Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees fondly remembers the days when a "rainmaker" was Burt Lancaster in a cowboy hat and not a corporate hotshot.
Lizzie: I got nothing to believe in.
"I tried to tell a simple story about droughts that happen to people, and about faith," said playwright N. Richard Nash of the work he is now best remembered for, The Rainmaker. That "simple story" became a huge success over the course of its different incarnations: as television production, stage play, film, and stage musical (its title changed to 110 in the Shade). The universality of its themes may be the secret of its success: Although some contemporary critics derided it as sentimental, its depiction of recognizable insecurities and the need for faith in dreams—and in oneself—gives it enduring appeal. This 1956 film version, anchored by stars Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby) and Burt Lancaster (The Crimson Pirate), effectively captures the heart and the humor of Nash's play.
Facts of the Case
The quiet little Southwestern town of Three Points is sweltering in a heat wave, and cattle are dying in the drought. But the benevolent patriarch of the Curry family, H.C. (Cameron Prud'Homme), is worried about more than his cattle. His daughter, Lizzie (Hepburn), has just returned from a fruitless quest to find a husband, and her confidence in herself is shattered. Her blunt realist of a brother, Noah (Lloyd Bridges, Airplane!), who handles the family's finances, has already written her off as unmarriageable; his main concern now, besides the drought, is keeping naive younger brother Jimmy (Earl Holliman, Forbidden Planet) from being "caught" by the sexy Snookie Maguire (Yvonne Lime). But H.C. wants his daughter to be happy, and he thinks that Deputy File (Wendell Corey, Rear Window) may be the answer. Even though File keeps to himself, H.C. senses that he, like Lizzie, is starving for companionship…but H.C.'s attempt at matchmaking ends in a fist fight.
Into this tense situation strides a silver-tongued man in black (Lancaster) who calls himself Starbuck. He can bring rain, he promises—if the Curry family will give him their faith—and one hundred dollars. Against the protests of Noah and Lizzie, H.C. takes the gamble. While he and Jimmy do all they can to assist Starbuck in his mystical rites, Lizzie calls Starbuck's bluff and accuses him of being a con man. But when he awakens her belief in herself as a woman, she finds that her own drought may finally be over.
When a film is adapted from a play, there's always the question of whether the transformation will work. In The Rainmaker, the pace does sometimes slow to an amble, and sometimes the performances do tend a bit toward the theatrical—and it's all too obvious that the Curry farm is an indoor set. Nevertheless, overall this film adaptation succeeds handsomely. Nash himself wrote the screenplay, and it contains all the perceptive dialogue and character development that make his play so effective—yet he does a fine job of opening up the action to avoid the feeling of a filmed play. He also makes the smart move of introducing Starbuck before his first entrance in the play, when he erupts into the Curry family, by creating a pre-credit sequence that shows him working a con in another town. That starts the film off on a burst of energy, before it slows down to acquaint us with the Curry family, the heart of the film. It's a smart structural device, proof of Nash's dexterity in moving between different dramatic media.
The Rainmaker also benefits from a cast that's just about ideal. Prud'Homme, a radio and television actor who made few big-screen appearances, is a kind, warm-hearted presence as the head of the Curry family, a man whose easygoing nature seems to have permitted—or prompted—his son Noah to assume responsibility for the family. Unbidden, Noah has taken all the family's worries on himself, and he's in danger of turning into a crabbed old man before his time. Bridges is better known now for his lighter-weight roles, but here he is entirely convincing as the bitterly skeptical Noah, who stands at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from little brother Jimmy. As the youngest and most idealistic of the Curry family, Earl Holliman ventures into somewhat broad comedic territory—as he did as the drunken cook in Forbidden Planet—but it's hard to resist his guileless Jimmy all the same, especially when he finally stands up for himself and rejects Noah's domination. (He also won a Golden Globe for his performance.) As Starbuck, the big dreamer and big talker, Lancaster brings all the energy of a lightning storm into the film. He has the mellifluous delivery of a born con man (or an evangelist, which he would go on to play in Elmer Gantry) and an unforced sex appeal that creates effective erotic tension with Hepburn. His presence is big, big, big—but that's just what Starbuck needs to be.
