NOT every book that a novelist writes occupies an equal place in his heart. There are some books which he finds entertainment in writing, others which are more or less autobiographical and consequently easy; there are some which are so difficult that he finishes by hating them; and finally there are those books which are written from the heart because they had to be written. I have written three of this last category--"The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg," "The Farm," and "The Rains Came." but of all of them, "The Rains Came" was closest to my heart. And so, when it was sold to be made into a talking picture I felt uneasy about the whole thing.
It was not the first time Hollywood had made a picture of one of my books.
From my point of view, and once or twice form the point of view of the public, the results were not altogether happy. Some of the pictures had been good, some indifferent in quality, and one downright bad. There were various reasons why stories which had known a great popularity as books failed to achieve a corresponding success as pictures. The reasons for the failure are varied. Sometimes the adaptation is bad, sometimes it is the rapidly changing fashions of Hollywood which force a story into an artificial or unconvincing form. Sometimes a story can be massacred by economy or by a director not suited to it.
A book is different. No one lays hands on it but the author himself. No one else has the authority to change a comma. No one can maul it about, stick on a different ending or change the characters. No censorship can reduce what is the result of intelligence into what appears to be the result of idiocy. The novelist is not used to having a dozen brains taking part in the production of a story. A novelist's craft is a solitary one in which he takes his own pace. The production of a talking picture is a co-operative affair achieved under the terrific pressure of time and the vast cost of everything.
And so, when I found myself unexpectedly and on very short notice coming to Hollywood to the very lot where they were in the midst of making "The Rains Came," it was with trepidation, punctuated even by moments of actual dread. The book and all the characters in it were close to my heart.
I knew "The Rains Came" was a big and complicated and expensive story. I knew that a record budget had been made for its production. I knew too that in the book itself there were at least a dozen stories--the material for a dozen pictures. If the book were filmed in its entirety, about twenty-four hours would be needed to show it. So cuts had to be made and I wondered what they would be.
On arrival I was handed the final script which they were in the midst of shooting. I read it over and saw what had been done. Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson, who did the job, had taken the two principal love stories--one happy, one unhappy--and stuck to them.
some of the characters I had cherished most in the writing were gone. They had to go. The two writers had selected brilliantly and had kept in the script what was in the book--the feeling that no matter what happened to the characters, India was always there in background, bigger than any individual or any government. I was immediately and still am humbly grateful to Mr. Dunne and Mr. Josephson foe what they had done.
I thought, "So far so good." But there were so many other influences, so many other individuals who could still do vast damage.
On the same afternoon that I arrived in Hollywood I insisted upon going on the set.
I stepped onto Sound Stage No. 8 directly from the dry hot sunshine of California into the damp, wilting heat of India.
It felt exactly like Bombay or Calcutta at the height of shooting. It was an accident.
The heat and the moisture came from an enormous tank filled with lukewarm water in which George Brent and Myrna Loy and
Brenda Joyce was playing a scene while thousands of gallons of water descended on them in the form of tropical rain. There the three of them stood, drenched and gallant, going through what could only be described as an ordeal. there they were--Lady Esketh, Tom Ransome and Fern Esketh still in her Paris gown and diamonds, Ransome i n his mud-bespattered dinner clothes, and Fern dressed in the shirt and shorts Ransome had loaned her a little while before. And they were standing on what was unmistakably the balcony of a house shattered by an earthquake and hidden as high as the second floor by the waters of the flood. And unmistakably it was the house of Mr. Banerjee, I knew because the house of Mr. Banerjee in the book was an exact description of a house which exists in India.
If ever you see "The Rains," you will know what India looks like; you will even know how it feels.
THEN there was the matter of casting--one of the greatest difficulties in any story in which there are five or
six leading roles of equal importance and a dozen roles of only slightly smaller dimension. Before the cast was announced, the amateur casting of the various fat roles had become a kind of a game among people interested in the story. For Lady Esketh, the names of Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Constance Bennett, Tallulah Bankhead, Ina Clair and a number of other actresses came up. The studio received thousands of letters urging this one or that one. And when the time came, Mr. Zanuck announced as his choice for the role an actress whom no one had mentioned. Myrna Loy seemed a strange choice. she had for a long time been playing role after role as far removed in character as possible from teat of the wicked lady Esketh. It seemed casting "against the part" with a vengeance. I was in Europe when I heard the news and admit that at first I was flabbergasted by the choice. It did not seem possible that the wife of the Thin Man could also be Lady Esketh.
I still had doubts when I walked on the set the first day. But after watching a half dozen "takes," the doubts vanished.
Not only could Myrna Loy play Lady Esketh she was Lady Esketh--the way she walked, eat way she spoke, the air she had of being thwarted and desperate. But more than that--the personality of Miss Loy herself became revealed as of great importance. In the scenes where Lady Esketh was her most spiteful and hateful, a simplicity, a gentleness, came through the performance. One felt that in spite of everything, Lady Esketh wasn’t so bad. Underneath everything, she was simply a nice, decent woman who at some time had been terribly hurt, and that element was of great importance to the latter half of the film. Then she falls in love and her character and actions change. I think that as Lady Esketh, Myrna Loy gives the best performance of her career.
