Stars Burt Lancaster, Katharine Hepburn, Wendell Corey, Lloyd Bridges, Cameron Prud’Homme, Earl Holliman, Wallace Ford, Yvonne Lime.
For a long time, it appeared as though The Rainmaker would remain unchecked on my list of films to see before dying. But if a studio is savvy enough to send me a Blu-ray, I’m sappy enough to review it. Why the decades of avoidance? I tend to favor movies told through the lens of a camera, not a typewriter or, worse, a proscenium arch. As a filmmaker, Joseph Anthony was an accomplished stage director. This was to be his first foray into motion pictures, and if the midnight blue construction paper sky that opens the picture is any indication, be on the lookout for a stagebound western that leaves one wishing male lead Burt Lancaster had thrown a chair through a painted flat to let in a breath of fresh air.
Lancaster delivers a one-note performance as Bill Starbuck, a charismatic traveling snake oil salesman working a drought-driven part of the Southwest who, in exchange for $100, promises the Curry family he’ll devote the next 24 hours to conjuring up a cats-and-dogs downpour of biblical proportions. Katherine Hepburn co-stars as Lizzie Curry, the town spinster whose father H.C. (Cameron Prud’Homme) and two brothers, Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jim (Earl Holliman), work overtime to marry her off to the best breeding stock their burgh has to offer. Deputy Sheriff J.S. File (Wendell Corey) is the pick of the litter, but there’s a problem: Rather than admitting that his first marriage ended in divorce, he tells the locals his ex is dead.
Lancaster preens while Hepburn burns. If I was uncertain of Anthony’s ability to command a feature, one thing was for sure: A little Hepburn in her ultra-virginal mode goes a long way. With the back of her wrist dramatically pressed to her forehead, she delivers a noisy “pay attention to me” performance, her pearl-clutching bursts of Bryn Mawr rah-rah spiked with enough “gollys” and “jeepers” to thicken (and sicken) the proceedings. Starchy spinsters like Lizzie and The African Queen’s Rose Sayer would eventually lead Hepburn down the decrepit path to Grace Quigley and Eula, the prig who put the “cog” in Rooster Cogburn.
Working from his play, screenwriter N. Richard Nash whipped up a tsunami of obvious symbolism, starting with equating the drought and Lizzie’s barren lovelife. Lizzie can cook and sew, but there’s more to being a woman than that, something extra that doesn’t necessarily involve using the brain God gave her. The worst performances are those that allow an actor to draw attention to her/himself, and Hepburn’s Lizzie is more inflated than a self-basting turkey. Symbols begin clashing with clichés, and in quick time, Starbuck is letting the virgin’s hair down for her. Not surprisingly, the film’s most memorable moment takes place far outside Paramount’s Bronson Gate. It’s in a grassy field where Jim and his cute-as-a-button honey Snookie (Yvonne Lime) rig her red roadster to drive in circles while the young lovers partake in a brief but inventive backseat make out session. Of all the trips the film tried to take us on, this was the only one that proved necessary.
The special features include the trailer and a commentary track by Julie Kirgo that, like Anthony’s direction, devotes more time to the performances than visual storytelling.