The Rains Came is epic, in star power and in depicting the Great Disaster of Ranchipur, an event made of many calamities: there’s a massive earthquake during a dinner party, a dam burst that devastates the area, plus it’s monsoon season so the waters just keep rising around the people stranded by the flood. Then plague begins to spread, which brings in the suspense of a contagion movie, and necessitates the setting of huge fires to cleanse the contaminated areas. The movie’s sets, photography, stunts, lighting, matte and miniature work are so grand and impressive, it’s no surprise it won the first Oscar presented for special effects and earned five nominations besides, most of them in technical
This disaster movie also has engaging characters who are tested and improved–given new lives–as they fighting and/or survive cataclysmic hardships and losses. It’s a glamorous and soapy melodrama, hinging on a romantic quadrangle with a smidgen of politics and a cultural tour thrown in. Expat Tom Ransome (George Brent) is a decent but aimless and alcoholic artist, who’ll find his worth doing aid work and being worshiped by young Fern (Brenda Joyce). Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) is bored and shallow, yawns at stories of India’s poverty and beauty, and searches for happiness by flitting from one romance to another (Ransome is an old flame). Edwina will fall in “real” love for the first time, with distant, dashing doctor and future Maharaja of Ranchipur, Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power), and he in turn will discover there’s more to life than cold unsentimental science, just before he’s reminded he must choose between Edwina and his people. Self-important Lord Esketh (Nigel Bruce) keeps a tally of his wife’s lovers and mistreats his servant, who after 15 years of biting his tongue gets in one last comeback just before both are swept to their deaths (and that’s really both actors getting walloped by the giant wave). The fine cast also includes Maria Ouspenskaya, Jane Darwell, Henry Travers, H.B. Warner, Joseph Schildkraut and others, many made up to look Indian (which some pick on as the film’s least convincing effect).
The characters are nicely introduced and their relationships interlaced, before the galvanizing, leveling and cleansing force of the Great Disaster. Some, like Rama’s assistant (Mary Nash) delight in seeing the high, mighty and snobbish brought down to dependency and dangerous drudge-work, but even she softens to sympathize when Edwina proves herself capable of genuine caring and good work, and worthy of a saintly Prince’s love. Poor Edwina is the woman who must be punished for her “sins,” but in her arc Loy is one of the movie’s best special effects, whether in her romantic situations, where lighting and style is as lavish as in any of the disaster scenes, in her horrified realization that she’s just accidentally infected herself, or her stoic death scene, done with eyes open from her last look at Rama. I don’t know if Ransome’s pessimism about the world’s apparent death wish, his encouragement that Rama stay strong and be a new, enlightened leader, and his clinging to the dependable statue of Queen Victoria in the raging flood waters, were taken from the 1937 best-selling novel this film was based on, but they’re nice inspirational touches for a world facing war.
This was remade in 1955 as The Rains of Ranchipur, where Lana Turner played the Loy part she was considered for in the ’39 version.