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The Rainmaker
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The Rainmaker

The Rainmaker began as a 1953 teleplay by N. Richard Nash. The next year, Nash turned his story into a Broadway hit, and two years after that the film version was born. It starred Katharine Hepburn as Lizzie Curry, an unhappy spinster living on a drought-stricken, 1913 Kansas farm with her father and two brothers. The only glimmer of romance comes from the town sheriff (Wendell Corey), but he is as shy as Lizzie and seems unable to make a move. Into Lizzie's life sweeps Starbuck (Burt Lancaster), a slick-talking con artist who promises the townspeople that for 100 bucks, he can make it rain. Bringing rain to the parched land, however, is merely a metaphor for the real substance of this story, in which Starbuck slowly makes Lizzie realize that she is actually a sensuous, desirable woman full of life and confidence.

Both these characters resemble other, more famous ones played by the same two stars. Lizzie Curry is in many ways another version of Jane Hudson, the character Hepburn had played to Oscar®-nominated success in the previous year's Summertime (1955). Starbuck, meanwhile, can be seen as something of a dry run for Lancaster's masterful Elmer Gantry three years later, in the movie of the same name.

The Rainmaker is the only picture in which Hepburn and Lancaster ever teamed up, and they had something of a rocky start due mainly to their opposite approaches to acting. Hepburn was the polished professional, learning her lines entirely before production began; Lancaster preferred to learn each day's script the night before shooting. When Lancaster was 25 minutes late to the set on the first day of production, Hepburn yelled at him in private. From then on, he was on time and both stars turned in excellent performances, even working hard together to revise (over the author's objections) a key scene in which Starbuck gives Lizzie her first-ever kiss. After viewing rushes of the scene, producer Hal Wallis wrote in a memo: "I never dreamed that Lancaster could be this great an actor." (The MPAA found some problems, however: some members insisted that the sequence implied that the two characters had had sex, and most felt that generally the story constituted "a glorification of illicit sex." In the end, the scene remained.)

Lancaster proved especially difficult for everyone to work with, though all agreed he was great for the part. Lancaster owed Paramount producer Wallis two more pictures on his contract, and when he heard that The Rainmaker was being turned into a film, he asked to read the script. Author Nash was quite excited to hear this, writing to Wallis, "There is no actor who combines more fully the attributes of romance, agility of mind and body and pungent sexuality. Matter of fact, I like him even better than Brando for this part. For Lancaster is more open, healthier, less turned inward upon himself." Lancaster saw that this was a plum role and told Wallis that if he could play Starbuck, he would also make for Wallis the big, crowd-pleasing western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Wallis agreed, though in the end Gunfight was filmed first and released second.

By the time he finished filming Gunfight, Lancaster decided he wasn't that crazy about The Rainmaker anymore, calling it "a bunch of crap." He was clearly nervous about working with inexperienced director Joseph Anthony, a veteran theater director making his film debut. (He had staged The Rainmaker on Broadway.) Lancaster tried to take charge on the set, ordering around the cameraman and lighting technicians much to the anger of Anthony, who had a hard time controlling the star.

"He was very difficult from the outset," recalled Anthony later. "He was anxious to get out of his contract with Hal Wallis; he was terribly antagonistic on the telephone before we met and at our first meeting; he told me, 'This play is a bunch of crap. The writer doesn't know anything about country life, or what it means to be in a drought, with the cattle starving.' I told him the drought was just a symbol of Lizzie's parched soul, but he dismissed the idea out of hand... He was not much fun to work with."

Anthony's rapport with Hepburn, on the other hand, was the total opposite: "She called me at the very outset of negotiations from Cuba [where she was living with Spencer Tracy as he filmed The Old Man and the Sea, [1958], and said how happy she was she would be working with me. I had a sense of immediate, direct, simple pleasure, and a feeling of trust in me that came over the wire."

Hepburn biographer Anne Edwards later wrote that due to Joseph Anthony's background as a dancer, "The Rainmaker took on a balletic as well as a balladic quality. Never had Kate moved so well as under Anthony's graceful direction. Her mannered movements and cracked voice were smoothed into a swell of loneliness that, when it erupts at the climax of the film, has great impact... Kate's performance was the most restrained of her career, and it gave her scenes with Lancaster, as the swaggering pitchman, a startling force."

One thing that Hepburn didn't do in playing Lizzie was to accent her voice. She had failed to convey the right accent and manners of an uneducated rural woman in an earlier film, Spitfire (1934), and evidently decided not to risk sounding strained once again.

It didn't matter. Hepburn received her seventh of twelve Best Actress Oscar® nominations, losing to Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia (1956). She would ultimately win the award four times over her career. The Rainmaker composer Alex North, meanwhile, racked up his sixth of fifteen nominations, losing to Victor Young for Around the World in 80 Days (1956). North never won an Oscar® for Best Score, instead receiving the consolation prize of an honorary Academy Award® in 1986.

Producer Hal Wallis called Katharine Hepburn his favorite of all the actresses he ever worked with, citing her "intelligence, talent, dignity, integrity, wit and humor... The most down-to-earth legend I ever met... She is an untapped mine of inner resources: never feels sorry for herself; never complains; never lonely; never at a loss for living."

Cameron Prud'Homme recreated his stage role of Lizzie's father for this film. In 1963, The Rainmaker was reworked by author Nash into a Broadway musical entitled 110 in the Shade which Joseph Anthony also directed.

Producer: Paul Nathan, Hal B. Wallis
Director: Joseph Anthony
Screenplay: N. Richard Nash
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler
Music: Alex North
Costume Design: Edith Head
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Bill Starbuck), Katharine Hepburn (Lizzie Curry), Wendell Corey (Deputy Sheriff J.S. File), Lloyd Bridges (Noah Curry), Earl Holliman (Jim Curry), Cameron Prud'Homme (H.C. Curry), Wallace Ford (Sheriff Howard Thomas).
C-122m. Letterboxed.
by Jeremy Arnold

Sources:

Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life

Minty Clinch, Burt Lancaster

Anne Edwards, A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn

Charles Higham, Kate

Alvin H. Marill, Katharine Hepburn

Hal Wallis and Charles Higham, Starmaker

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