Thursday, May 26, 2011

Richard Burton and Lana Turner in “The Rains of Ranchipur” (1955)

Because Richard Burton is my favorite actor, and I have committed myself to the goal of seeing as many of his movies as I possibly can, I have seen many terrible movies. “The Rains of Ranchipur” is one of them. Set in India, and released in 1955, it was not a hit at the time. It was a remake of 1939’s “The Rains Came,” starring Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy. So why remake a movie that was only 16 years old? Good question. I have no idea. As far as I can tell from reading about the film, the only reason for making the film was to showcase the disasters of the rains in the glories of CinemaScope. The picture was rushed into post-production, as it was shot during August and September of 1955, and released in December, 1955.
The first thing wrong with “The Rains of Ranchipur,” besides the fact that it’s a rather unnecessary remake, is that Richard Burton plays a Hindu doctor. Yes, really. And he does a pretty bad job; it’s really just watching Richard Burton with a tan. Despite the help of a voice coach, Burton was not able to imitate an Indian accent, so he just gave up. Burton was a very talented actor, but he was certainly not a character actor.
Burton plays Dr. Safti, a doctor in the town of Ranchipur, who is doing all he can to help the sick and the poor in post-independence India. The gorgeous Lana Turner plays Lady Edwina Esketh, who is unhappily married to Lord Esketh, played by the hulking actor Michael Rennie. The Eskeths are in Ranchipur to buy some horses. You know, just making a trip to India to get some horses, doesn’t everyone do that? Probably my favorite part of the movie is a scene at the very beginning. There’s a long scene with Turner and Rennie in a train on the way to Ranchipur, and they simply discuss their empty marriage. It’s a long scene, probably 4 or 5 minutes with no breaks, no cuts, and no edits. I love seeing long scenes unfold in real time. To me it’s always been a hallmark of old movies. There’s no fancy camerawork, you just have to listen and watch, and be pulled in by the story. And I was.
Burton and Turner meet at a party, and there is an immediate spark of attraction between them. But Edwina is a totally spoiled, selfish person, and Dr. Safti is totally selfless. Eventually they acknowledge their feelings for each other and start having an affair. There’s a climactic scene where Lord Esketh and Dr. Safti go tiger hunting, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen. Esketh gets attacked by the tiger; Safti has to shoot the tiger and in the process wounds Esketh. Dr. Safti then has to nurse Esketh back to health, an awkward situation for the two men. I found Lord Esketh to be an interesting character, he and Edwina have a very complicated relationship, and Lord Esketh comes off as a rather sympathetic character. Rennie does a good job playing a man who is somewhat lost in his own life, blessed with money, but still not happy.
Another plot in the film involves Fred MacMurray, who plays Tom Ransome, a rich alcoholic American who is romantically wasting away. A young girl, Fern Simon, played by Joan Caulfield, starts hanging around Ransome and tries to persuade him to become interested in life again.
And then the rains come, there’s both an earthquake and a flood, and Dr. Safti has to rush off and save lives, leaving Edwina behind. She becomes very ill herself, and Ransome takes care of her while also trying to get to Safti to let him know how sick she is. This is the part of the movie where we get our magnificent CinemaScope disasters, which seem to take too much pleasure in the tragedies we are seeing. Ransome, who is an architect/designer by trade, risks his life to blow up a dam and thus saves Ranchipur from further disaster. (Don’t ask me how blowing up a dam is good, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.) Ransome does not admit to the deed, but Dr. Safti cleverly lets Fern know that it was Ransome. I’m paraphrasing what Safti actually says, but it’s something like, “It must have been someone who had a great deal of knowledge on how dams are built and constructed, to have put the dynamite in exactly the right place. And someone who cares a great deal about the people of Ranchipur.” Anyway, Fern knows that Ransome is once more engaged with life, and they are paired off at the end of the film.
After she recovers, Lady Edwina has decided that she actually does care about some things in life other than herself, and she leaves Dr. Safti, knowing that Ranchipur needs him more than she does. In her first selfless act, she leaves Ranchipur with her husband.
