|Tyrone Power as Rama|
1939 saw the release of beautifully produced, exotic, and spectacular film, which featured a marvelous cast and a compelling romance between two major stars. Yet it is not at all well-known today, and the reasons are a little sad.
The movie is The Rains Came, which stars Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy (in a beautiful performance), George Brent, and a terrific supporting cast including Nigel Bruce, Jane Darwell, Maria Ouspenskaya, H.B. Warner, Henry Travers, Marjorie Rambeau, and Joseph Schildkraut. It was directed by the man who helmed many of Garbo's greatest films, Clarence Brown, and was based on a best-selling novel by Louis Bromfield, whose novels were frequently filmed with great success.
It's a little remembered fact that many of the great films of Hollywood's golden age solidified their reputations when they were shown on television from the 1950s through the 1980s. In the era of broadcast television, local franchises had their own "old movie" slot. New York's famous Million Dollar Movie, for instance, selected a (usually) high-quality film like Four Daughters, or Woman of the Year, or Stagecoach, and showed it twice each weeknight for a week. (I remember one devoted Bette Davis fan tuning in twice each night to catch the moment in Now Voyager when Charlotte appears on shipboard in her lovely new clothes.)
But this renewal of interest in movies that were considered ephemeral when they were made did not include everything -- many, in fact, probably most pre-code films were still too racy to appear on broadcast tv. And certain social issues were also unseen.
And that's why you've heard of Bachelor Mother, or Calling Dr Kildare, or Dark Victory, or Destry Rides Again, or Five Came Back, or Golden Boy, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Midnight, or Only Angels Have Wings, or Stagecoach, or Tower of London, or Young Mr Lincoln. These are all great movies released in the diamond year of 1939. And they were all mainstays of such television broadcasts as Million Dollar Movie for many years, which rightfully increased their fame.
It's also a very adult story in many other ways. There are actually two romances, two heroes -- possibly three. You first meet Tom Ransome, played with great intelligence by George Brent, who is a rather dissolute English artist who has settled in the (mythical) Indian state of Ranchipur. He is waiting for a visit from a friend, Major Rama Safti, who is not only an officer and a prince, but a dedicated doctor, as well. And he is played by Tyrone Power.
|Edwina's first glimpse of Rama|
Now we might as well stop right here and face the fact that in Hollywood in 1939, the Indian characters are all going to be played by European or American actors. That's just the way it was. For one thing, it's extremely unlikely that there were enough actual Indian actors in Hollywood -- if there were any at all. And all of the major Indian characters are indeed fully rounded people, not stereotypes; and all of the actors, who are the top character actors in Hollywood, approach them with respect and sincerity.
And there could not be a better choice for Major Safti, who is a person of great integrity and in fact the hope of his country. Power is completely convincing in showing us his sense of duty, his dedication, and his essential nobility. He is the nephew of the Maharajah, played with royal aplomb by H.B. Warner, and the Maharani, played by the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya.
The plot gets underway when a pair of British aristocrats, Lord and Lady Eskith, arrive to visit the Maharajah. Ransome is invited to a formal dinner party to welcome them at the palace, and it turns out that Lady Eskith is an old lover of his, who has married the unpleasant Lord Eskith (very well played by the usually jolly Nigel Bruce) for his wealth. Myrna Loy plays Edwina, Lady Eskith, in one of her finest performances; far from being "perfect wife" Nora Charles, she is dissatisfied, uncertain, gorgeous, and sexy as anything. She and Ransome are quite glad to see each other, and, in one of the first quite startling moments of adult sensibility, wander off alone in the palace and, pretty clearly, have a reminiscent interlude. And then, when they return to the rest of the party, she gets her first sight of Rama Safti.
This is another reason Tyrone Power was a perfect choice. Edwina is a woman of the world; it's made pretty clear that she has had several affairs since her marriage, and expects to have more. Her husband seems resentful but not particularly fond. But when she sees Rama, charming, noble, and absolutely gorgeous in traditional dress, her heart almost visibly skips a beat, and you can see why.
|Rama in court dress at the palace, playing poker with the Maharani|
|Rama translates the love song for Edwina|
And here's another unusual note for a romantic movie -- they never kiss, or even touch. There are no embraces or secluded bouts of passion. I think the studio frankly did not dare to even contemplate the idea of a white woman seriously involved with brown man, even if he's only pretending to be brown. Fortunately, however, this fits the story.
During this problematic romance, another one has been blossoming, for the teenage daughter of some local missionaries has fallen love with Tom Ransome. She's pretty, unconventional, and determined; but she makes him feel like an old roue. It's charmingly done, but frankly there isn't much suspense about how it's going to turn out.
|Amidst the disaster|
But of course it cannot be. Holding her in his arms, Rama discovers that her temperature is soaring: she has the plague.that is ravaging the population. She fades fast; and, really, she doesn't want to get well and ruin his life -- she knows he could never fulfill the hopes of his people with a European wife, especially a rather shady one. They are together, sharing a dream of a future together, when she dies very quietly. It's a lovely, striking, memorable moment. Loy is simply beautiful.
|Her last look|
Now Rama must assume his position as leader of his people; for one moment before the ceremony, he hears a faint echo of the love song; but he puts it behind him, and takes his place at the head of the procession. Now he is the Maharajah.
|The new Maharajah|