Lana Fabulosa

There are times when only a Lana Turner movie will do. You know, when work, family, friends, schedules, meetings, messages, all, all of it, life itself, piles on and on, and on, like an endless airport baggage mill—THAT’s when a Lana Turner movie is called for. Especially if it’s 1950s Lana. And a film that features baggage itself. About 14 pieces, I think. All matching bright red, in varying sizes and shapes, all piled onto one rack atop one car, and all meant for one fabulous woman. Who does this much luggage anymore? (Would airlines even allow it?) Today we all do those little wheely things, pulling them by the handle like we would an obedient little cow, with a big zip round the edge and soft, flabby sides to absorb bumps and bangs. That’s it now for travel: a small, squashed cow with a zipper. What a sad comment on our civilization.

But with Lana, it’s different. When you’re Lana Turner, you can do luggage in style and to hell with airline regulations; no one’ s gonna tell her she has to travel light. Lana’s got what I estimate to be 14 pieces of scarlet-colored luggage piled atop one groaning car like strawberries on cake, and that’s just at the movie’s start. Oh, did I mention that the movie is called The Rains of Ranchipur? And that it takes place in India? And that it’s a glossy 1955 remake of The Rains Came, and that Lana has 14 matching pieces of crimson-dyed luggage? As well as a different costume for every frame of celluloid she’s in and enough jewelry adorning her platinum-sheened self to sink a small Pacific isle? Well, if I haven’t, I’m letting you know now. When life demands a Lana Turner movie, I demand The Rains of Ranchipur, and I want 14 rubicund suitcases to go with it. Glamour has its privileges, and 7-times-2 carmined pieces of baggage, each with reinforced sides and not a squish between ‘em, is part of the deal. Just gazing on all that cherryfied leather is enough to make my day. Misery can go pack its troubles into 14 old kit bags (all of a distinct ruddy shade) and head for the Grampian Hills, as far as I’m concerned.

As for what the movie’s about, I really can’t say. Look, Lana Turner movies are about Lana, and that’s it. End of sentence, full stop, period. If it’s a story you want, read the Brothers Grimm. Lana’s movies concern Lana, and I’m happy with that, I’m more than happy, I’m delirious. It’s Lana and Luggage (14 incarnadined pieces, including one carried specially by the maid), and what more do you want? I argued in an earlier post that Joan Crawford could be considered the auteur of her films, and I would argue the same for Lana’s (especially her ’50s ones). I don’t mean that you’ll find Lana behind the camera yelling “Action” to bring down the clapper. I meant that there’s a look, a feel, a sensibility to her movies, which all amount to one statement: I AM LANA TURNER AND I AM FABULOUS. What other movies feature scenes of 14 blood-red matching pieces of luggage travelling in the open for us to goggle at? You know it’s the only way to travel.

Ok, there is a story, sort of. For those who saw the earlier, better film, The Rains Came (or read the novel), you’ll know that it follows the entangled lives and loves of a bunch of Westerners in a small province in India during the rainy season. There are even some Indians, too—how nice they should be included in their own country—as well as some local color and customs. Plus an earthquake. And a plague. The central plot, about the forbidden love between an Indian doctor (Richard Burton) and a titled Anglo-American lady (Lana), doesn’t end too well. Unlike the earlier, better movie this one feels skimpy, despite its color, its lavishness, its collapsing-buildings-and-concaving-streets special effects. It’s the kind of production in which the brightness of Burton’s lime-green turban, the ice-blue shade of Lana’s negligee, the gleaming silver-whiteness of Eugenie Leontovich’s wig, are what stand out. Design, luxury, expense are what matters. The plot is merely a hook to hang it all by. It’s not Lady Edwina’s torment that draws us, it’s Lana’s gowns, hair, cool blue eyes and equally cool blue emoting—she suffers with such carefully coiffed glamour, it’s an art in and of itself: Lana presented for our delectation, appreciation, admiration, and absorption in everything Lana.

The upshot, of course, is that when Lana’s not onscreen, interest drops. Who can compete with her? Certainly not Burton, who, in a Hollywood case of whitewashing, is made up to look dark, but not too dark; his skin tones changes from scene to scene, apparently depending on the contrast needed against Lana or against the décor (design does matter). As an actor Burton would rely on his famous voice when a part didn’t interest him, and this one clearly didn’t (in her autobiography Lana had nothing good to say about working with Burton). He purrs like a cat or booms out like a church organ in heat while his face never varies expression. In the other roles, the actors try but flutter vainly; they vanish from our consciousness the moment their scenes end. Joan Caulfield in the part of Fern is a bit too old for a gushy college girl; while Fred MacMurray as Ransome is tired in his playing of a disillusioned idealist. Maybe disillusioned idealists should be tired, but I got more of fatigue from Fred than of disenchantment. The whole weariness thing doesn’t inspire him (I bet it would have for Burton), and he seems stuck in apathy. If only he had been given a murder, in black and white, to plot.

In sum, the movie is trite, silly, overproduced, clichéd, and shallow, stuffed with high fashion and garish dramatics. it’s lethargic in its pacing and downright dull whenever the attention shifts from its starry center. It’s not for those who love The Rains Came. But it’s not to be missed, not for us Lana addicts. It’s Lana, Lana, Lana, gripping us through thick and (mainly) thin. We wait to see her next dress, her next hairdo, her next moue; we want to hear that light, breathy voice, as shallow and small as a child’s, we love to watch her smoke—the quick, hard stab she makes of tapping one end of a cigarette against a box, the way she sucks in her cheeks and narrows her eyes as she puffs so that you think of a dangerous animal about to strike. It’s the whole sleek, shiny lacquer of her, of skin and hair and nails, as if coated in wax and burnished to a gleam, and her presence, her look-at-ME aura, her sense that she is a STAR. Just the conviction she gives to the line, “But it’s wrong, darling!”, transports us. Yes, it’s silly and clichéd, but Lana could do as much with a cliché as Gielgud could do with Shakespeare (and Gielgud could do volumes with Shakespeare). It’s what a Star does. It’s bred in the bone.

Lana’s not a star in the Crawford sense, of burning through the celluloid with a gaze as fierce as that of a warrior goddess, and with that utter, impassioned presentation of Self as performance—I’m acting, says Joan, look at me and attend; I’m here, creating a New Self for you! That’s not Lana’s style. Lana doesn’t act in the trained-actor sense, she doesn’t try to plumb her inner depths, wring them out, and then spread them before us, throbbing with simulated life. No, Lana is just LANA, cool, beautiful, aloof, as self-contained as a cat—but yet with that slight tremor about her, that ever-so-slight awkwardness in diction and gesture, that lets us see, beneath the shine and polish and hard, varnished surface, still present after years of effort to smooth it out, that at heart she remains that little midwestern girl, dreaming of Hollywood stardom; and perhaps there was a little part of her as dazzled by her movie-star glamour as we are. Despite her fabulousness, her beauty, her perfect blonde-white gleam—indeed, despite those 14 pieces of ruby-red luggage—the drugstore where she was discovered has never quite left Lana; and we’re always there, inside, at the counter, right with her.

BONUS CLIP: Though Michael Rennie, Eugenie Leontovich, and some gorgeous horses focus the scene, who do you look at? Lana’s the one who counts when the rains come:

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