A remake of the studio's earlier, somewhat better The Rains Came (1939), The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) was another in 20th Century-Fox's line of early CinemaScope epics, designed to showcase the process's widescreen and stereophonic splendor but with less regard for trivialities like story, pacing, and characterization. Yet, like a lot of these films made by all the big studios during 1953-1955, there's still much to like in terms of the former even if it means wading through long, turgid glops of the latter. Basically a romantic melodrama about miscegenation and Westerner decadence in India, The Rains of Ranchipur climaxes with a spectacular dam burst and flood sequence. It is, however, fatally miscast: for instance, actors with thick Welsh, Russian, and German accents play the leading Indian characters.
A Twilight Time release limited to 3,000 units and sublicensed from Fox, the Blu-ray of the film features an above average transfer with especially good 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sound adapted from the original four-track magnetic stereo tracks. Extras include an isolated track featuring Hugo Friedhofer's score, the usual good booklet essay, and a batch of trailers.
Based on Louis Bromfield's 1937 novel but here set in present day, post-colonial India, the film opens with obscenely rich, American-born Lady Edwina (Lana Turner, on loan from MGM) aboard a train bound for (the fictitious) Indian state of Ranchipur with her British cuckold husband, Lord Alan Esketh (Michael Rennie). She married him for his title even though that's done little to stop this unhappy, self-involved woman's man-eating promiscuity. He married her for her money though for years he's tried to be a loving husband, but no can no longer stomach her extreme selfishness.
In Ranchipur the couple are introduced to the local Maharani (Eugenie Leontovich) from whom they plan to buy a prized stallion. Edwina is reunited with a childhood friend (and onetime flame?), Tom Ransome (Fred MacMurray), a once promising engineer who's now a resigned, stateless alcoholic. And they meet selfless Dr. Rama Safti (Richard Burton), the child of untouchables but adopted by the Maharani and now his people's best hope for better, brighter future. Edwina sets her sights on Dr. Safti as her next sexual conquest.
Meanwhile, Tom becomes involved with Fern Simon (Joan Caulfield), the daughter of missionaries, who talks him into chaperoning her to the Maharani's big dinner party, and later she asks to borrow money from him so she can leave the country and go to school in the States. Despite their age difference, they become attracted to one another, though this disturbs heavy-drinking, self-destructive Tom.
The Rains of Ranchipur is all wet, mainly because Lana Turner's character is completely unsympathetic and uninteresting. Not only does the audience disapprove of her shenanigans, even later when she genuinely falls in love with Dr. Safti, half the audience doubts her sincerity while the other half thinks she deserves all the misery that eventually befalls her. Making matters worse is Richard Burton, egregiously miscast as the Indian doctor. Beyond the fact that Burton makes little effort to hide his clipped Welsh accent, he's not believable as the monk-like people's doctor, an innocent, vulnerable and inexperienced with the opposite sex. Richard Burton? (Admittedly, at the time he was regarded as the next Olivier more than the hell-rake he'd famously become, but still...)
Nor does the film's overripe dialogue help. Edwina's husband: "Edwina tires of people. She tires very quickly. Then she simply writes out a check." Edwina, condescendingly, to her husband, who's threatening to leave her: "How many times have you had these small flashes of courage?" Or a drunken Tom, describing Edwina at an exclusive dinner party: "I don't know what the word is in Hindi, but in English it's got one syllable!"
Interracial romance had become a popular subject in 1950s Hollywood cinema, with Broken Arrow (1950), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), The King and I (1956), Sayonara (1957), and The World of Suzie Wong (1960) being popular examples. Even low-budget films, particularly jungle pictures, dabbled in this. The Jungle (1952), which superficially resembles The Rains of Ranchipur, and which was actually shot in India (The Rains of Ranchipur was not) is similarly unimaginative in its handling of Indian-American romance.
Most such films cheated by casting white American actors in both parts, and usually ended with the death of the non-white character or at least permanent separation of the young lovers, sometimes brought about by providential disaster, thus avoiding issues of sex, marriage, and bearing mixed-race children. ("However," notes Sergei Hasenecz, "look again at the poster you included, with a clearly dark-skinned man [no matter if he's actually a white actor] kissing the blonde and pale Lana Turner. Titillation indeed and perhaps even a bold statement in 1955, when miscegenation could still get black men lynched [Emmett Till was brutally tortured and murdered that same year for supposedly flirting with a white woman] and wasn't outlawed in all 50 states until twelve years later. It helps to keep in mind this little nugget of information: Mississippi was the last state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States. They ratified it in 1995. No, that isn't a typo. Nineteen ninety-five.")
The lack of real Indians in any significant role (future Sgt. Shultz John Banner, a German, plays local official Rashid Ali Khan, for instance) adds an almost surreal air to the film, which resembles 1001 Arabian Nights more than something authentically Indian. And while a second unit went as far as Pakistan to shoot picture postcard establishing and transitional long shots, the principal actors all stand in front of process screens or on obvious backlot streets that don't really match the location footage.
Fred MacMurray, always an underrated actor, comes off best in a performance that avoids the clichés of his character, even though his dialogue is no better than anyone else's. (In one scene he rambles through a ridiculous long monologue addressed to actress Caulfield. The dialogue is extraordinarily silly but MacMurray actually sells it.) Caulfield, married at the time to the film's producer, Frank Ross, was making few films during this period but also comes off much better than Turner. Curiously, both in terms of her looks and especially her facial expressions and mannerisms Caulfield reminded me a lot of television actress Emily Rutherfurd.
The special effects for the big dam burst and tsunami-like flood that follows are variable, but considering the limitations of Bausch & Lomb's early CinemaScope lenses still pretty spectacular, this despite a "boulder" clearly seen floating in the rushing water and, in one shot, extras running in fast-motion like the Keystone Kops, presumably the result of an accidentally under-cranked take that should have been deleted.
Video & Audio
The Rains of Ranchipur looks pretty strong in high-def, especially when compared to other early, 2.55:1 CinemaScope titles. Dissolves and other opticals tend to be on the soft and grainy side, but straight cuts are relatively sharp and bright, and the money shots (of the Pakistani scenery, the big sets, the special effects) look good on large monitors. The 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (English only, with optional English SDH subtitles) is excellent and approximates the original CinemaScope sound experience quite well.
Supplements include Twilight Time's usual isolated score track, along with three trailers that pretty much look identical to me. However, also included is an original TV spot from 1955. TV spots this early seem to be extremely rare, and this one, which has no footage from the film at all, fascinates. Finally, Julie Kirgo's typically fine booklet essay admits the film is a "lesser effort" and instead focuses primarily on the career of its director, Jean Negulesco.
Not very good but still worthwhile for its spectacle and a few good performances, as well as the good video transfer and great audio, The Rains of Ranchipur is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.