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It's the mid-nineteenth century in Freehaven, Raintree County, Indiana. John Shawnessy has just graduated from high school at the top of his class, with a promising career as a writer. He is a romantic, principled, and an idealist, believing the story of the golden raintree - after which the county is named - growing somewhere, most likely in the county's swamp area, searching for and locating it which would provide all the answers to one's life questions. An idea passed down from his father, John also has a strong sense of place as belonging, and as such there is much anticipation in the probable marriage between John and his sweetheart Nell Gaither, a born and bred Raintree girl. However, there is an undeniable mutual attraction on first sight between John and Susanna Drake, a visiting southern belle. Despite Susanna's temporary stay in Raintree County which means that she and John may not have a future, they eventually do marry out of circumstance, leaving behind a heartbroken Nell... Written by
Raintree County, MGM's attempt to make a picture that would faintly remind audiences of Gone With the Wind, did have two things in common with the earlier film: Technicolor and length. Otherwise, it was a disaster, a clichéd period piece heavy on costumes, very light on absorbing human situations.
Raintree had two insurmountable problems: ham-handed direction and a clumsy, uninspired script that failed to flesh out the characters of several cast members including two leading players. Worst impacted was Monty Clift as Johnny Shawnessy, a role so bland that it offered the actor nothing to grab hold of. Johnny is simply a nice person, honorable, loyal, patient, and truthful. He is someone of good values, a person to rely on, occasionally funny in an adolescent sort of way, and a good son to his boring two-dimensional parents. (Correction. Agnes Moorhead as Johnny's mother is one dimensional. The script's fault, not hers.) In short, there's nothing interesting about Johnny. He's ordinary. Apparently, studio executives didn't see a problem with this, even though Johnny Shawnessy is continuously front and center in a film that originally ran for almost three hours, as it does again in the restored video version.
Clift, one of the most gifted American film actors of the twentieth century, knew he was prostituting himself by appearing in Raintree. He responded by delivering what is arguably the worst performance of his career. It's painful to watch him: in most of his scenes he appears pallid, slightly dwarfish, and insignificant, giving the impression that he was privately making believe he really wasn't in the film at all.
The first excruciating hour of the picture is almost enough to drive audiences out of the theater. Since GWTW was long, Raintree County is long--and unfocused. In one particularly vapid scene Monty and Eva Marie Saint linger amid the widescreen splendor of well-scouted, photographically appropriate locations. As the two exchange graduation presents with Laurel and Hardy-like formality, the script calls for Eva Marie to coyly break into girlish giggles and say things like `Isn't that niiieeccce?...We think the same things. Isn't that crazy? Tee-hee-hee-hee-hee.' Privately, Eva Marie must have been wondering what crime she might have committed to have caused fate to whirl her from the triumph of her 1954 performance in On the Waterfront to this swampy mess.
The film is equally inept in making use of Lee Marvin, who was reduced to doing his loutish, clumsy, I'm-so-dumb schtick. Marvin wasn't nearly as good at broad physical comedy as he and some others seemed to think he was. (Doing more subtle comedy, however, where less is more, was another thing altogether for Marvin. Watch him as a clueless wannabe in a wonderful film like Pocket Money to see what he can do with a great comic role.) We watch as Lee challenges Monty first to a race (lots of grotesquely exaggerated, manly calisthenics at the starting line), then to see who can out-drink the other, while a dozen equally buffoonish male extras shout and yell on cue. Johnny, a guileless innocent, gets thoroughly looped for the first time in his life, whoops it up, and executes a flying swan dive into a bunch of liquor barrels. (In real life, Monty was a little less innocent than Johnny Shawnessy; according to his biographers, he was a walking all-nite pharmacy of illicit substances.)
To give credit where it's due, the film is briefly buoyed by the presence of the wonderful Nigel Patrick as a roguish schoolmaster with an eye for other men's wives. Happily for us, Patrick steals all of his scenes, impatiently bellowing at or comically insulting his young charges and generally pumping some desperately needed fire and energy into the film.
After a very long time, something of major interest finally occurs: Elizabeth Taylor makes her entrance. Sexy, conniving, dark-eyed Liz steals Johnny away from poor, decent Eva Marie and soon hornswoggles him into marrying her by falsely claiming to be pregnant. While on their honeymoon aboard a paddlewheeler, she nonchalantly arranges a dozen dolls on their bed and shows Monty her all-time favorite, a hideous half-white, half-black doll, appearing burnt in a fire and looking like it was designed by Bela Lugosi. This creepy figurine seemingly makes no impression on Monty, even as members of the audience are rearing back in horror, crossing themselves, and yelling `Monty! Watch out!!'
Taylor delivers a solid performance that displays the rising talent that she had already shown a few years before in A Place in the Sun and which would later would come to fruition in such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Giant. As Susanna Drake, she is initially sexually beguiling towards Johnny. Then, after they marry, she begins to show the first signs of the madness within her. As the atmosphere around her grows slowly darker, you find yourself surprised to realize you're at last being drawn into the story. The actress took a gamble with this unsympathetic role, that of a southern-born woman who fails to see anything wrong with owning slaves and is terrified of possibly finding that she might have a single drop of `negra' blood in her veins. At the same time she manages to elicit a measure of sympathy for this narrow and unbalanced woman by displaying a touching vulnerability simultaneously with her fear of what's happening to her mind.
If anyone triumphs in this upholstered turkey, it's Liz Taylor, always a born survivor.
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