There is an interesting film somewhere in all of this, but it didn’t quite make it to the screen. Dr. Safti is pretty much a saint, and he is not a very interesting character. His only flaw is that he’s attracted to Lana Turner, and I think just about every man would have been attracted to Lana Turner in 1955. There are a lot of things that happen off screen that might have made interesting scenes. Edwina talks at one point about Dr. Safti showing her the slums where the poor people live, but that all happens off-screen. It might have been a good scene to show Edwina’s gradual change of heart. Lana Turner is gorgeous in the movie, and parts of the story are interesting, but it doesn’t add up to a successful film. Apart from the first few minutes of the film, I don’t know that any of the movie was actually filmed in India, which is a shame. And IMDB lists the only filming location as being in Pakistan, so maybe what I thought was India at the beginning isn’t even really India.
The lack of realism in this film leads to the next problem with it. Apart from some of the extras, I don’t think that anyone in the cast is actually Indian. Of course, the unspoken reason for casting someone so totally unsuitable for the part of Dr. Safti is because in 1955 you could not have shown a romance between an Indian man and a white woman on screen. I’m pretty sure that no Indian actors were even considered for the part of Dr. Safti. This racism dates the film quite badly, and the utter ridiculousness of casting someone who was English/Welsh to play someone from India is insulting. The other major Indian character in the movie is the Maharani, the woman who basically runs Ranchipur. She is played by Eugenie Leontovich, who was born in Russia! Hollywood still had a long way to go when it came to portraying people other than Americans and Europeans.
In all of the Richard Burton biographies I consulted for writing this post, (yes, I really do research these movies before I write about them!) they all basically say that Burton and Turner had a pretty frosty relationship. All except for Michael Munn’s 2008 book, “Richard Burton: Prince of Players.” Munn was a close, personal friend of Burton’s, and according to him, Burton says he had a relationship with Turner. In the book, Burton is quoted as saying, “She was not someone I loved. She was just incredibly attractive and remarkably good in bed.” Well, okay, good to know! It’s not that surprising, given the romantic histories of both Burton and Turner, that they might have had an affair. (Between the two of them, they were married 13 times!) They were two remarkably attractive people, and Burton was well-known for trying to bed all of his leading ladies. (I think that Burton’s first wife, Sybil, whom he left for Elizabeth Taylor, deserves some kind of medal for putting up with him for so long!) By all accounts, Burton was supremely bored with the film, and he wrote it off by saying, “It never rains but it ranchipurs.”
It’s interesting to compare the careers of Burton at Turner in 1955, as they made this film. Burton turned 30 in 1955, and he was regarded as a promising young actor. His most successful films to date were 1952’s “My Cousin Rachel,” and “The Robe,” the 1953 religious epic that introduced CinemaScope to audiences. Turner was only 4 years older than Burton, yet she was a movie veteran by 1955, and was past the peak of her popularity, which occurred in the 1940’s. After “The Rains of Ranchipur” Turner still had a couple of hit films, like 1957’s “Peyton Place,” and 1959’s “Imitation of Life,” but after she turned 40 in 1961, her filmography is rather undistinguished. By contrast, nearly all of Burton’s most famous movies were made around the age of 40. Of course, it’s a bit unfair to compare them because Turner and Burton were very different kinds of movie personalities. Turner was discovered by Hollywood because she was gorgeous. She was a movie star who didn’t really need to be a great actress as long as she was still beautiful. Although his good looks undoubtedly helped, Burton was signed by Hollywood because of his raw talent on the London stage. But I still think it’s interesting to contrast how Turner’s career as a leading lady was basically over as she started to age, whereas Burton was still playing leading roles until he died at age 58. I think it’s generally true that it’s easier for male actors to keep playing leading parts as they age, and it’s more difficult for female actors. This gender inequity is still visible in movies today, as there are fewer and fewer parts for actresses once they start to show their age.

1 comment:

Old Movies Fan said...

I think with all actors at some point in their career; they will land (without fault of their own) in a less than great role/movie. Maybe this movie is that for Burton? Upon saying that, as the years pass and with these movie greats now gone; we can begin to appreciate all their movies for better or worse as each brings joy to someone somewhere. I have in recent years become a huge Burton fan, and so far my favourite two are: "The Wild Geese" & "Where Eagles Dare".