“The Rains Came” was Twentieth Century Fox’s biggest picture from Hollywood’s most celebrated year, 1939. It’s a remarkably effective entertainment, considering the number of things wrong with it. Tyrone Power won Harvard Lampoon’s first Worst Actor of the Year award for his performance. As the beturbaned Indian physician, Major Rama Safti, he’s better than usual — and certainly better than Richard Burton was in the unspeakable 1955 remake, “The Rains of Ranchipur.” In the second half of the picture, he’s quite good indeed — not remotely Indian, of course, but believable as a man in love.
The main trouble with “The Rains Came” is not the acting (which, with a few notable exceptions, is really quite good), but its genial racism. Certainly, every effort is made to be respectful toward the native population of the Subcontinent, but the earnest respectfulness is paradoxically (and unsurprisingly) the problem. It’s a case of the enlightened West’s gazing with bemused tolerance on these little brown heathens and their curious, benighted ways.
The Raj was still very much in effect in 1939; England was newly at war with Germany, and Hollywood studios were anxious to give favorable publicity to the British Empire. For the most part, the British are shown in a favorable light — the odious Lord Esketh (Nigel Bruce) is an anomaly, and he gets what’s coming to him good and hard — and every good Indian knows that Ranchipur would be lost without the balm of British intervention in their affairs. The screenplay, by Philip Dunne (who, during the Blacklist Era, co-founded the Committee for the First Amendment with John Huston and William Wyler) is loaded with uplifting little tributes to Western Civ. Take this exchange between Tyrone Power and George Brent (as Tom Ransome, a dipso British ex-pat artist), from the very first scene:
Power: I didn’t know that you had faith in anything, Tom.
Brent: Oh, well, that’s where you’re wrong. I’ve got faith in a lot of things. For instance, uh . . .
Power: For instance . . . ?
Brent: Well, for instance, Queen Victoria. [He points to an iron statue of the Queen standing out in the lawn.]
Power: That old statue?
Brent: To you, she’s only a statue. But to me, she’s an old friend. A living reminder of the fine and brave days before the world went to seed . . . When London Bridge did its falling down to a dance step, not to the threat of tomorrow’s bombs. When every American was a millionaire or about to be one. When people sang in Vienna. There she stands in her cast iron petticoats, unconcerned about wars, dictators and appeasement . . . as serene as ever. God bless her.
This adoration of Queen Victoria as a demi-goddess and, more especially, the veneration of her figure cast in iron, strikes me as highly ironic in a story that is so deeply concerned with conflicts between Western rationalist traditions and Oriental mysticism. The first time I heard the speech, I was reminded at once of a moment in “Jane Eyre” when the very Christian Mr Brocklehurst condemns the heroine, who in his opinion is, “worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut.” Queen Victoria is in for a rusty time of it before the waters subside, but her head never goes under for a moment.
(A quick word about George Brent: Until recently, I’ve always misjudged him as being a stolid, dull actor. I owe him an apology. He played a lot of stolid, dull characters, but he was nearly always better than the parts he played. Having looked at a lot of his work lately, I see now that he was a fine, imaginative actor, and that he handled difficult, sometimes impossible material, such as the speech quoted above, with great finesse and ease. I’ve come to have great admiration for his skill. When he was cast in an interesting role, such as the bounder Buck Cantrell in “Jezebel,” he usually stole most of the scenes he was in — but never from his leading ladies.)
Though the fictitious state of Ranchipur (located in the northwest corner of India, next door to modern Pakistan) is actually under British rule, the ancient Maharajah (H.B. Warner) and his wizened Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya) are allowed “To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks” without interference from their English puppet masters, so long as they keep the millions of ragged natives under control. Throughout the picture, we’re reminded that these two despots are, by dint of their Western leanings, more enlightened than the savages under their rule, and that they mean to drag their country out of the murky foolery of Eastern mysticism and into the blaze of Western thought and jurisprudence. Throughout the picture, little pinpricks of racism keep piercing the fabric of the story; each one of them is certainly regrettable, but they also hand me many a shame-faced chuckle. For instance, there is the case of Mr Bannerjee (Joseph Schildkraut) a Subcontinental (by way of Vienna) social climber and bon viveur, whom we first meet at a lavish party at the Maharajah’s palace, where he’s the very image of a Weimar dandy, with Macassar-slicked hair, monocle, mascara, moustaches (carefully waxed), white tie, tails and champagne dish — everything but the monkey (the de rigueur pet of the Weimar boulevardier). Mr Bannerjee says, with a curt little bow, “We flatter ourselves to be jolly well abr-r-r-reast of the times.”
When The Rains Come, Mr Schildkraut-Bannerjee turns native in einem Augenblick, as it were, and then there he is, sitting in lotus position on a verandah, naked except for his capacious diaper, and troubling the Hindoo pantheon with his bootless cries, and jabbering and chattering in an ecstasy of superstitious terror . . . It’s the most overtly racist moment in the picture, especially since it’s hard to accept it as anything but a cruel sight gag.
Even without the pro-British angle, condescension would be unavoidable because at its heart, the story concerns the love affair between Lady Edwina Esketh, a white American socialite (Myrna Loy), and an Indian doctor; the Production Code did not allow romance to exist across color barriers. As it was, the story of an adulteress pushed the Breen Office to the limits of its narrow-mindedness, and was permitted because at no point do we ever see the lovers kiss.
