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April Showers: The Rains Came (1939)

Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May, so if it's raining, have no regrets. It isn't raining rain, you know. It's raining violets. Join us as we play in the rain this month.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: As we all know, 1939 is generally considered the greatest year in movies. However, a lot of those films are, shall we say, higher profile than the sort that we typically veer toward here at the Picture Show. However, maybe we’ve seen the error in our ways as we take a look at one of the 20th Century Fox entries in the year, The Rains Came.

The Rains Came is part soap opera, part disaster pic, and part redemption feature all seemingly divided into thirds. It’s a peculiar way to pace what is in actuality a really good film worthy of its inclusion in the canon of great films that year. The cast is crackling with greatness, especially Myrna Loy in a radiating starring role. She had apparently been craving a good meaty role having just come off Lucky Night with Robert Taylor, and about to head back in as Nora Charles in Another Thin Man. It was a busy year for her.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Even though George Brent plays the protagonist, she carries the film. In the beginning we think she is a hard-hearted gold digger, but as the film progresses we see that she is a woman of great depth. She reveals vulnerability and compassion and sensitivity. Loy has never been my favorite actress, but she knocked me out in this movie.

RB: Tyrone Power was also in a spell of lighter fare, appearing in programmers like Day-Time Wife. It’s likely not fair to say that these folks were playing against type, Loy in particular seemed to excel at any role she accepted during the various phases of her career, but their roles here are definitely different than the sort of things they were doing around this time.

SG: In a movie about Indians in India, we have a cast full of white people in brown-face. Power's makeup is the most striking, maybe because of the intensity in his eyes, or the fact that we know he is not Indian at all. Maria Ouspenskaya always had an air of the exotic about her so it is less jarring to accept her in her role as the Maharani. I read an article from the silent era complaining about Joseph Schildkraut's overacting, and I'm here to say it didn't improve with age. The scene of him praying on the porch during the flood is cringeworthy.

RB: The Oscar winning special effects are still pretty impressive today. As we’ve explored the rain theme through the month of April, we’ve seen no shortage of deluge and destruction, and I was still taken aback at the scenes in this film. I guess I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, but I thought it was all pretty great. Full scale sets are destroyed with aplomb combined with very capable model and matte shots thanks to Fox special effects wizard Fred Sersen. If you’re impressed by such things, you’ll find a lot to enjoy as entire towns and gigantic dams are taken down.

SG: Yes, I've watched enough movies like this and now I know what kinds of tricks to look for. This movie has scenes of buildings collapsing on extras, raging waters destroying houses and sweeping livestock away, rising waters coming close to engulfing whole sets. They're done almost seamlessly so you really have to look closely to find the flaws. The flood scenes were shot on sound stage 8, and the amount of water in the room combined with the lights necessary for shooting caused the room to be humid and hot, the way India would be. It is really interesting to me that the major disaster sequence happens in the middle of the movie, not as a climax. It goes from destruction and drama to something quieter and more emotional. I really enjoyed that unusual pacing.

Originally the cinematographer was Bert Glennon, a cameraman who worked in the days of early silent film and whose style was markedly soft and shadowy. Director Clarence Brown demanded a more clear, realistic style, and eventually Glennon had enough and walked off the set. He was replaced by Arthur Miller who gave the film its final look. Darryl Zanuck wasn't happy with Glennon's work either, so he was happy with the change. Miller said, "He was a perfectionist and would not accept anything that did not completely satisfy him."

RB: When this film is discussed, much is made of Myrna Loy’s role, and I am no exception. She’s smoldering and very sexy here, and I admit I found her ultimate ending to be moderately depressing, as did contemporary reviewers at the time. We often talk about “Hollywood endings”, and I suppose it’s fair to say that this film has one, but it’s also atypical in ways, yet completely satisfies the production code. If you haven’t seen the film, you’ll have to watch it yourself to find out.

SG: Interestingly, Darryl Zanuck wasn't sure he wanted Loy for the part, and she struggled in the early part of shooting to feel confident in the role. However, that changed as time went on, and in her memoirs Loy said of Brown, "When you trust a director, you'll do anything for him." There is a brilliant scene that is mostly silent when Loy is alone in the ward with her patients dying of the plague (cholera) which calls back to Brown's beginning as a major silent film director.

I started to read the best-selling novel that this film is based on. Although I am not far into it, I highly recommend it for its imagery. It is a long book but it quickly sucked me in. It was written by Louis Bromfield of Mansfield and Malabar Farm, so it has an Ohio connection. I suspect that is why the Bexley library has an old library-bound copy of the book, which is exactly the kind of novel I like to read: sturdy, well-loved, with soft worn paper edges. My suspicion is that the book is less code-friendly than the movie, and that Edwina's (Loy) rich husband isn't killed, allowing her to easily have an affair with Major Safti (Power). The interracial relationship would have been enough to shock audiences in 1939 without it also being adulterous. Surprisingly, that's not what put David O. Selznik off from buying it, but instead the criticism of the British rule of India. Darryl Zanuck bought the rights to the novel for $52,000 early in 1938.

Bromfield and Zanuck

The premiere was held at the Ohio Theater in Mansfield, Ohio, where Bromfield was born. He was a consultant on the film, and said, "This is my story and these are my characters. As a novelist I am grateful for the privilege of seeing this book come completely to life." He praised director Clarence Brown's management of the set, as there were few mishaps considering how technically complicated the movie was to make. He was not immune to the unpredictability of animals though; some of the monkeys escaped to the rafters and wouldn't come down for days.

RB: I also want to pay a little attention to Brenda Joyce, a really lovely contract actress that brings life to her role as a young woman smitten with a man twice her age. Sadly, Fox didn’t really know what to do with her, later putting her in roles with Milton Berle (in Whispering Ghosts) and co-starring with George Murphy in the anti-communism romp (you read that right) Public Deb No. 1. Before her unceremonious retirement in 1949, she had stints at Universal (Pillow of Death, Little Giant) and had eventually wound up as Jane over at RKO as the Tarzan series limped along to its death.

SG: I thought she was adorable too as Fern. She embodies the enthusiasm of youth and the longing to be loved.

RB: The only real casting misfire, I feel, is Nigel Bruce, as the stuffy prig married to philandering Loy. He’s an unlikable, pretentious boor that is nearly impossible to take seriously thanks to his later typecasting as the loveably bumbling Watson in the long running and highly regarded Sherlock Holmes series.

SG: There is a Lux Radio Theater version of the story starring George Brent as Tom, Kay Francis as Edwina, Jim Ameche and the Major, and Jean Parker as Fern. Ameche sounds similar to his brother Don, but with more of a nasal cadence, similar to Ross Alexander. I always enjoy hearing those with an alternate cast, but in this case, the movie is far superior. You just can't translate an action film to an audio-only format.

RB: All in all The Rains Came offers everything you’d expect in a Hollywood blockbuster of the day. The special effects and performances still hold up to create an entertaining popcorn movie from the very best of Hollywood. That it’s not spoken of in the same breath as other films of the year is due to no fault of its own. I had a great time with it, and will dole out a hearty four stars.

SG: This is a solid movie with quality production, acting and writing. I didn't have the strong emotional connection to The Rains Came that I usually require from a four star movie though, so I'm awarding it a respectable three stars.

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