Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Windy Road to Ranchipur

The Rains Came (1939)
directed by Clarence Brown
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

I realized yesterday that the second disc of Phantom India was cracked clean through, and it looked just like the Criterion logo. Anything generous in Louis Malle's narration only shows how far our journalistic obligation to understanding cultures has expanded since 1969. Malle is a windbag, and the country far exceeds him. It is an India I dream about in the same way I think of Russia, where I sweat in the balmy swamp of St. Petersburg and try to picture the sea.

So prompted, I watched the Hollywood take, something from a pitch I didn't see through, I think because I wanted to write about The Music Room and invented an angle with Myrna Loy. Nora was never my type of Hollywood beauty. She was too often assigned the thankless task of embodying solidarity (matching martinis, say) without ever being the kind of girl you'd meet at the bar. At best, she softened the brush-off of high society condescension, but she was always with the man in the tux, and never the reporter, the criminal, or the bum.

If rain is particularly suited to the hushed reunion of old lovers introduced by husbands and wives at a party of the Maharani, and the production designer and cinematographer use the latticework in oriental screens to recast lightning as a flourish of Mughal architecture, the death of a British lady in love with an Indian Tyrone Power is less the melodrama of the matinee than one more allowance that the craft of old Hollywood was as dexterous as the mystery of the big Egyptian pyramids. Bodies in the floods! Monsoons even by monsoon standards. And the flame from a lighter that looks like a match, like kindling, like a way to get in out of the weather.