The Rains Came (1939) Directed by Clarence Brown. Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent (103 min).
A jaded socialite, Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) is startled to be reunited with an old flame (George Brent) when she visits the Indian princely state of Ranchipur with her boorish husband. Setting her romantic sights on a noble Indian doctor (Tyrone Power) a deadly monsoon disrupts life in the village forever. The special effects of earthquake and flood won an Oscar, beating out both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
There are few films in classic Hollywood about India and Indians. Rudolph Valentino played The Young Raja and Ramon Novarro a Son of India. They were likely cast because they had “exotic” backgrounds (Italian and Mexican, respectively). There were no Indian actors in Hollywood, although there were a few who kept their Anglo-Indian backgrounds a secret. There were colonialist adventure films like Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Gunga Din, and Fox’s Wee Willie Winkie with Shirley Temple, but few that viewed Indian culture seriously, as more than a background for transgressive (doomed) romance, swashbuckling and conquest.
The Rains Came was based, fairly closely, on a novel by Louis Bromfield, who in 1932 had actually lived in India, in Baroda, in the northwest part of the country, near the current border with Pakistan. His book is unusual in that it has an expansive view of the country, admiring some Indian and some Western characters, and criticizing the caste system that he saw as hobbling progress and comparing it to the class stratification common to England and the United States. He judges his characters based on their qualities, not on their ethnicities. The main characters find a freedom from stifling hierarchies in the progressive state of Ranchipur, where the Maharaja wants his people to embrace modernism without sacrificing their Indian culture. Edwina’s dedication to the community after the disaster serves as a liberating force to the society as a whole, and her sacrifice allows Major Safti to step outside his role as a doctor to assume that as leader.
Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy and George Brent
There’s something about this film that captivates me—the production design is excellent, the Indian clothes look authentic, and the atmosphere is compelling, Arthur Miller’s black and white photography with trembling shadows of lattice, bamboo slatted shades and rain are ravishing. Dashing Tyrone Power wears only a little bit of brown face as Major Safti, Edwina’s “pale copper Apollo,” and doesn’t attempt an accent. Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya is delightful as the sly, aged Maharani. Myrna Loy, who we all love for her comic roles like Nora Charles brings something otherworldly to the decadent Edwina Esketh, who we meet floating in her ethereal white evening gown, bedecked in jewels. Loy was borrowed from MGM, a trade for Tyrone Power going to that studio to star opposite Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette.
This is a movie star scrapbook photo of Myrna Loy, from right around 1939
Bromfield is a nearly forgotten figure in the 21st century, but he was a very popular author in the 20th, starting in 1924, with The Green Bay Tree. His works were often adapted for the movies. A story, “Bitter Lotus” was featured in 1936 in Cosmopolitan magazine and was later expanded to novel length. It was his most popular novel, and doubtless some of the film’s audience had already read it and would be curious to see how it was translated to the screen. Bromfield did work in Hollywood for a time, his most significant script contribution was for Brigham Young, Frontiersman; he also worked on Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Night After Night with George Raft and Mae West (although she likely wrote all her own dialogue). Bromfield was an early proponent of what we would call organic, or sustainable farming, and he owned a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, Malabar Farm, that was a working prototype of his theories. He gave it an Indian name, in homage of the time he spent on the subcontinent studying soil conservation: a statue of the Indian god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, resides in a niche above the front door. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married at his home in 1946, he was Bogart’s best man. Now owned by a foundation, it continues its owner’s original mission, with the addition of tours and other special events. For some photos taken at Malabar Farm, go to It All Came True, https://malabarfarm.org/
Because of the novel’s shocking sexuality and critique of British rule in India, it was considered unfilmable, although Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox eventually bought the rights for $52,000. Screenwriters Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson wanted to craft a story where Indians were not shown “as exotic Easterners, nor as an inferior race, but as human beings, the friends and equals of the Europeans in the story.” They wanted to contrast the evil Lord Esketh with Major Safti, who would represent progressive India (Young 224). Zanuck feared too much political content would limit the film’s release throughout the still formidable British empire, so the emphasis would remain on romance and spectacle. Director Clarence Brown collaborated with the writing team for several weeks making suggestions to add to the visual richness and sharpening the story. Looking back on his career, Brown felt he had the most creative freedom making this film at Fox, and cinematographer Miller also looked back on this film as a highlight, “I guess that in that picture I really ‘got’ my style of having shadows hard and very bright highlights indeed” (Young 228).
