"The Rainmaker" is, officially, a Western. It is set in a small town rural town in the West, (probably in the 1920s or 1930s, to judge from the cars and costumes we see), but it bears little resemblance to most Westerns from the fifties. This was the decade when the cinema first faced serious competition from television, and spectacular Westerns featuring exciting action sequences shot against the dramatic scenery of the American West were one of Hollywood's major weapons in its fight against the newcomer. ("Shane", "The Naked Spur", "The Searchers" and "The Big Country" are all good examples). This film, by contrast, is adapted from a stage play, and it shows.
The plot is a simple one. It is a hot summer and the area is suffering from a severe drought. A man calling himself Bill Starbuck arrives in town, promising that he can make it rain. A spinster named Lizzie Curry falls in love with him. The film tells the story of the effect which Starbuck has on Lizzie and the other townspeople. The film's message is, effectively, "learn to love yourself and to believe in yourself". Starbuck, of course, is not a genuine rainmaker but a con-man; even his real surname is not Starbuck but Smith. The important thing is that he projects such assurance and self-belief that others accept him as genuine, and under his influence Lizzie, hitherto put upon and patronised by her father and two brothers for whom she acts as housekeeper on the family cattle ranch, learns to believe in herself too.
I have never seen the play on which "The Rainmaker" is based, so I do not know how well this story might work on the stage. (I understand that it is a staple of the American theatre, but on this side of the Atlantic both the play and its author, one N. Richard Nash, are virtually unknown). Unfortunately, the film does not work for me, and when I recently saw it on television I was disappointed; I had been hoping for something far better, given that it stars two actors as talented as Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn.
Part of the problem is miscasting. Hepburn is quite wrong for the part of Lizzie for three reasons, namely age, looks and personality. We never learn exactly how old Lizzie is, but I think we are supposed to assume that she is considerably younger than Hepburn's 49 years at the time the film was made, possibly in her thirties. Secondly, Lizzie is supposed to be plain, whereas Hepburn in her youth was considered one of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses, and even in her late forties was still strikingly handsome. Thirdly, and most importantly, Hepburn spent most of her career playing strong, independent and capable woman, and is not really credible as a downtrodden, put-upon spinster lacking in self-confidence. Her "Best Actress" Oscar nomination today seems incredible. (Mind you, there seems to have been something odd going on at the Academy Awards for 1956; that was the year which saw Don Murray's bizarre "Best Supporting Actor" nomination for his awful performance in "Bus Stop" and Kirk Douglas unaccountably losing "Best Actor" to Yul Brynner). Lancaster as Starbuck is better suited to his role, but this is not one of his great performances and he was to be far better as another charismatic con-man, Elmer Gantry, four years later.
My other problem with the film is to do with the direction. I was not surprised to learn that Joseph Anthony was a theatrical director who directed Nash's play on stage but had never previously directed a movie, as he seems to have made this film on the basis that there was no essential difference between the two media. There is little attempt to open the story out and little in the way of action; most scenes take place indoors and consist mainly dialogue rather than physical action. The result is a static, talky film, dominated by interminable conversations. Another reviewer claims that the film could have been far better had it been made by a major cinema director such as Fred Zinnemann or George Stevens who would no doubt have escaped from the "filmed theatre" style of film-making and made maximum use of the greater freedom which the cinematic medium offers. That is doubtless true, but I suspect that Zinnemann or Stevens, or any of the other great directors of the period, would have demanded from the producers more artistic freedom and a much greater budget than Anthony appears to have had at his disposal. 4/10