So what is there to like about this picture? As I mentioned, most of the acting is quite good. It’s nice to see Myrna Loy play against type (at Metro, she was invariably cast as “the perfect wife”) and it’s fun to see Nigel Bruce play a hateful son of a bitch. I don’t know if I’ve ever liked Myrna Loy more than I like her in this one, and I like Myrna Loy in just about everything, including “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which is a picture I whole-heartedly detest. “The Rains Came” is also full of beautiful cinematography. Here’s a scene that features the first onset of rain (the real rains come about twenty minutes later in the picture, and go on for a long, long time). “The Rains Came” won the first Academy Award for Special Effects (Fred Sersen and Edmund H. Hansen), which are spectacular. But I prefer the simple effects in this scene, particularly the imaginative use of light and shadow on the curtain. The director of photography was three-time Oscar winner, Arthur C. Miller. (He was nominated for this one, but lost to Gregg Toland for “Wuthering Heights.”)
The clip below is a splice of Nigel Bruce’s last two scenes. He plays Lord Esketh, the cuckolded husband of Lady Edwina; his inability to digest the curries of India have left him bedridden while his straying wife is out trying to seduce the noble surgeon played by Tyrone Power. In his hand is his tabulation of his wife’s various lovers. Esketh’s long-suffering valet, Bates, is played by veteran character actor, Herbert Evans. In the second part of the clip, which takes place when The Rains Come, you will see how Bates gets a brief moment of triumph over his hateful master before both lose their lives in the flood.
Plague follows in the wake of the earthquakes and floods. Lady Edwina goes to work in the hospital, where her devotion, selflessness and Western stoicism win the heart of “the light copper Apollo” (as Lady Edwina calls Dr Safti). But the lady is an adulteress, and no amount of heroism can mitigate the Production Code’s stringent calculation of the Wages of Sin. Consequently, I feel I am not betraying a secret to mention that Lady E. needs must contract the plague, and the lady must die of it. The news does, however, come as a shock to the good doctor, who suffers an emotional collapse when he realizes that his best efforts are not sufficient to sponge the writing from her tombstone. For reasons I don’t understand, Power plays this emotional scene without benefit of turban — he rarely looked more dashing. Once again, George Brent is on hand to remind him of his duty to Our Side against the Powers of Oriental Darkness.
Brent: Rama, this won’t do: you’ve got to get a hold of yourself.
Power: It’s no use. I can’t. We’re different. Deep down, where it matters. I’m an Indian! I can’t be calm and unemotional. I wanna tear my clothes and wail like a. . . like Bannerjee!
Brent: You’re not Bannerjee: you’re a man! You’re a doctor!
Power: I’ve failed. I can’t save her.
Brent: Rama. Rama! Rama! Listen to me. If you lose your way now, you’ll never find it again. Think of the Maharani and your duty, the Maharajah and all he planned for you. Think of the people who worship and respect you. For them you’re a symbol, something clean and courageous that’s been born in the darkness and filth that was India. You are India! The New India! Don’t betray all of us who have faith in you.
Power: [A short pause during which he runs his fingers through his silken black tresses.] I’m sorry, Tom. I’m all right now. It won’t happen again [pronounced to rhyme with a-main]. Thank you.
So well-meaning, so eloquent, so wrong! The stew of White Man’s Burden-style racism and patriotism is irresistible.
The tiny, chain-smoking Madame Maria Ospenskaya gives the most interesting performance in the picture. She was born in Tula, Russia, and was a member of Stanislavsky’s famous Moscow Art Theatre. As the Maharani, she had ample opportunity to be soft and sentimental, but she resolutely refused to take that bait. She’s wily as hell, and occasionally coy, but there’s real danger in her performance: she is decidedly not a sweet old darling. In a late scene, the Maharani is considering what to do about Lady Edwina, who has made herself invaluable to Ranchipur during the outbreak of the plague, but who is likely to undo the Maharani’s careful plans for Dr Safti: “I want to do the right thing. I’d trample her without mercy. But then, of course, I was brought up in the hills, where charity is a sign of weakness.” Few actresses could speak these lines with the simplicity and lack of irony of Maria Ouspenskaya. She made her Hollywood debut in William Wyler’s 1936 “Dodsworth,” in which she appeared as the Baroness Von Obersdorf — she was onscreen for a little less than six minutes, but was nominated for that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar (she lost to Gale Sondergaard in “Anthony Adverse” — also a debut performance). If Mme Ouspenskaya is known at all today, it is for her memorably silly turn as the old gypsy woman, Maleva, in two Wolf Man pictures (“The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”). In the late thirties and early forties, however, she appeared in several prestige pictures, including “Love Affair,” “Waterloo Bridge” and “Kings Row,” and was also a highly respected acting teacher. Respected, yes; liked, no. Mme Ouspenskaya was a White Russian through and through: she was an unapologetic autocrat and a passionate believer in the occult, a combination that proved maddening to her colleagues. By no means could she be persuaded to perform when her stars were less than favorable. She had almost daily consultations with Carroll Richter, the astrologer for the Los Angeles Times. For most of her career, she was intensely hated by nearly everyone she worked with. But there’s no escaping how effective her performances are. In 1949, she fell asleep while smoking in bed and was badly burnt. She died of a stroke three days later. She was seventy-three years old.