The Rainmaker (1956)

Directed by Joseph Anthony

The movie The Rainmaker is puzzling because its greatest flaw is also its greatest asset: it’s based on a play (by N. Richard Nash).

It’s a flaw because it plays as a play, is shot as if it’s a play and even the sets look theatrical, as if for a play. In this sense, there is little cinematic about it. However, it’s an asset because the story is clearly articulated, the characters are well defined and the dialogue sparkles.

So, if you can accept that this movie is really a play on film, there is a good chance you’ll love it, as I did.

The Rainmaker is a fantasy about a con-man in the mid-west, a snake oil salesmen, going from town to town selling his miracles (whatever you need – tornado protection, drought relief through rain, anything) until he’s seen to be a charlatan and run out of town, or arrested.

Burt Lancaster as Starbuck in The Rainmaker (1966).His name is Starbuck and he’s played by Burt Lancaster in a joyously over-the-top performance. The movie starts with Starbuck doing his routine and it lets us know immediately what we’re in for, at least as far as performance goes. But that’s fine because we’re in a kind of mythic reverie and dealing with themes in a fantastical way.

Eventually, he meets up with Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn) and her family. All the characters are sharply defined because they are really caricatures and devices to move the story along and also to reiterate the theme, which is about faith, hope and dreams.

Lizzie is a “plain” woman who would like to find love and marriage but has given up, having accepted that no one wants her and she’s meant to be an old maid (as one brother, the realist, keeps reminding her). But Starbuck doesn’t believe in being “realistic.” He believes in dreams. He believes if you want the dream badly enough, you’ll get it. But, as he reminds Lizzie, you have to believe in yourself.

Thinking of the movie, I’m reminded of some lines from a Leonard Cohen song (“The Traitor“):

Ah the dreamers ride against the men of action
Oh see the men of action falling back …

Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1966).That’s the movie. Starbuck and his flam flam up against the realists of the world fighting for Lizzie’s soul. It’s an incredibly romantic idea and perhaps that’s why it allows for the corniness that informs the film.

The performances in the movie also help to make this work. Burt Lancaster is so exuberant, so irrepressibly animated it’s almost a parody of the carnival barker style of con man. Yet it manages to work – don’t ask me how.

And Katherine Hepburn’s Lizzie is endearing with her determination to be realistic battling with her desire to believe and to hope. Interestingly, the one character who actually believes in Lancaster’s Starbuck is Jim Curry (Earl Holliman), the youngest son. He’s almost annoyingly goofy and energetic and seen by most of the characters (and viewers) as “dumb.” But what he is, actually, is innocent and that is what allows him to believe. He’s not jaded.

Overall, this is a weirdly engaging movie. It feels,or looks, as if it should be awful, and in many ways it is. But it isn’t. It’s a good, involving movie. I think that is so because the story and its characters, even if they are simply, distinctly drawn, pull us in and carry us along.

It’s also a warm-hearted reminder to believe in ourselves.

5 Responses

  1. Leslie Butterworth says:

    I ABSOLUTELY Love this film. I agree with what you say about it, but I find it VERY moving and romantic. All the actors are wonderful, ALL of them, I just love this film, its simplicity, its love, its silliness, it makes me smile and it makes me cry…………

  2. says:

    I love it too. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched it. :)

  3. Lyn says:

    I agree with all you say. This is one of my favorite films. I have watched it many times.

  4. gordon clark says:

    this is still my favorite movie of all time it so funny to watch as burt is up to no good as orways love him he was great

  5. Richard St.John-Roberts says:

    Another mesmerising performance from Mr. Lancaster.
    I think there are two themes running through this film.
    Firstly, don’t wait forever for Mr. Right to come along, or you’ll end up an old maid. Sometimes it’s better to settle for someone a little less perfect, than to have nobody.
    Secondly, it’s better to believe in something rather than nothing. Hope is always better than despair, even if that hope is based on an irrational belief. You need hope to get you through the tough times.

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