Tyrone had so many chances to go "ham" in big emotional scenes--those scenes in which the line between a performance which is superb and one which is burlesque is no thicker than a hair. The role of Major Safti is an actor's delight. The actor called upon to play this has to do nearly everything. That is why it is a dangerous role. Tyrone never tripped, he never even stumbled--not even at the death of Lady Esketh (incidentally, owing to the business invented by
Clarence Brown, on of the most beautiful scenes ever recorded), the scene where Major Safti, weary, frightened and in despair, collapses into hysteria.
GEORGE BRENT, was a "natural." As Ransome he is charming, sadly gay, disillusioned and courageous.
He has achieved what is an immensely difficult thing for an actor to do. He has conveyed brilliantly the despair of the spirit which lies beneath any actor, by speech of Ransome I should think he would stir the hearts of countless ladies from New York to Los Angeles, from New Orleans to Chicago, as they have never been stirred before.
About Brenda Joyce, who plays fern, nobody knew anything. She came out of college to appear for the first time before the camera in one of the five big roles. It was a tall order, playing in scenes with veterans like Myrna Loy and Gorge Brent and Tyrone Power and Madame Maria Ouspenskaya and Mary Nash. But here again things went miraculously right. Miss Joyce is very beautiful but being beautiful wasn't enough to play a role like that of Fern. She was not only beautiful, she had intelligence and talent, and she had a face. When you see her on the screen, you will think at once: That is what Fern looked like. A girl determined to get what she wanted would look like that. There were, of course, things to be learned--tricks of technique and camera--but these she learned quickly. She was asked to go through the most terrible of ordeals for a young actress--jump into the midst of a cast of famous artists and hold her own.
And Ouspenskaya--one could write a whole book on this great actress. For a long time she had been studying plays and pictures in roles in which she appeared for only a few minutes. In "the Rains" she was presented with a great, fat part in which she was called upon to do almost everything an actress can do. And she went to town. A tiny woman, she was called upon to play most of her scenes with men over six feet--H. B. Warner, Tyrone Power, George Brent, Nigel Bruce--but in none of them do you have a feeling that she is a tiny woman barely five feet tall.
One face I think will haunt you long after you have left the theater, and that is the face of Mary Nash playing the saintly, tortured Miss MacDaid. It is not a big part but the performance is heartbreaking.
I could not be more grateful to a cast for their intelligence and understanding. Nigel Bruce's
brutal Lord Esketh, Laura Hope Crews' incredibly funny Mrs. Haggett-Egbury, Joseph Schilkraut's Mr. Brengor, Marjorie Rambeau's tormented and shallow Mrs. Simon, Abner Biberman's "John the Baptist"--they all come to life as the author saw them. And no author can experience a greater satisfaction.
I think all this perfection--of script, of cast, of direction, of background and atmosphere--came about because one of those miracles occurred which seldom happens in Hollywood. The miracle was there everyone connected with the picture felt the same way about it. There were no confusions of cross-purposes. They all liked the job--despite even the rain and mud and other discomforts--and they all wanted to make a good job of it. There was a complete unity of aim and effort.
In this case Mr. Zanuck conceived a certain cast and production for the story and he went ahead with determination
and energy to achieve it. His conception was right and it clicked. To click it needed the co-operation of a couple
of hundred people and the quiet efficiency and good humor of Harry Joe Brown. Somehow the miracle came
through--at least for one person, the author, it happened.
It was a production which, despite the immense technical difficulties and the difficulties of a large and distinguished cast, moved easily, and with no trouble or complication to its end. for that I think Clarence Brown, a director loved by actors, should take a deep bow.
And, as for the whole cast, they were saints. for weeks they worked in pouring rain or actually in the water. for days they worked in mud literally three feet deep, uncomplainingly, out of love for a story and characters they were playing. Laura Hope Crews and Marjorie Rambeau refused doubles and for two days played scenes which took place in the mucky residue of the flood.
To Arthur Miller, the man on the camera, and his assistants, who had to photograph thousands of feet of film
in photograph thousands of feet of film in pouring monsoon rain and get the difficult effect of the burning Indian sun, there should go a whole bunch of orchids. It was no easy job. to Mr. Mehra who did the Indian music, so difficult to translate into Western idiom, there should go a medal, and to my old friend, Al Newman, who did the scoring, a reward for the beauty and faithfulness to mood which he achieved in the musical accompaniment.
IT was a happy production-amazingly so, considering that the entire cast was made up of temperamental stars, leading women and character actors. they were drenched with rain, spattered with mud and shaken up by the most realistic earthquake ever seen on the screen.
And there was plenty of comedy too--like the occasion when the author was mistaken by the casting director for
one of the "extras" upon whom in the book itself he had lavished satire and derision. And the day the monkeys all got loose with Dorothy Thompson visiting the set and the technical men, their patience worn thin, turned on the author for writing a story filled with earthquakes, floods, plagues, rain and monkeys.
The monkeys took refuge i the top of the sound stage and couldn't be gotten down for a week. and the moment when in the midst of a tragic and passionate scene between Myrna Loy and Ty Power, they both discovered at the same second that the lines they were speaking had a very funny double meaning.
Well, this is the story of a miracle in itself--the story of a satisfied and grateful author--grateful to everyone concerned with the production of "The Rains Came." It is a miracle which the writer does not expect to have happen twice in is lifetime. for the public, whatever else is true, it will, I think, see real and living India on the screen for the first time.