Monday 2 March 2009

The Rains Came (1939)

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power and George Brent

And still the films from 1939 keep coming and this one's yet another Oscar winner too. Sometimes it seems that every film released in 1939 either won an Oscar, was only nominated for Oscar or was absolutely cheated out of both nomination and win because it was Hollywood's greatest year, yaddah yaddah yaddah. This fits the first two categories: it garnered one win and five nominations, but none of them were in the major categories. It won for special effects and was nominated for art direction, editing, cinematography, music and sound. That would appear to be surprising, given the cast involved here.

We meet George Brent first. He's a painter called Tom Ransome, though a languid one who's spent seven years sitting on his porch in the Indian state of Ranchipur instead of finishing his painting of the Maharajah he's been commissioned to complete. He's a real person though, grounded and decent, however much his reputation talks of women and drink. He's also the link between the many other people that we meet in the story. He knows everyone, it seems, even those who arrive as guests.

We meet a whole host of characters, of the varied sort you might expect to meet in 1938 India if you keep away from most of the locals, which is what most foreigners somehow managed to do. A young Tyrone Power is an Sikh major and dedicated surgeon called Rama Safti. Marjorie Rambeau plays an inveterate snob of a missionary trying to hang out with the important people, utterly ignore the lesser people and palm her daughter off on Ransome. Brenda Joyce is that minx of a daughter, who just wants out to see the world and falls for him, possibly just to achieve that end. To Henry Travers and Jane Darwell are a down to earth priest and his wife who run the missionary school.

Before long we end up at the Sish Mahal palace which some of these characters would die to get into and to which others just get invited. However those wannabees would be shocked at how free of snobbery the place is. Here's where we (and Tom Ransome) meet Lord and Lady Esketh, a fascinating pairing of Myrna Loy with Nigel Bruce. Lord Esketh is an unpleasant coward and his Lady is happy to sleep with anyone she can find as long as it isn't him. Best of all are the Maharajah and Maharani, who are joyous characters, as you might expect given the actors playing them: H B Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya. Her potent Russian accent is utterly out of place in an Indian palace but other than that she's a joy.

And around these characters weaves a melodramatic story that isn't worth a heck of a lot. While Fern Simon throws herself at Tom Ransome, his old flame, now Lady Esketh, throws herself at Major Safti. His Lordship is ill, but still keeping a track of who she may be sleeping with. And none of this matters at all. Luckily there's that Oscar win for special effects, which we wonder about for a while and then realise it was utterly earned. We don't just have plenty of rain, once it arrives, but an earthquake to boot, one that takes out the dam that sits conveniently just above the town, thus causing a major flood. Plague isn't far behind and fire too. The destruction is massive and the loss of life great and Mother Nature quickly and ably shows us how small all the people are in this film. The question of course is whether those small people realise it too, which generally they do.

The story isn't far off being a waste of time but somehow it draws us in. Mostly I think it's because the acting is solid if not spectacular. After all the spectacle here belongs to the work of Nature and the special effects team and there's not much room left for scene stealing. Myrna Loy is the biggest name and she does an excellent job in a role that is notably unlike her usual parts. She's a good person, but one who doesn't find her true self until circumstances force her into it. This is my fiftieth Myrna Loy and I don't recall ever seeing her act with her body as much as she does here.

Tyrone Power is a decent Rama Safti but he fades into the background a little too easily. George Brent, as the glue between everything here, is superb. He was always great at flouting convention without offering disrespect and that's a fine line to walk. He walks it well throughout this film. Brenda Joyce is as doe eyed as she's supposed to be and it's the character that's frequently annoying rather than the actress. Nigel Bruce could always bluster with the best of them but does so with a notably nasty streak here. I think it's Maria Ouspenkaya who will stay with me most though, even though her accent is utterly wrong. She plays an intelligent and principled woman with power, concern and decency. She wields her authority wonderfully.

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