The film was made just as World War II began to devastate Europe and pro-British films were considered a contribution to the war effort. The Indian Office in London approved the script, as they felt it portrayed a well-run Indian state under British rule. It was shot between April and July, 1939, and premiered two weeks after Germany invaded Poland in September. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to make a film about the British in India, and not about India, itself, a decidedly different point of view than the novel. Loy relished the chance to be an imperfect wife, “I want to be wicked for a change.” Edwina seeks sexual thrills, not love, although of course the Production Code would have to rein in her amorality. “I’m pretty much the ruthless, shameful woman that Bromfield made her” Loy observed (Leider 207). Because there was so much sex outside of marriage in the book, Joseph Breen head of the Production Code Administration considered the book forbidden. The character of Edwina may have been modeled on Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last British Viceroy of India, who had a well-documented romance with future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (no secret, it’s on her Wikipedia page).
Although not as hotly contested as the casting of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, there was a fair amount of competition for the role of Edwina. Marlene Dietrich, Constance Bennett, Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, Tallulah Bankhead, Rosalind Russell and Greer Garson, among others, were all considered. The studio received almost 1000 letters on the subject of casting Lady Esketh. The structure of the story demanded that Edwina be cold and unlikable at the beginning, and Zanuck scolded the screenwriters for making her too sympathetic, “She should be a bitch and remain so up to the point of the disaster” (Lieber 208). Loy appreciated Brown’s support of her performance; he was considered to be an expert in directing female stars; he often took them aside to direct them in a whisper rather than in front of the whole company. In the novel, Edwina’s reunion with Tom Ransome (George Brent) results in their wandering away from a formal dinner party to tryst in an abandoned room in the Maharaja’s palace. In the film, this is intimated by a fade away from the sensual darkness to the downpour, and the Maharani’s adjustment of Ransome’s tie after the couple returns to the party. Immediately afterwards, Edwina is captivated by Major Safti. Her expansive sexual desires cannot be contained by conventional morality, and it’s clear in the novel that other characters as well are not constrained by the Hollywood censorship that kept sexual relationships within the confines of marriage. Fern and Ransome live together during the crisis without benefit of clergy, hinted at in the film by their bundling together during the storm. Fern was also the subject of a casting dilemma, supposedly 58 actresses tested for the part, before Brenda Joyce was selected for her first role.
This fan magazine portrait of George Brent, who played Tom Ransome, is from the same scrapbook as the photo of Power (below)
Director Clarence Brown may not be a familiar name, but he was an important director in classic Hollywood. His first passion was for the automobile, and he graduated at 19 from the University of Tennessee with a double major in mechanical and electrical engineering. But then he decided he wanted to try his hand at the movies, and in 1915 sought out his favorite director, Maurice Tourneur, and asked to work with him, staying on as his assistant for seven years. After striking out on his own, he directed distinguished silent films, like The Eagle with Rudolph Valentino and Flesh and the Devil, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. He had a talent for directing strong actresses in unconventional roles, like Norma Shearer in A Free Soul and Joan Crawford in Possessed. He understood how to convey emotion visually, which lends an intensity to the selfless love Edwina offers to Major Safti. There are wordless sequences that hark back to the visual poetry of his silent films. Zanuck may have criticized Loy’s performance, but she had the full support of Brown, and Loy and her husband were friends of Louis Bromfield, they spent weekends with him at the beach, and he encouraged her.
Loy has magnetic onscreen chemistry with Tyrone Power. She had been having some stress in her marriage, and Power was sympathetic and kind. In her autobiography she wrote, “I’m sorry to report that we weren’t lovers” (Lieber 210). She is photographed ravishingly but so is Tyrone Power, framed and lit in a way often reserved for leading ladies. We are supposed to lust after him, as well.
Here is a movie star scrapbook photo of Power, one of many in this fan’s collection.