The crafting of Starbuck's character, in fact, is one of the pleasant surprises of Nash's script. Since his main function is to serve as the catalyst for most of the action, he could easily have been a one-dimensional character, a fantasy savior, but Nash makes him a flesh-and-blood person with fears and weaknesses of his own. When he and Lizzie connect, she isn't the only one learning and changing from their contact. Starbuck, too, takes something away with him from their meeting. Lizzie has to convince him that reality does hold value, that "it's no good to live in your dreams." And even though Starbuck never entirely abandons the life of a dreamer—for that would undercut much of the film's power—by the end of the story we can see that he's thinking about the future in a more concrete way. That leads to perhaps the most compelling development in the film, one that I won't spoil for the viewer.
The main point on which a viewer's judgment of the film may turn is Katharine Hepburn's performance. Even at the time of the film's release, not all her reviews were positive, although she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (she lost to Ingrid Bergman, making her celebrated comeback in Anastasia). It's true that in most of Hepburn's performances, her own powerful persona can threaten to overwhelm the character, so that we may have a hard time seeing the character and not Kate. Perhaps that's why so many of her best performances—Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Terry Randall in Stage Door, Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter—are roles that contain qualities we associate with Hepburn herself. In these cases Hepburn is able to unite own indelible personality with the role, so that her recognizable Kateisms work for the character instead of against it. That's what happens in her portrayal of Lizzie. Her unconventional looks and brisk, no-nonsense manner, which is the direct opposite of traditional feminine pliancy, convinces us that Lizzie would be considered plain and spinsterish by those around her; indeed, by this point in her career, Hepburn was on her way to becoming a professional spinster. Her refusal to conform to the fluffy, helpless ideal of girlishness is both Kate's and Lizzie's: Both women are too intelligent to put on an act to catch a man (when Lizzie makes a desperate attempt to do so, gushing over File's tie, it's a disaster). From the moment that her menfolk ask Lizzie how things are in Sweet River and she says tersely, "Hotter'n hell," it's clear that actress and role are a nearly perfect match.
Nearly perfect, I said. It's undeniable that Hepburn was considerably older than the character was intended to be. We are given to understand that Lizzie is just entering the time in her life when the specter of old maidenhood begins to loom, whereas—according to the same standards, which I certainly don't endorse—Hepburn was clearly well established in that age range at the time she was cast. It's also possible that some viewers may be unconvinced that a woman of Kate-Lizzie's obvious intelligence would have so powerful a need for a husband; why doesn't Lizzie go out and get a career, like Kate? To her credit, Hepburn's performance makes us believe in Lizzie's need to be loved. She never hints in her performance that she finds Lizzie's ambitions too small—quite the opposite, in fact; she's moving and convincing when, as Lizzie, she speaks up to Starbuck in defense of her "little dreams." It's also worth noting that the world of the film is a constricted one, and we meet only one other speaking female besides Lizzie: the ditsy, "fast" Snookie Maguire, whose life apparently consists of flirting and canoodling. What other female role models does Lizzie have? None other is even mentioned. In the tiny universe of Three Points, Lizzie may not have any other options open to her but marriage or spinsterhood. Perhaps most important, although the film seems to be set in contemporary times, the play was set in the 1920s, and the screenplay doesn't make any changes to update the period.
As part of Paramount's budget line, this film arrives without any extras but in a decent transfer. Those who had to endure the pan-and-scan VHS release will be delighted to see the 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, which presents the location shots of the American Southwest in all their bleak, dusty glory. The quality of the picture varies, with some scenes showing flicker and speckling, but overall this is an attractive print, with rich color that especially shines in the deep blue of the night sky and the bold crimson of Snookie Maguire's infamous little red hat. The mono audio is clear and adequately robust, although it would have been nicer to hear Alex North's vigorous, Oscar-nominated musical score in stereo.
Nash classed The Rainmaker as a romantic comedy, and although I've always been moved by Lizzie's discovery of romance, the story is also about hope more generally. In that respect, its appeal is broader than one might expect; it's no wonder that the play continues to be popular with theaters all around the country. No matter how much time passes since Nash first created this story, there will always be times when we need someone like Starbuck to remind us to have faith—in ourselves, in others, or just in the power of dreams to come true.
Bill Starbuck, alias Tornado Jones, alias Bill Smith, is declared not guilty of working a con on the good people of Three Points. The court invites him to stop through our fair town again any time.
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