Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Queen Victoria, Colonialism, and The Rains Came (1939)

YAM has elected to host any unofficial entries to the 1939 blogathon through its site (thanks guys!). I didn't hear about the venture in time to officially apply but as a veritable milestone year in film I still wanted to join in the fun. No offence meant to the cool cats in CMBA, we play in our corner of the sandbox in peace. As the film I have elected to write about has already been reviewed it seems only fair to provide a link as I'm not trying to steal anyones thunder.

Such a turn of phrase is also appropriate for a discussion of a film famous for special effects. In that oft cited banner year The Rains Came beat out heavy hitters like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, new fangled technicolor marvels, for the special effects Oscar.

Even the first credit showcases a technical mastery as the title melts from the screen

The Rains Came takes place in Ranchipur in the year 1938. It stars Myrna Loy as a different kind of lady whose trademark flipped nose remains stuck in the air through most of the film, George Brent as resident bad boy, and Tyrone Power as an 'Indian' doctor too involved with his work to take much notice of the blatant advances of Loy. I say 'Indian' because for Hollywood in a certain period that meant placing Power in a turban and giving him a little extra spray tan.

I find it interesting that Myrna Loy's brief account of the film in her autobiography includes this account of Power's character, as it is written with a kind of elementalism and poetry often associated with Indian culture.
"He used to invent games for us to play on the set, just to keep my mind off other things. "If you weren't who you are," he asked, "what would you like to be?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," I replied. "Do you know what you'd like to be if you weren't Ty?"
He made a graceful sweeping gesture with his hands: "I would like to be the wind, so I could be light and free and be anywhere I want at any time. I could go all around the world and look in people's windows and share their joys and sorrows. "When he died, that's all I could think of. I said to myself, "Well, all right, he's the wind."
-From Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy
Other elements aren't quite as poetic, with characters including

Nigel Bruce as Smug British Jackass #1

Famous Russian Actress Maria Ouspenskaya as the Maharani, another victim of Snookie Orange Glow

Monkeys! And other native elements of the simple minded and affable variety

The reason this film is generally discussed is the tremendous rain and earthquake sequences where gallons of water gush over bridges, buildings, and people without prejudice.

Yet another film that confirms my preference for an industry pre-CGI

Other elements given less notice but worth mentioning are lighting and sound, which were made doubly difficult in the ways they had to factor in the tremendous weather. Sound in the necessity to balance the dialogue with a downpour, and lighting especially in effects meant to produce lightning and an overall gloomy atmosphere.

Candle/Lighter shots are particularly difficult as they have to give the impression of a single light source that must be timed to go out at the exact moment Myrna Loy gives a huff

While the effects are amazing, in my second viewing of this film the greater part of my attention was paid to the strange politics. On the one hand it criticizes the Raj and British expats as pompous and obscene, a thread that diminishes and is ultimately extinguished in the main character arcs of the film. With this in mind I have to bring in who in my view is the most important player in the film.

Queen Victoria.

While only a mere statue her importance is a symbolic one, and in her lies the central message of the film. You might have first noticed her presence in the background of one of the stills above, centrally framed behind the monkeys. It seems fitting that in this first sequence Brent takes out a sling shot and tries to scatter the native pests while Victoria remains serene and unwavering in the background.

She remains a central figure in the only patriotic speech in the film, the only instance that blatantly admits any knowledge of current events. George Brent's remarks are as follows:
"I've got faith in a lot of things, for instance Queen Victoria... To you she's only a statue, but to me she's an old friend. A living reminder of the fine, brave days before the world went to seed. When London bridge did its falling to a dance step, not to the threat of tomorrow's bombs. When every American was a millionaire, or about to be one.... There she stands in her cast iron petticoat, unconcerned about wars, dictators, and appeasement, as serene as ever. God Bless her."
Where Americans and the British come into play, modern India does not. While I know very little about India or its history the name Gandhi and his peaceful protestations of autocratic rule should ring some bells.

Victoria comes in later in the film when Brent nearly drowns, and provides an anchor to safety. Where complex buildings are reduced to rubble, Victoria stands.

Even her outfit bears some resemblance to a sari with her head draped in an elaborate cloth, a hint at the woman as nation metaphor present in famous Indian films like Mother India or in paintings where the sari becomes the upper portion of a picture of the country itself. Instead of an Indian woman as country the former Empress of India is given this prominent position.

The only 'Indian' woman in the film given any real screen time is the Maharani, and however skewed the portrait she does present a stalwart image in the face of great strife. But her reign is replaced by Powers, and the picture ends with an image of India still tied to its colonial trappings.

So why Victoria? Why this strange return to the past? I can't say that I have an answer, but will instead provide an anecdote. Two years ago I met an Englishman, an older gentlemen the very image of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He even professed a fascination with linguistics and commended my proper usage of a few choice words that we Americans tend to muddle. He went briefly into his past, including mention of a boyhood spent in India in what must have been the 30s and 40s. When I asked him about it his eyes shone and he lamented that it was wonderful then. It is the sad then that stuck out.

I wondered then as now at these strange markers of forgotten times that most celebrate for their passing. Yet here they remain.


  1. Brilliant post -- equal parts hilarious and thought-provoking!

    And, oh my goodness, that line from Ty... *tears*

    I watched this movie for the first time about a month or so ago (and solely for Ty...haha).

    I had a similar reaction, especially to the statue of Queen Victoria. For me, that was profoundly sad. So many of today's world conflicts can be traced directly back to colonialism. It was also sad for the reasons that George Brent's character mentioned: a loss of stability for the British (and the western world).


    But, yeah. An interesting film...and your review was brilliant! :-D

  2. But I love Millie ramblings! They are the best and they are always welcome. And not random at all! It really is very complicated and worth mentioning.

    I first watched this film solely for Myrna Loy, so we're on a similar page. ;)

    Thanks for the kind words!

  3. Yet another film that confirms my preference for an industry pre-CGI

    Oh please! Get over yourself. There is nothing wrong with CGI. And there is nothing wrong with the pre-CGI effects. This constant CGI bashing, which has been going on for over a decade, is getting ridiculous. It's here to stay, until another process replaces it. Deal with it.

  4. You make a good point. It's too bad the comment is written in a way that's unnecessarily defensive and rude, because otherwise this might have been a nice discussion.

    Of course there isn't. There's a lot of great work that's done with CGI, and there's no doubt that it's an amazing technical process and that the industry will continue to change and grow. The one sentence that you've taken out of a much larger post and chosen to judge my entire character based on is not about bashing, it's about expressing a love of the more hand made, hands on process that used to go on and did produce a different look, and there's nothing wrong with that either.

    This is a blog. Opinions get expressed in blogs. Deal with it.

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