinegar, making it clear if Tom wants happiness with either of his two romantic choices, he would be far better off with the sweet and adoring Fern.

Despite being top-billed in the movie, Power takes a backseat to Brent’s charming cad of a character, making him seem like more of a supporting character than a star.  Power is compelling to watch, fueled in large part by his captivating good looks, but Brent takes the lead as the more dominant and layered character.  I also found myself more drawn to Joyce than Loy, making me long for the scenes with Brent and Joyce over the ones with Loy and Power.  It should also be pointed out that although Power does not look strongly Hindu, especially without his turban, he still pulls off the look of a light-skinned Hindu man believably enough with his dark features that he does not feel culturally out of place.

Tyrone Power (l) and George Brent  (Credit:  20th Century Fox)

The movie seems to split off into two separate love stories, one between Tom and Fern, and the other between Edwina and Safti.  However, romance, hedonism, and drunken debauchery take a backseat after an earthquake strikes, changing the paths of all involved.

The film is beautifully shot in black and white (thanks to Miller’s photography), with stark contrasts between the light and dark colours of the scenes, making it look like a sharply inked woodcut print or the crisp lines of an ink blot test.  The contrast of lights and darks would make Felix the Cat envious.  Every scene is warmly bathed in light, which either serves to show the heat of day or the soft romance of the evenings.  The crispness of the raindrops popping out on screen not only made me appreciate their look, but almost feel the cold, wet droplets pelting my skin.

Costumes, by Gwen Wakeling (How Green Was My Valley, This Above All, Weekend In Havana), are lavish and elegant, with actors and extras alike dressed in white tie and tails, military dress uniforms adorned with medals, pith helmets and British kaki desert fatigues, or opulent Indian turbans and robes, dripping with jewels.

The sets and exotic locales made me believe they were actually in India, and not merely a backlot on the studios of 20th Century Fox.  From the simple structures of Tom’s bohemian home and the quaintness of the mission, to the extravagant excess of the Indian palace, with its marble pillars and carved window shutters, every set highlighted both the beauty of the locations, as well as the disparity between wealth and poverty.

I was amazed by the special effects of the movie.  Starting with the opening credits, which wash away down the screen, as if temporary window paint being rinsed off the glass by the falling water, I was taken in by a well-done visual effect I had not seen before.  The opening credits also set the stage for the rest of the film, acting as an ominous precursor for things to come.

The effects get substantially more staggering from there.  When the rains finally come, putting an end to the heat you can feel, the rain effect itself creates a dazzling spectacle.  Coming down in large sheet-like droplets, visible at night in the black and white film, the rain starts then doesn’t stop for days.  The rain is ever-present, acting like its own character, outside the window of every scene, adding to the intimacy of the characters, warm and dry inside, as it thunders on the rooftops of every structure and spatters on the ground in a pattering rhythm.  The rain pours from the sky in a torrential downpour, turning the grounds outside to mud and slop, and pools in the streets, creating troughs and wakes as vehicles’ tyres cut through the water.

The special effects of the film’s earthquake and subsequent flood are incredible, well-deserving of the Academy Award.  Buildings collapse around people, and on people, as water washes in from the enormous dam which bursts.  Extras and actors disappear under debris or crashing waves, buried in rubble or washed away by the horrific tidal wave of water, making me wonder in awe how the film’s crew achieved such realism.

Once the epic level of disaster subsides, the entire town is flooded so badly that the water level is up to the porches of houses, requiring rowboats to get around.  The deluge of flowing water inundates the street in front of Tom’s house to such an extent that Tom’s rowboat is swept under, plunging him into the fast moving current, which he has to fight in order to swim back to his house.  Another effect I wondered how they managed to achieve.

After the earthquake and flood (Credit:  20th Century Fox)

The epic flood turns to disease and death as the characters are required to care for the sick and injured.  This is where the lion’s share of the acting comes into the film, as the two most selfish characters, Tom and Edwina, repent their ways in order to help those in need.  Working in the hospital wards takes a substantial toll on Safti and Edwina, each of them exhausted and worn down by the endless suffering.  Tom helps stabilize Safti, encouraging him to keep it together, and in spite of Tom shedding his carefree ways, he manages to remain the one happy-go-lucky character, mostly undamaged by the destruction.

Power and Loy (Credit:  20th Century Fox)

All in all, The Rains Came is a terrific picture.  Chock full of romance, larger-than-life disaster, adventure, tragedy, and love, this film shows us what old ways must die for new ways to take hold.  The Rains Came might be overshadowed in a year of great cinema, but it is every bit as epic as its competitors and well worth a look.  Anyone in the mood for an ambitious summer blockbuster film full of love, adventure, pathos, beauty, and amazing special effects should surely check out The Rains Came