Ring a Ding Ding
Raintree County marked a significant point in the career of Montgomery Clift, although not a positive one. It was a box office hit because people flocked to the theater to compare the before and after images of the face of a man who had been disfigured in a car accident during filming. Myself, I could not identify a change in his facade, but I did think he looked different throughout from the Clift to which I am accustomed. He had a rather stiff, stoic face that curves into a smile only once, I think, during the story.
The accident happened when Clift left a party at the home of his costar Elizabeth Taylor. He hit a phone poll, and thanks to Kevin McCarthy who witnessed the collision, was quickly attended by Taylor, Rock Hudson and others. Taylor allegedly removed two loose front teeth from his mouth that were threatening to choke the actor. Filming was halted while Clift recovered for nine weeks from a broken jaw and nose and plastic surgery to repair part of his face. The incident also led to a dependence on pills and alcohol, which would plague the rest of his career.
Raintree County can easily be compared to Gone with the Wind because it takes place both before and during the Civil War, involves love –some of it unrequited– and a particular emphasis on place, nevermind that it is more than three hours long. Raintree County, Indiana, is where most of our characters grew up. We come in on Clift’s John Shawnessy and Eva Marie Saint as Nell, his sort-of girlfriend. They are nearing the end of high school, but the entrance of Taylor’s Susanna Drake sends their lives in different directions than they expected. Susanna, whose family owns a house in Raintree County but is from the south, quickly falls in love with John and he with her. They make love in a lakeside forest and Susanna next says she is “going to have a baby”. Prior to this point, John was not really through with Nell despite her hurt feelings, but the forthcoming bundle of joy forces him to marry the southern belle.
The couple moves to the south and John starts to learn unsavory things about his bride: she is racist, pro-slavery and is not really pregnant. After making some inquiries of Susanna’s relatives, our protagonist learns that her mother went insane, her father visited Cuba for a long time where Susanna was born and from where he returned with a non-slave black woman, and there was some confusion after a fire killed those three about which woman was in bed with the father. Susanna herself will convey the whole story of the fire closer to the end of the movie.
John is not really digging the south, so the pair return to Raintree County where Susanna does eventually have a baby, Jim. The woman’s mental health clearly starts deteriorating around the time of the pregnancy, and her struggles will shape the remainder of the film that involves John going to war merely to hunt down the son his wife has kidnapped and taken southward.
Taylor was nominated for an Oscar for this role, which she greatly deserved. Besides playing a perfect southern belle with an almost natural-seeming accent, she does wonderfully with the insanity part of her character. I felt Clift’s performance was quite stiff, possibly because of the accident’s effects on his face. For both actors I could criticize some of the emotion. Any time they declared their love for each other, I was surprised because their performances had been rather unconvincing up to that point. Only Saint really wore her emotions on her sleeve so we could know how much she longed for her lost love.
Raintree County is a long movie to sit through, but it has a wonderful and mysterious/scandalous story highlighted by beautiful scenery and costumes, which were designed by Walter Plunkett who earned an Academy Award nomination for them.
- Raintree County is set for 6 a.m. Aug. 20 on TCM.
Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com