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The Rains of Ranchipur

The Rains of Ranchipur(1955)

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teaser The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)

True to its title, The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) splashes plenty of stormy skies and drenching downpours across the CinemaScope screen. The atmosphere gets heavier as the story's emotions get hotter, culminating in weather so awful it's hard to tell exactly what's going on - a monsoon or a typhoon, apparently, plus an earthquake and a flood. They all arrive at precisely the right moment to complicate the plot, expose unexpected virtues in the characters, and float the movie to a safe harbor in time for the final scene. None of this is particularly plausible, but it's good melodramatic fun, especially when the special-effects department cuts loose at the climax.

The picture is based on Louis Bromfield's popular 1937 novel The Rains Came, which Twentieth Century-Fox had filmed under Bromfield's title in 1939 with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in the leads and Clarence Brown behind the camera. To direct the 1955 version Fox appointed Jean Negulesco, a studio veteran who had revitalized his career in 1953 with How to Marry a Millionaire, the first picture shot in the studio's brand-new CinemaScope process. Since then he had helmed three more 'Scope productions, learning the format's merits (expansive scale, spatial expressiveness) and demerits (optical distortion, higher cost) as well as anyone in the business. Teaming with cinematographer Milton Krasner, another early CinemaScope convert who'd made several pictures using the process, he created a widescreen spectacular that makes up in visual oomph (thanks partly to Lahore, Pakistan, where some material was shot) what it lacks in psychological depth and narrative logic.

The best way to describe the main characters is to quote the production's coming-attractions trailer. Lana Turner plays Lady Edwina Esketh, "the American heiress who always bought what she wanted." Richard Burton plays Rama Safti, "the Hindu Untouchable," and Fred MacMurray plays Tom Ransome, "the drunken idealist." Farther down the list, Joan Caulfield plays Fern Simon, a kittenish youth "who wanted her reputation ruined." And solid, stolid Michael Rennie plays Lord Albert Esketh, the "second-class husband" who married the American heiress for her money and has regretted it ever since.

Set in a fictional principality of India, the story begins when Albert and Edwina arrive at the palace of an aging Maharani to buy some thoroughbreds and enjoy the luxuries provided by their hostess. We learn at the outset that Albert is a husband in name only, cuckolded on a regular basis by any man who happens to catch Edwina's extremely active eye. At a sumptuous dinner party given by the Maharani in their honor, Edwina is pleasantly surprised to find her old friend Tom, a talented engineer who became a cynic while serving in World War II and now devotes his life to laziness and booze.

More important, Edwina meets the Maharani's protg, Rama, a dedicated physician, former freedom fighter, and very handsome bachelor. While promiscuous Edwina and scrupulous Rama fall in love, frolicsome Fern makes a play for alcoholic Tom, figuring that if she has a trashy reputation she'll be rejected by the boring fianc her mother has picked out for her - she doesn't want marriage, she wants to go to grad school! Tom takes Fern's advances in stride, but he's much more scandalized by Edwina's adulterous love affair than Edwina's long-suffering husband is. Fueled by righteous indignation and uncountable drinks, he tries to intervene in the affair during another gala party, and that's when the film's eponymous weather kicks in. When it rains in Ranchipur it pours, leaving Edwina desperately ill - although not dead, as in the original novel and the 1939 adaptation - and ultimately bringing out the best in almost everyone.

Hollywood censorship was starting to get shaky by the middle 1950s, and Fox clearly saw The Rains of Ranchipur as a chance to push the envelope a little. The word "damn" is uttered, and Tom is building up to the word "whore" when the climactic storm erupts, cutting off his sentence in the nick of time. The vividly filmed smooching between lily-white Edwina and darker-skinned Rama is also a tad daring by the racially conservative standards of 1955. True, the actors involved are as Caucasian as can be, and Burton's makeup gives him a hue that's only a smidgen darker than MacMurray's perpetual sunburn or the slightly smoky epidermis of Eugenie Leontovich, the Russian actress who plays the Indian potentate. But the studio played up the racial angle in its publicity: "Shattering All Barriers of Race and Time!" blared the trailer, as if taboos were crumbling all around.

The film's performances are generally sound, if rarely inspired. Turner gives the self-centered heiress a suitably hard shell in the early scenes, then convincingly softens it as romance with Rama blooms, and almost makes you believe that she's finally learned her lesson near the end. Burton ably deploys his chiseled face and steely gaze, and MacMurray is his usual amiable self, although for a guy who's constantly talking about how much he drinks, Tom never seems to be even a tiny bit tipsy. Caulfield is kittenish to a fault, Leontovich is regal and chilly, and Rennie makes much-abused Albert a sympathetic character instead of a merely pathetic one.

But the most memorable elements in The Rains of Ranchipur come from Krasner's photography and Ray Kellogg's special effects. The picture's cost ended up a million dollars more than the original $3.5 million budget, and the escalation of the special-effects tab from $260,000 to $400,000 was part of the reason - a well-justified expense, since Kellogg's crew earned the picture's only Academy Award nomination. (Then again, the 1939 version won the special-effects Oscar®, and received five other nominations to boot.) Hugo Friedhofer's score also enhances the melodrama, as do Travilla's costume designs, even if Turner's off-the-shoulder gowns seem oddly risqu in the buttoned-up surroundings of an Indian province. The Rains of Ranchipur is no masterpiece - you won't find it "Bursting the Floodgates of Emotion!" as the trailer promises - but your eyes and ears should find a good deal to enjoy.

Director: Jean Negulesco
Producer: Frank Ross
Screenplay: Merle Miller; based on a novel by Louis Bromfield
Cinematographer: Milton Krasner
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler, Addison Hehr
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
With: Lana Turner (Lady Edwina Esketh), Richard Burton (Rama Safti), Fred MacMurray (Tom Ransome), Joan Caulfield (Fern Simon), Michael Rennie (Lord Albert Esketh), Eugenie Leontovich (Maharani), Gladys Hurlbut (Maude Simon), Madge Kennedy (Emily Smiley).

by David Sterritt

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