FILM DISPATCH: Heavy weather

What would Linda Lorimer make of this?
What would Linda Lorimer make of this? // Creative Commons

This is the most recent piece from Patrice Bowman, who’ll be considering current issues and trawling through historical films to put together her WEEKEND blog column, “The 21st Century through a Monochrome Lens: Re-examining Older Films.” Watch Patrice’s intro video here!

Natural disasters (hi, snow!) can be downright traumatizing. So why do so many of us watch fictionalized floods, earthquakes or snowstorms in the movie theaters? Besides our primal urge to see stuff get messed up, we also want to see humans overcome their differences and change for the better in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, a lot of disaster films emphasize the catastrophe over the people. I’m pleased to say that “The Rains Came” (1939), one of the predecessors to the modern disaster flick and a film I thought of this week as our city and campus battled sheet after sheet of snow, is a competent balance of character and of spectacle.

Transported to Ranchipur, a city in British India, we find Brit Tom Ransome (George Brent), who spends most of his time either talking with Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power), a native aristocrat and doctor, or boozing. But alcohol can’t prepare him for Fern Simon (Brenda Joyce), the daughter of American missionaries visiting India. Simon wants his help so that she can escape her stifling life. But Ransome still holds a candle for Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy), the adulterous wife of Lord Albert Esketh (Nigel Bruce). In another twist, Lady Esketh wants Safti. Safti just wants his medical practice.

And then a monsoon, an earthquake and a plague happen. Yet not a single catastrophe is named after a character from “Finding Nemo.”

The crafted natural disasters of “The Rains Came,” directed by Clarence Brown, are restrained yet impressive. The flood is the most striking: Ranchipur becomes a collection of balconies and terracotta roofs peeking out above the water’s torrid surface. When disaster strikes, the black and white cinematography shines. The rest of the time, the camera restricts itself to Indo-British palaces and bungalows. It’s in these domestic scenes where the solid, if not incredible, cast carry the film.

Brent lends some comic relief to the serious proceedings. Even when his character puts down the bottle to help with disaster relief, we know that his sobriety is as authentic as Power’s Indian-ness. “When this is over,” Ransome declares, “I’m going on the biggest, longest, most magnificent binge in the history of civilization!”

Still, he and his dull romance with Simon take up too much time from what should have been Loy’s show. Loy has one of those ambiguous faces that can shift from good to bad in mere seconds. Her acting here is almost a synthesis of these two modes — she starts as a selfish woman and transforms into a self-sacrificing nurse — but the shift is too abrupt. Power has a slim role but, his nice face, calm demeanor and — sans turban — perfectly combed hair (Safti can’t let grueling hospital work and lack of sleep prevent him from looking fabulous), are good enough.

Although “The Rains Came” could teach modern disaster films a little about style-substance balance, it’s still a product of its time. A case in point is its casting of White actors as prominent non-White characters. Meanwhile,  real non-Whites are involved only as complements to the scenery. Still, I wouldn’t entirely dismiss this film as racist. The contrasting characterizations between the Indian and British (and American) characters in this film aren’t always in favor of the latter. Some of the Westerners are so pretentious and dismissive of the Indians that I sensed a faint critique of imperialism. It’s also important to note that Safti and the Indian royalty, although they receive some British help, take the initiative to help their people and bring order to their land.

While “The Rains Came” won’t join that pantheon of great films released in 1939 (“Wuthering Heights,” “The Wizard of Oz,” etc.), it deserves more attention than it’s gotten so far, for its likable characters, its controlled spectacle and its questioning of imperialism.

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