This was a big budget picture for Fox, slotted in at over $2 million, although it came in under budget at $1.3 million. Fox sent a team to record Indian music on the subcontinent, to be incorporated into the score, but apparently never thought to shoot any authentic backgrounds. Except for some scenes in Balboa Park, it was all filmed on the back lot. There may not have been any Indian actors in Hollywood, but there were a couple of consultants for the architecture and costumes; one of them can be seen during the death scene of the Maharaja, chanting in Sanskrit. Other white actors speak American accented Hindi. One objection from the consultants was that Major Rama Safti did not have an Indian last name, which is rather puzzling. The choice was Bromfield’s. Conforming to the censorship of both American and (only coincidentally) Indian movies of the day, Major Safti does not kiss Edwina. In Hollywood, likely because of miscegenation edicts (even though Power was white). Kissing did not become common in Hindi language films until the early 2000s.
Like in the novel, the monsoon is integrated throughout the story, creating a visual and aural backdrop to the action. The film won the first Oscar for special effects. The previous year, Spawn of the North had won an honorary Oscar for a category that would not become official until 1939. Most of the effects of earthquake and flood are miniatures, but studio publicity said that for some scenes they used 10,000 gallons a minute, which was supposed to replicate 40 inches of daily rainfall. A reservoir was built to hold 100,000 gallons of water a minute and some scenes utilized 14 cameras to catch all the action. These figures are courtesy of studio publicity, and the DVD commentary, and so may be taken with a grain of salt.
Gwen Wakeling was the head of the costume department at Fox from 1933-1942. Discovered by Cecil B. DeMille, her first film was his King of Kings. In The Rains Came she designed two striking pale evening gowns for Myrna Loy, one in what looks like white silk crepe and the other in pale chiffon. Loy wears the second gown during the disaster sequence and covers it up with a paisley patterned wool shawl, acknowledging Indian textile traditions. It’s impossible to say how much input Wakeling had over the saris and sherwanis of the Indian characters, but they are beautifully done.
The remake of The Rains Came, The Rains of Ranchipur was shot in 1955, starring Lana Turner and Richard Burton. Although filmed in Cinemascope and color, and with some background scenes shot in Lahore, Pakistan, it’s far inferior to the original. The politics had changed, India was now an independent democracy, so the power of the princely state was much diminished. Shockingly, it’s much more Puritanical than the 1930s version, in spite of the emphasis being shifted to the romance of Edwina and Major Safti. So much less sex! Turner and Burton have zero chemistry (they apparently didn’t much care for one another) and Edwina remains selfish to the end. Fred MacMurray plays Tom Ransome, and makes George Brent, not the most charismatic actor, look like Henry Fonda. MacMurray is so avuncular, his romance with Fern is even creepier than the original. He certainly is completely unbelievable as Edwina’s discarded lover, if that’s what he is supposed to be in Ranchipur. Her husband is now noble and misunderstood, instead of a symbol of the decay of the British empire. Many of the supporting characters are eliminated, in part because the bench of character actors is not nearly as robust in the 1950s as the 1930s. The Indian clothes look fairly authentic (they must have done some shopping in Lahore) and Helen Rose has designed some nice outfits for Turner, especially a negligee, a jersey jumpsuit with a billowing coat crafted from a sari. It doesn’t start to rain until about halfway through the film, and the earthquake and flood are held back until the last half hour, and while it is impressive, it does appear that some footage from the earlier film has been colorized and repurposed. And is it always the same clap of thunder in every movie? After learning about the archiving of sound effects from Ben Burtt at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, I listen to movies in a new way. And there’s nothing as gorgeous as the black and white photography of the original, or the passionate yearning between Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power.
Lana Turner in a Helen Rose design for The Rains of Ranchipur
The Rains Came was released in 1939, often cited as the greatest year of the movies (although I don’t agree) yet it is not often included in the list of cinematic masterpieces from that year. I’ve certainly watched it more than Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights or Goodbye, Mr. Chips, if not as often as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Dark Victory or Ninotchka. Movie love is subjective, yet I retain a fondness for this film that I like to think is justified.
The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, Myrna Loy, The Only Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider, Cinema, Transnationalism and Colonial India by Babli Sinha, “Clarence Brown” by Oscar A Rimoldi in the August-September and October 1990 Films in Review, “Clarence Brown: A Survey of His Work” by William K. Everson in the December 1973 Films in Review, Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master by Gwenda Young, DVD commentary by Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard on the 20th Century Fox Studio Classics release, Lana: The Memories, The Myths, The Movies by Cheryl Crane and Cindy de la Haz, The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger, Tyrone Power: Gender, Genre and Image in Classical Hollywood Cinema by Gillian Kelly.