Updated: Jan 9
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Burt Lancaster stars as Bill Starbuck, an itinerant con-man traveling in a painted wagon who sells kooky-looking lightning rods meant to repel tornadoes, among other things.
(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)
Blu-ray, 1956, unrated
Best extra: Commentary by author/film historian Julie Kirgo
BASED ON a Broadway play by N. Richard Nash, who also adapted it for the screen, “The Rainmaker” is a classic showpiece for two of cinema’s greatest stars. Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn are irresistible in this very “of its time” romance. (In her commentary, Julie Kirgo uses the word “antediluvian” to describe some of the 1950s-era attitudes expressed.) But for those who can recall those days and those attitudes, or for viewers willing to forgive what was the norm back then, the rewards are many.
Living in a drought-ridden midwestern American town, probably during the 1930s, Lizzie Curry (Hepburn) is the “plain” spinster sister of two brothers: Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jimmy (Earl Holliman). The three siblings live with their kindly father (Cameron Prud’Homme) on their cattle ranch, where a prolonged drought is wreaking havoc with their livestock. The family has sent Lizzie to visit relatives in hopes that one of the eligible distant cousins will want to marry her. She returns with the sad news that the only male interested in her was nine years old, further convincing her of her doom to be an “old maid.” Poor Lizzie is further humiliated after her father and brothers insist upon inviting File, the widowed town sheriff (Wendell Corey), to dinner – for which Lizzie lavishly prepares – but he doesn’t show up.
Enter Starbuck (Lancaster), an itinerant con-man traveling in a painted wagon. who sells kooky-looking lightning rods meant to repel tornadoes among other things. His latest grift is claiming to be able to procure desperately needed rain for the parched land. And what an entrance he makes – flashing his dazzling smile, the handsome rogue is dressed in all black, as he bursts through the Curry’s’ front door (after eavesdropping on their discussion of Lizzie’s sad fate) to make the family an offer: For $100, and a few odd tasks required of the men, he will make it rain.
(1-3) Starbuck puts on a show trying to sell his bogus tornado deflector to a Kansas farming community. (4) The authorities arrive to arrest Starbuck, but he escapes the mob.
But, of course, Starbuck does a lot more than that. He bestows a touch of magic upon the drab lives of the Currys, giving hope and promise to two in particular, and … well, if you’ve never seen “The Rainmaker” before, you’re in for a great treat. If you have, revisiting it will not disappoint. It’s a delight.
This Kino Lorber Blu-ray looks pristine in its excellent, remastered presentation from the folks at Paramount Pictures, who handled the 6K scan of the large format VistaVision camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio). The one brief on-location scene filmed in Kanab, Utah, has a striking field of focus with its wide and dry landscape and dying livestock. The color is deeply saturated, leaving plenty of fine detail in both day and night, as well as interior and exterior scenes. And while most of the film was shot on the Paramount Studios lot and has a stagey quality, it works perfectly with the almost fairytale mood.
The lively score by Alex North nicely sets off the action and the dialogue, which is always clear. English subtitles are available.
(1) Katharine Hepburn plays Lizzie, who returns home from a week’s visit to Sweet River. (2) Brothers: Noah Jimmy (Earl Holliman) and Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and their father H.C. Curry (Cameron Prud’Homme) were hoping she would return with a wedding proposal from one of her distant cousins. (3&4) The drought has killed most of the local crops, and Curry’s livestock is barely hanging on. (5&6) Starbuck arrives on the Curry farm and Lizzie fixes breakfast for the boys.
The only bonus feature is worthwhile, despite Julie Kirgo’s annoying tendency to fill up information gaps with expository chatter – describing what everyone who already watched the movie already knows, sometimes right before it happens. Silence would have definitely been preferable.
The background and trivia she does impart, however, is quite interesting. One of her first tidbits is that playwright/screenwriter Nash also wrote a novel called “Cry Macho,” which Clint Eastwood optioned for the screen, and is producing this year. Kirgo praises producer Hal Wallis, who discovered Lancaster, and had him under contract. Wallis had to fight with the MPAA, when the group objected to the implication that Lizzie and Starbuck had “illicit sex” in the film, but he ultimately found a way to get their seal of approval.
Kirgo discusses the contrasts and similarities of Lancaster’s and Hepburn’s careers and personalities. Both were considered “difficult” to work with. Lancaster was a poor kid from New York’s East Harlem, while Hepburn was more of a New England aristocrat. There was a bit of controversy because some thought Hepburn too old to be playing Lizzie – she was 49, and six years older than Lancaster at the time, although both actors look much younger. Hepburn was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the role. The co-stars had an “excellent working relationship” on “Rainmaker,” and even collaborated to make changes to a wonderful love scene.
Kirgo points out the themes of “Rainmaker,” which she calls a “metaphor for helping people loosen up, be happier, listen to their dreams” … as well as to have faith. She adds, “this film is obsessed with people’s ways of thinking of themselves.”
— Peggy Earle
(1) Three Point Sheriff Howard Thomas (Wallace Ford) tries to convince Deputy Sheriff J. S. File (Wendell Corey) it’s time to think about finding a wife. (2) The Curry boys arrive home after they offered the deputy sheriff a dinner invitation with Lizzie. (3) Starbuck arrives at the Curry house instead of Deputy File and offers to bring rain in 24 hours if he is paid $100 in advance. (4) File finally visits Lizzie and confesses he is a divorced man, and he lost his wife to a near-sighted schoolteacher.
(1) Deputy File is on an official visit looking for a man named Tornado Johnson. (2) Starbuck charms Lizzie. (3&4) A rainstorm hits the Curry farm and everyone is overjoyed.