Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Rains Came: Soggy F/X Extravaganza

The Rains Came
Fox // 1939 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated

“Their love would survive nature’s fury.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Fox delivers a shimmering transfer of The Rains Came, the first Academy Award-winner for special effects and an early template for disaster films. It would take another 30 years before this genre really caught on with moviegoers in such strikingly similar melodramas as Earthquake.

A Bit of Plot…
In Ranchipur, India, adulterous Lady Esketh (Myrna Loy, The Thin Man) longs to escape from her loveless marriage to a wealthy English businessman (Nigel Bruce, who played Dr. Watson in the classic Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone). Their arrival in Ranchipur coincides with the end of a long drought. A torrential rain soon drenches the city and rises against the dam.

Oblivious to the hardship and poverty around her, much less the monsoon, Lady Esketh considers rekindling an old romance with Tom Ransome (George Brent, Dark Victory), now living in India where he can anonymously quench his thirst for alcohol. Brent, meanwhile, is pursued by Fern Simon (Brenda Joyce, who took up the role of Jane Parker when Maureen O’Sullivan exited MGM’s Tarzan franchise), the daughter of missionaries who want her to marry into wealth. This would-be triangle turns into a ménage a quarte as Lady Esketh falls for handsome doctor Rama Safti (Tyrone Power, The Mark of Zorro). But the doctor is devoted to helping his people and views the self-absorbed Lady Esketh with disdain. Safti is also the court favorite of the maharajah and maharani (the incredible Maria Ouspenskaya, who would later play the mysterious gypsy woman in Universal’s The Wolf Man).

With these romantic plot points in play, a massive earthquake suddenly destroys Ranchipur. Thousands are killed under falling debris before the dam collapses outside the city, sending a wall of water through the streets to drown most of the remaining survivors. Lady Esketh’s husband and the maharajah are among the dead. In the wake of this tragedy, Lady Esketh begins to see the shallowness of her life and vows to help Dr. Safti care for survivors and aid the sick. As victims stagger into the hospital, stagnant flood waters trigger bubonic plague, bringing fresh misery to Ranchipur.

Historical Context and Significance
The Rains Came is essentially a soap opera with a big budget (at the time an unheard-of $2.5 million, according to film historians who supply a richly detailed commentary track on the disc). The much-ballyhooed earthquake and flood special effects occur about mid-way through the film and are easily the highlight of a long 103 minutes. But when the effects begin, the spectacle is worth the wait. The miniature and optical work hold up amazingly well today, with only occasionally noticeable matte lines surrounding the terrified extras fleeing from floodwaters that would be added months later in the printing lab. Several stunning sequences show the earth split apart in massive fissures as hundreds of people tumble like spilled marbles.

A full 20 percent of the production budget was devoted to special effects. A tank with a capacity of 55,000 gallons was constructed on the Fox backlot to flood the sets, including the maharajah’s palace and other massive structures built on 18 acres. Over the course of the 100-day shooting schedule, technicians released 33 million gallons of water to simulate heavy rains and flooding. These amazing sequences appear to be a seamless combination of miniature sets, superimposed floodwaters, and cutaways to stuntmen floundering on the backlot under a rushing wall of water at least nine feet high. Their courage and dedication are astounding.

But until the destruction begins, most of the fun in watching the picture centers on star gazing. Loy and Power make an attractive couple, while the ever-mysterious Ouspenskaya dominates every scene she’s in. Aside from the A-list cast, there’s a solid roster of contract players slogging through the Fox backlot. Among them, look for character actors Henry Travers as the Rev. Smiley and H.B. Warner as the maharajah. Both would appear seven years later in It’s a Wonderful Life, as Clarence the Angel and Mr. Gower, the druggist, respectively.

Directed by Clarence Brown (National Velvet), The Rains Came beat Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz for the premier special effects Oscar in 1939. The film was also nominated for cinematography, editing, sound, best original score, and art direction.

Screenwriters Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson eliminated most of the political intrigue and social subtext from Louis Bromfield’s best-selling novel, according to the film historians on the commentary track. While this may have helped bring the film in at a reasonable running time, all that remains are romantic entanglements that cannot adequately sustain the story. So we wait patiently for Ranchipur to be destroyed, then endure another 45 minutes of torpid romance climaxing in tragedy.

Truly, the incredible trick photography is the main selling point for adding this DVD to a collection. As drama, only die-hard fans of Myrna Loy or Tyrone Power need this picture on their shelves, as both actors would produce far better work in other films. Despite the exotic locale, the plot is trite and the characters lack dimension. It’s difficult to muster much concern for what happens to these people, even when tragedy strikes in quite spectacular ways.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The DVD itself is virtually flawless, with a clean video transfer free of annoying artifacts, and crisp audio in the original mono. A nice selection of other Fox trailers and a stills gallery round out the extra features in addition to the absorbing commentary track by film historians Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard. Slide is a former film archivist for the Library of Congress, and resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. An award-winning editor for Disney, Birchard is the author of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, Silent-era Filmmaking in Santa Barbara, and King Cowboy: Tom Mix and the Movies. His articles on Hollywood filmmakers have appeared in American Cinematographer, Statement, Film History, The Moving Image, Griffithiana, Daily Variety and Los Angeles Times Calendar. Their conversation during the film offers a rich perspective on the movie industry during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

A solid example of big-budget filmmaking at the height of the studio system, The Rains Came is an oft-overlooked picture from 1939, perhaps the greatest year for Hollywood films. Definitely worth a rental and perhaps a purchase for special effects enthusiasts.

Possibly the soggiest picture ever made, both in scenario and as a tearjerker, The Rains Came delivers sterling effects that are the, um, high-water mark of the film. Fox ought to provide an umbrella to go with the DVD.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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