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Reeling Backward: The Rainmaker (1956)
Burt Lancaster (sort of) headlines this Western romance-dramedy whose main dynamic is asking whether or not Katharine Hepburn is pretty.
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“The Rainmaker” is basically a two-hour exercise in asking the question, “Is Katharine Hepburn pretty?”
If you think that’s a pretty slim premise — not to mention cringe-ingly outdated — upon which to rest an entire feature film, then you’ll feel the same as I did about the picture, which is (sort of) headlined by Burt Lancaster as the title character, a wandering charlatan who really acts more as the story’s spiritual mascot.
N. Richard Nash adapted the screenplay based on his own play, set in early Depression Era Kansas in the fictional town of Three Points. The drought has set in, the cattle are dying off, and Bill Starbuck (Lancaster) rides in promising rain for $100 hard cash (just over $2k in today’s dollars). Hepburn plays Lizzie Curry, the resident old maid.
Starbuck doesn’t exactly sweep Lizzie off her feet himself — though they do share a passionate interlude that, for 1956, is pretty obviously implied to include sex. More like, he acts as her giddy muse, inspiring her to think better of herself and expand her horizons. In the end he asks Lizzie to run off with him, but her dreams are of the mundane sort, to be a loving wife and mother.
The sexual politics are painfully retrograde, even for its time. Hepburn is seen today as a feminist icon of cinema, and in her heyday was usually cast in daring roles as smart, self-confident women with a pushy streak. So it’s especially galling to see her as Lizzie, who’s a tornado of talkativeness around her father and brothers but clams up like a shy schoolgirl around any other man.
Hepburn was 49 when the film came out — five years after playing an “old gal” in “The African Queen” opposite Humphrey Bogart — but is made up and written to be much younger, around 20 years I’d say. She was still a great beauty, of course, something the filmmakers cannot conceal even with severe hair and prairie dresses.
Starbuck, who has gone under various names and trades, rides around the plains in a gaudy horse wagon conning people with his outsized carnival barker personality. An early scene shows him selling contraptions designed to avert tornados, basically nothing more than a metal pole he’s slapped some do-dads onto. He’s able to sell them like hotcakes until the authorities show up, though Starbuck is a slippery sort.
He happens upon the Curry boys on the open range — Pa (Cameron Prud'Homme), oldest son Noah (Lloyd Bridges), an unimaginative bean-counter type, and kid brother Jim (Earl Holliman), who’s just this side of the local dunce. Starbuck makes a half-hearted attempt at selling them his wares, tells them they’re not ready for his kind of help, and moves on to Three Points.
He spends a lot of time in the background, just observing and taking mental notes, gathering enough intel to worm his way in where he can find a suitable opening. This includes learning that Jim is ensorcelled by newcomer Snookie Maguire (Yvonne Lime), an aggressive blonde who wears a red beret and drives a crimson ragtop roadster. She tells Jim he’s “six feet tall and twice as handsome,” and he’s hooked like a hungry bass.
Noah keeps after Jim like a wayward puppy, not wanting him to spend time alone with Snookie so’s to avoid anything unfortunate happening, aka necessitating a shotgun wedding. Pa for his part is a rather open-minded sort for his age and place, just wanting his children to do whatever they need to be happy.
His primary worry these days is the stubbornly single status of Lizzie. As the story opens, she is just returning from a week-long trip visiting her uncle with the transparent intention of finding a suitable cousin to marry. But Lizzie, who’s easily the smartest of the clan, grows flummoxed and unsure around strange men.
This leads to the oft-repeated lament that she’s “plain” and hence unmarriable. It’s an interesting phrase, that, one no one really uses anymore. Rather than being described as actively ugly, women were called plain — as if they are simply a barren field, not yet properly tilled and planted by the right fellah.
I am reminded of another Western I like much better, the much-unappreciated “The Homesman,” in which Hilary Swank is also relegated in a similar way.
The Currys try to set Lizzie up with the local deputy sheriff, a taciturn man named File (Wendell Corey) who is said to be a widower, though his dark secret is that his wife actually ran off and divorced him. He buries his shame by refusing any offers of help or affection, though he eventually gives in and heads over to their spread to poke around a bit into the matter. Lizzie typically makes a botch of it, furthering her lament.
The actual rainmaker really doesn’t have a very big role in the film. After learning enough about the Currys’ situation to ingratiate himself and convince Pa to give him 24 hours to summon precipitation, he disappears for long stretches, including while Lizzie is tongue-twisting her way through her truncated courtship with File.
She winds up running to Starbuck in the tack house where he is bedding down, and he convinces her that any woman can be pretty if she just thinks of herself as so. And take down her hair from its prim bun — the 1950s cinematic equivalent of the nerdy girl taking off her glasses.
They share a passionate kiss or two, and when the scene cuts back to them it shows Lizzie rearranging her dress in a way that would indicate more than a little lip-mashing went on in the interim. I’m always fascinated how Golden Age Hollywood movies indicate a coupling with only the barest of permitted implications.
Things wind up about where you’d expect. Lizzie’s confidence is reborn, File returns to confess his sins and beg for her attentions, Jim escapes Noah’s shadow and goes all out with Snookie, and Starbuck, a man composed entirely of whims, decides he’d like to have her join him on his vagabond life. She’s tempted, but a stolid deputy is more her speed.
Part of me suspected that Starbuck only made the overture because it would help her feel secure in her new life, since she actively chose it.
As the rain falls down in the closing scene — because of course it does, in an upbeat movie called “The Rainmaker” — Starbuck himself is renewed, his long days of fakery and confidence games finally resulting in a bonafide miracle.
It was the first film directed by Joseph Anthony, who got his start as a Broadway actor, and also went on to make “The Matchmaker.” It bears no relationship to the 1997 legal potboiler of the same title starring Matt Damon. In 1962 the play was turned into a musical, “110 in the Shade.”
With its small bookends of locations — just the Curry house, the tack house and the sheriff’s office, really — and confined cast of characters, “The Rainmaker” also feels restricted by its stage roots. It’s a fast-talking mix of romance, comedy and weighty moments that slip in and out of the spotlight so quickly your head can’t stop spinning long enough for any of them to gain a real footing.
Hepburn actually scored an Oscar nomination for this film, and Alex North’s score of syrupy strings earned another.
It’s got its high points, but to me it feels like minor-key sidebar stuff in otherwise great careers.