29 July 2015

A Lost Romance: The Rains Came

(THIS DISCUSSION CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS; IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THIS FILM, IT'S BETTER NOT TO KNOW AHEAD OF TIME -- THE SECTION TO AVOID IS CLEARLY MARKED.)
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.
The Maharaani
But you probably are not familiar with The Rains Came, which was seldom seen then and little-known now. Because the main story concerns an inter-racial romance.

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
Without much compunction, she sets about trying, to put it bluntly, to seduce him. All her efforts seem to have no effect; he is friendly, polite, and appears not to recognize her invitation. In a telling scene, Edwina and Rama have gone out riding, and as they return, it begins to downpour. They seek shelter in the nearest public building, which happens to be a music school. A great and respected singer happens to be practicing there, and Edwina asks Rama to translate his song. Naturally. it's a love song, and he does translate -- only to deflate her hopes by remarking, whilst looking at his watch, "A lot of sentimental nonsense, isn't it?" However, the tune becomes their love theme (though it isn't remotely Indian), and is heard in many scenes that follow.
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 now everyone's romantic problems have to be shoved aside -- because disasters are about to strike the state of Ranchipur, one after another. Amazing special effects make these huge disasters seem real. First, the seasonal monsoon rains bring on some flooding -- this is not so unusual, and nobody panics. But this is followed by major earthquake, which destroys infrastructure, homes, and, worse,  a nearby dam, so the water rises faster than ever before. Structure after structure crumbles -- and as soon as the waters recede, the population is struck by plague. To complete the misery, the beloved Maharajah is taken ill, and after a brief time to confer his powers on Rama, dies.

Naturally, Rama spends all his time at the hospital, which has sent out a desperate call for volunteers. Edwina surprises everyone -- and herself -- by signing on, and willingly spends days scrubbing floors, cleaning up medical waste, and doing anything she's asked to do. When Rama discovers her, plainly dressed, her hair bound up in a cap, and her face scrubbed clean of makeup, he realizes that he is in fact in love with her. They have no time to be together; only once do they share an embrace, and tell each other of the joy they feel.


SPOILERS

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
SPOILERS END

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
I really love this movie. For one thing, its very adult, in that it concerns problems intelligent adults face, and they try to cope with them like adults. Most of the characters are really doing their best, and if they can't always succeed, that's life, isn't it? The love between the two main characters is understandable and believable, and believably doomed -- not in a cheap, sensational way, but for higher reasons. And Edwina's change of character, which seems like a miracle to her, seems entirely believable to us. Rama's love, and honesty, and sorrow, all seem entirely real.