Way back in 1939, the disaster movie genre was churning out the last of the big power movies of its era. One of the last, and technically most impressive is The Rains Came – a film that carries enough mellow-drama and disaster staples to cement its place as one of earliest e examples of how the genre would be defined. It also gives a confused but well-intended message of unification through love across borders.
The disasters faced
Water, earthquakes, floods, waves, buildings falling down, smoke inhalation from “sexy smoking”, plague, famine and camp fainting. Throw in some neighbourly hatred and casual racism and you have a 1930’s disaster movie ready to go!
The Rains Came clocks in at just over 100 minutes, which is lengthy for a film of its time but actually, now days feel quite pacey. We’re introduced to various class levels which house characters that easily pre-date any Titanic story of being trapped in society!
Tom Ransome loves brandy and soda. He is having his own drinking game in this movie and his reputation as a womanising drinker also hides his softer side as an artist that loves India. His friend Rama is the local Indian doctor and the complete opposite. A clear juxtaposition of Tom, Rama is work-focused, hungry to help and a future leader of Ranchipur. At least that is what the Maharani and Maharaja have in mind when they aren’t entertaining rich westerns with their lavish temple parties.
Tom and Rama’s lives are turned upside down when two women both arrive into their lives. Edwina, an old flame of Tom, turns up with her rich but twatish husband. She has been seduced by money and is living carefree unhappy life without spark. She is also man hungry. Whilst she initially makes a beeline for Tom to rekindle old embers, she soon turns to Rama who seems quite uninterested… or is he? Fern meanwhile is literally Rose Dawson from Titanic. A rich child feeling trapped, she has become fixated on Tom from afar and wants to run away, capture his heart or both. What could worryingly come off like a teenage crush, Fern is actually quite capable and headstrong as well as eager to idolise Tom into a man he could become whilst accepting his flaws. These two relationships will form the centrepiece of lots of back and forth glances, mood music and bizarre smoking antics.
Then… The Rains Came! Roll Credits! The problem is that the downpour comes at the same time as an Earthquake which weakens and collapses the nearby dam. Those who survive the Earthquake are immediately in peril with impending drowning. The floodwaters then continue to rise with the rain season fully underway. The main characters have to work together to survive in the chaos whilst the Maharaja is killed during the aftermath.
Those that survive the intense middle section of the movie transition into the plague and fires that follow. As polluted water brings about terrible sickness, Rama and Edwina work together in the hospitals with Miss Mac Daid to support the sick and dying. Tom and Fern work starting to rebuild Ranchipur which helps Tom get his mojo back again. The Maharani meanwhile is left to contemplate how to look after a district when it has been smashed, drenched and then burst to the ground. Who will survive to the end? Who will declare love for whom?! How many brandies will Tom neck?
Why is it worth watching?
Firstly, the film has all the disaster movie tropes. Forbidden love, romances across boundaries, big-budget spectacles and dramatic conclusions. Hollywood hadn’t done too many disaster movies at this point but clearly, the formula was taking shape here.
The Rains Came is also notable for the number of leading ladies that have stereotypical roles for the time. Myrna Loy was top-billed – almost unheard of at that time. She is also a powerful, clever and multifaceted character not afraid to get stuck in on many levels. This is also true of Fern whose character could have been so lopsided. Yes, she gets weak at the knees for her man but she is also resourceful and brave. Then there is also the Maharani who is a master at card games and world diplomacy. Outside of this, the usual woman parts are here – chasing society or being the chatty granny – but women taking charge is refreshing for this time period. The men are often the most flawed but the reason why The Rains Came works well is that all the characters are flawed. Tom is a mess but he knows it. Rama is worried he won’t be able to take action when it matters. No one is pure although I could stare into Tyrone Power’s eyes for nights on end searching for that purity!
The actual disaster shots are well-staged and still look impressive today with a huge cast and gallons of water everywhere. The fact it is in black and white I think helps the film age slower too. Ageing the film faster (but still feeling utterly modern at the same time) is the discourse between posh westerners and the people of India. Some of the lines from Lord Hesketh are gasp-worthy when he talks of Indian culture and I’m sure its a send up to make us hate him. He is the films nasty and you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Once you get passed some of the initially awkward class and race conversations early on, the film sows seeds of unification and crossing the divides. The disaster is a great leveller after all – no one is rich anymore.
The Rains Came looks expensive and expansive. The sets are great – elephants pop up from time to time! Across the 100 day shoot, a third of it was in man-made water trenches to film the post dam break scenes. They still look impressive – as does the earthquake and dam busting scenes too. It uses a lot of perspective shifts to have sets collapsing into the scene and it looks very dramatic. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it – scale models, matte painting and practical effects are better than mediocre or terrible CGI any day.
Tyrone Power (an American playing an Indian) and Maria Ouspenskaya (a Russian playing an Indian) really have a presence in their scenes and are the likeable duo but I also have a soft spot for Fern Simon who spends the entire film chasing a man twice her age, then gets in a boat and rows across a flooded village for him only for him to tell her to have a kip on his living room floor whilst he sets off with Myrna the wench! Bless…
‘Any interest he has in romance is purely biological’ Tom
‘You make him sound even more interesting…’ Edwina
Three memorable moments
- The whole earthquake/dam scene is a sensational piece of cinema.
- Tom clinging onto the statue of Queen Victoria ‘Steady on old girl!’
- The Maharani winning at cards whilst chain-smoking.
The obligatory weird moment
Whilst I found the entire Mr Das character comically misinformed and misplayed, I think, as a non-smoker, it has to be the bizarre ‘seduction by cigarette’ scene between Edwina and Tom. I couldn’t think of anything less sexy than blowing smoke all over each other. They aren’t alone though – the internet has a home for everything…
The drinking game
Every time Tom has a brandy… you have one too! Cast iron stomachs all round!
Whilst it hams it up with an overwrought score and dramatic fainting in places, high production values, a likeable cast and a multitude of problems to solve ensure The Rains Came is one of the best examples of an early era disaster movie. It has grown on me over repeated viewings to be a great moulder of the disaster movie formula and I rate it higher now than I did on my first few watch.
Rating: 4 / 5 – Excellent
If you liked The Rains Came then you may like…
- San Francisco – The other big 1930’s disaster movie – sadly with songs
- Flood! – Irwin Allen’s TV movie featuring a breaking dam
- Earthquake – The only thing missing from this movie is a plague!
This review was updated on 24/04/20 to the new ILDM review format.