I hadn’t seen the 1956 film The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn, in quite a long time. In fact, I can tell you EXACTLY when I saw it last: the morning of 9/11. I worked from home at the time. That meant instead of sitting in traffic on a commute, I could watch movies on TCM before heading to my home office to start work.
That morning, I had just finished watching The Rainmaker and decided to briefly switch the channel to the Today Show before beginning work. That’s when I first heard about the attack on the World Trade Center.
Well, not surprisingly, this gave me a very bad association with the movie, even though my final thought before switching channels was, “That’s such a great movie.”
When Steve announced this blogathon about movies with important scenes featuring rain, I decided it was a good opportunity to finally revisit it.
Based on a play by N. Richard Nash (who also wrote the screenplay) The Rainmaker is about a con man named Starbuck (Lancaster) who crosses paths with a lonely woman named Lizzie Curry (Hepburn) during a severe drought.
Lizzie takes care of her rancher father H.C. (Cameron Prud’Homme), and two brothers Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jimmy (Earl Holliman). Her father and brothers are so concerned Lizzie will wind up an old maid they send her away to stay with a family with six boys. The effort is for naught, as she comes back still unattached. They then suggest she pursue the town deputy sheriff, File (Wendell Corey), who pretends to all he is a widower when he’s actually divorced. Lizzie agrees and plans to cook a fine dinner to impress File.
File has no interest in romancing Lizzie, or anyone else, and refuses the invitation. Lizzie is devastated by yet another rejection.
Starbuck, who met up with H.C. and the brothers while they were counting dead cattle, arrives and promises to make it rain in exchange for a hundred dollars. Lizzie and Noah are stunned when their father gives him the money and Jimmy agrees to beat a drum to help bring on the rain.
File shows up to apologize to Lizzie for bailing out of the dinner. Hopeful to win him over, Lizzie decides to try girlishly flirting with File, which turns him off. Once again crushed, she’s even more upset when Noah tells her she has to get used to the idea of being an old maid.
On the pretext of bringing him a blanket, Lizzie goes to Starbuck, who is staying in their tack room. Starbuck does all he can to convince Lizzie she is as beautiful as she feels inside. In spite of her distrust, she finds herself attracted to him and they kiss. Although he’s honest that he has no intention of staying permanently, he thrills Lizzie by promising to stay a few days. She finally has a beau, she tells her father.
File returns to arrest Starbuck. Lizzie tries to warn Starbuck. When that doesn’t work, she and her family convince File to let him go. As he’s about to leave, Starbuck asks Lizzie to go with him. File asks her to stay. She realizes that even though he helped give her confidence, Starbuck is not the man she wants to spend her life with. She agrees to stay with File.
Right after Starbuck leaves, the skies open up. It has finally begun to rain. Lizzie and File and her family dance with joy in the deluge. Starbuck is thrilled and believes he has actually brought the rain.
I have to admit on this viewing certain things about the movie didn’t sit so well with me. First, the almost hysterical assumption that a person (this goes for both Lizzie and File) has to be married to be happy.
Everybody, jeez, calm down, I wanted to say to some of these characters. I had a Jewish grandmother who didn’t get in my face this much because I was unmarried.
In my opinion, it also overdoes it on the symbolism. Jimmy, Lizzie’s sweet but dumb-as-dirt brother, falls for a girl who runs around in a red knit hat (in the middle of a drought, where people comment the temperature has gone over 100 degrees). She talks about giving it to the “right man.” I think we can all guess what that symbolizes.
Then of course, there’s the drought, symbolizing the emptiness of Lizzie’s life, especially her love life.
O.K., it was the 1950s, and even with all the symbolism, the Hays office still had a problem with the movie. They determined the tack room scene implied Lizzie and Starbuck have sex. The studio still kept the scene in.
Good thing, too, because one of the best things about this movie is the chemistry between Lancaster and Hepburn, in their only screen pairing. Their styles were quite different, but they mesh well on screen.
Ironically, they did not get on at all. Hepburn even told Lancaster off at one point because she considered some of his behavior, such as lateness, unprofessional. But that may have actually enhanced the performances, because both characters have quite a bit of trouble understanding each other for much of their acquaintance.
As I was watching the movie this time, I asked myself why I had always liked it so much. Then I hit on it: it’s a story about two disparate people, brought together by unusual circumstances, who meet briefly but change each other’s lives forever. That is one of my very favorite themes in a story.
On that level, the movie is awesome. When the rain finally falls, symbolic as it is, it feels like a genuine catharsis.