It should come as no surprise to scholars of 1950s cinema that the powers at 20th Century-Fox would “pour” over their past triumphs in search of remake fodder for their new widescreen brainchild CinemaScope. Jesse James, Kiss of Death, House of Strangers, State Fair – they would all be refurbished for the rectangular format...some even in different genres, but all in garish DeLuxe Color and stereophonic sound. Perhaps the most insidious of these do-overs was the 1955 production of THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR (now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment), a retread of their enormously successful 1939 opus The Rains Came.
It's a clever choice, as it encompasses a vast canvas of horny overpaid bodies in an exotic locale, plus a big F/X finale. It also presented an op to make it pretty much on the cheap, as it seems to have utilized sets and costumes from two concurrent Fox box office “kings”: The King and I and King of the Khyber Rifles. This is underlined by the fact that many “big” action sequences are not shown, but merely discussed – the telltale sign of making a puny flick on steroids.
This is not to say that anything in this movie is second-rate, just a bit low rent. Nevertheless the immense professionalism from both sides of the camera shows, and, with luxurious second-unit location work, plus a mix of enough popular stars, some a bit long in the tooth, and rising talent...THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR, looks, like the pudding effect of its deluged terrain, i.e., My-T-Fine indeed.
The original cast was impressive – house star Tyrone Power playing the Indian doctor in love with married Caucasian Myrna Loy (borrowed from MGM) with drunken lovesick George Brent as a philosophizing architectural engineer (borrowed from Warners); the plot, from a best-selling novel by Louis Bromfield, was borrowed from everywhere else.
The remake was produced by the energetic Frank Ross. Formerly known mostly for being Jean Arthur’s spouse, he at last eclipsed his famous wife by churning out Fox’s first CinemaScope pic, The Robe, in 1953. This one celebration of perilous apparel propelled him to instant A-list status, forever making him Frank “The Man Who Gave You The Robe” Ross in subsequent trailers, posters and pressbook ballyhoo.
I've gotta surmise that even by 1939 standards the narrative must have been pretty dated; by 1955, it was downright ludicrous – perhaps the most expensive Carol Burnett sketch ever consigned to film. What bolstered the plotline was the intimation of enough kinky sex to stuff a kati roll.
The movie commences with mega-dysfunctional Lord and Lady Esketh (Michael Rennie – Fox contractee extraordinaire and, no pun, top-billed former Metro sweater girl Lana Turner) en route to India buy a stud from a Maharani. This prize fornicator is not for Turner, but of the equine variety although, from the opening scenes, this is rather unclear. Turner, you see, is the nympho gauche rich American who snagged cash-poor but titled Rennie on a whim. After a brief period of what can only be called rough trade, the two parted to go their separate ways – their relationship morphing from play-tonic to platonic. We watch with grating tension when Rennie agonizingly presses his clenched fists to his forehead, suffering alone in his Ranchipur-bound railway cabin. What makes this so frightening is that this initially appears to be the beginning of an unendurable flashback sequence; mercifully we are spared this unwanted detour and instead have the cuckolded hubby confront his spouse, spewing a barrage of unflattering epithets. Commencing with a mild diss of her having “...all the money in the world, but no heart,” this tirade quickly degenerates into major-snap territory, accusing his panting cleavage-prone wife of being a “...decadent, greedy, corrupt...” gangster-stabbing-in-the-chest killer (okay, I made that last one up) BOH (Big Ole Ho). This, it seems, is not only true, but actually, an understatement, as Lady Esketh is not only a BOH in the grandest manner of cinema be-otches, but a DBOH: a drunken big ole ho (one need only look at the original Lord Esketh to see how libidinous a destination screenwriter Merle Miller has charted; in the 1939 rendition, the Rennie part was portrayed by beloved screen bungler Nigel Bruce).
Lady Esketh’s robust Bacchanalia immediately connects her to past urge-to-merger Fred MacMurray (essaying the Brent role) as Tom Ransome, a boozy man of independent means, who has taken up residence in the upscale Indian province. MacMurray's penchant for spouting Hallmark card sentiments (the Fifties equivalent of being an intellectual) would be wrist-slashing unbearable if it wasn't for the fact that he's...well, Fred MacMurray, who, in his inimitable understated style, easily delivers the best performance in the movie.
Thankfully, MacMurray is thoroughly immersed in his over Turner period, as opposed to his Turner-over phase of yore, and now prefers the elixir pleasures of the bottle, as well as the company of padded (in every sense of the word) unnecessary old Paramount co-worker Joan Caulfield...who, we alarmingly discover, is even more of a skank than Lady Lana! Caulfield is Fern Simon, a pampered ripe-side-of-25 Southern belle who is constantly wanting to have her “...reputation ruined,” which, from what we learn, would be near impossible unless it was revealed she was in the throes of dating Rick James. Flinging herself at every cylindrical object in sight, Caulfield (best-known for playing straight to Bob Hope on-screen and horizontal to Bing Crosby off) shacks up with MacMurray – warming her bare-legged pantyless lower torso over his fireplace. More than shagging, she yearns for what every amoral 30-ish hottie craves: to return to America and devote her life to teaching children (just what she wants to teach them is discreetly never mentioned). Oy!
All of this mishegos comprises more than the first quarter of the movie – so it's virtually an “oh-yeah-he's-in-this-too” moment when the actual male lead arrives: a heavily Max Factored remarkably restrained Richard Burton as the brilliant Indian physician, Dr. Major Rama Safti.
Burton, the protege of the suspiciously-blue-eyed Maharani Eugenie Leontovich (looking like Agnes Moorehead made-up as Maria Ouspenskaya, who played the part in the ’39 version; Leontovich’s defiant ethnicity suggests that a more appropriate title might have been The Rains of Ranchipurim), is the son of untouchables (although whether this means Robert and Rosemary Stack is never made specific). He is the too-goody-goody-to-be-true savior of his people – so you know that a nanosecond after eying Turner, Dr. Burton is ready, willing and able to go all hypocritical oaf over his Hippocratic Oath. This comes to fruition when the gang decides to go on a stock footage tiger hunt (with drum-beating extras outdoors and principals on Century City exterior interiors), ending conveniently with Rennie being attacked by a stuffed FAO Schwarz feline, spectacularly thrown at him by an obvious disgruntled off-camera grip.
Burton responds in kind by burning the candle at both ends – fastidiously repairing Rennie's innards while rapaciously doing the same to Turner's. This unacceptable behavior prompts the Maharani to banish Ms. T for essentially attempting to transform Ranchipur into the worst red light district this side of Amsterdam, but not before the torrential finale wreaks havoc upon the entire cast, courtesy of the Fox Special Effects Department. This proves particularly unfortunate for Turner, who, a perennial victim of bad timing, has chosen this pivotal moment where everyone gets wet...to dry out. The treacle conclusion is worthy of a MacMurray rant and happily sends the audience out in the merry manner of a cliched James FitzPatrick travelogue.
All right, so the script isn't the greatest and the dialogue even less so, but, there's hope yet, my fellow vintage movie fans...for THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR is in no way a total loss. Director Jean Negulesco keeps things a-movin' at an even keel, and the embarrassed stars are always fun to watch (actually this is a big step up for Turner, who was being tossed turkeys like The Prodigal as exit wounds from her MGM contract). More than the Mad Magazine screenplay are the numerous additional unintentional laughs. For example, there is an hysterical moment where a smashed MacMurray utters an inflammatory critique about Turner. Burton, who FINALLY explodes in his trademark line delivery of running words into one intense sentence (“Don'teversaythataboutthewomanIlove!”); this is topped by his crazed move to lay MacMurray out. Now, to paraphrase DVD vs. Blu-Ray hype, MacMurray is approximately six times the size of Burton. To see the diminutive pigmented Welshman try to clip his adversary on the chin without the benefit of a step-stool is, to say the least, adorable. In my version (which would have instantly turned this movie into a bona fide classic), I'd have had MacMurray grab the tip of Burton's turban and spin him in whirling dervish/Looney Tune fashion through the side palace rampart. The capper appendage of Mac turning to the camera and winking would complete the sight gag of literally breaking the fourth wall. But that’s just me...
In truth, Burton is there to simply collect a paycheck; RAINS effectively checks off the number of projects remaining on his Fox contract. The only time the actor cracks a smile (as well as the entire cast, for that matter) is in the array of extensive candids, which were taken throughout the production. A reasonable impression of Burton in this movie can be attained by merely pronouncing the title, The Raynes of Raunch-i-poor in lethargic baritone.
Sadly, this isn’t helped by the fact that Burton and Turner have virtually no chemistry together, their bestial passionate encounters resembling a curious depiction of The Heimlich Maneuver. Then again, he is a doctor.
Furthermore, the only authentic moment of unscripted suspense comes when Caulfield innocently asks notorious real-life miser MacMurray for the loan of a thousand dollars. Here, in one glorious nail-biting instance, Ransome and MacMurray become one – presenting a spellbinding homonym of someone tight on hooch who’s even tighter with a buck. The horrified OMG look on MacMurray's face is brain aneurysm-terrifying.
Fox loved playing the race card – more precisely, the interracial card. While exhibited in the 1939 RAINS, this penchant for edgy coupling wasn’t fully realized until the post-war years where it flourished in near-epidemic proportions. Of course, 1950s Hollywood was progressive only to a certain extent, and, while Zanuck & Co. deserved some kudos, it should be noted that all this mingling of various cultural fluids was accomplished by white actors masquerading as purveyors of melanin persuasion: Jeanne Crain (African-American) in Pinky; Debra Paget (Native American) in Broken Arrow; Jennifer Jones (Eurasian) in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing; Rex Harrison (Overrated Miserable Bastard) in Anna and the King of Siam. Ironically, it was television that blazed a new trail in this direction – the most popular twosome in America being Lucy and Desi (ssshhhh, quiet…don’t tell anyone…besides, it doesn’t count if they’re really married).
Skin tone and makeup aside, there are the special effects themselves, which, I guess, for the 1950s, were state-of-the-art...Or not. I mean, about half of them are impressive, but the remaining fifty percent look like refugees from a Sam Katzman flick: grainy, badly-matched foreground and rear screen...way out of proportion...you know the routine...
That said, the genuine joys of this movie beautifully promote the superior home video format. Milton Krasner's lush photography masterfully photographs the picture’s lushes, and has been splendidly restored from faded DeLuxe Color neglect with 1080p crystal clarity. Ditto, Hugo Friedhofer's melodious score, excitingly presented in its original 4-track stereo tracks, is another treat, and, like all TT titles, is accessible via IST (Isolated Score Track, thus allowing filmmusic buffs to essentially have a their own copy of this rare work from the composer's canon). Personally, I'm a sucker for early CinemaScope and embryonic directional stereo...so I'm one happy camper – and, believe me, there's nothing more camper than this movie).
THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR. Color. Letterboxed [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition. Audio: 4.0 DTS-HD MA. Limited Edition of 3000 Blu-Ray. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP. $24.95.
Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].