Sunday, 11 December 2016

Film Friday: "Gunga Din" (1939)

Because of the Kirk Douglas blogathon, I did not have the time to write my "Film Friday" article on time. So, this week's "Film Friday" comes on a Sunday instead. I am honoring Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s 107th birthday, which was also on Friday, by telling you a little bit about one of the first films I ever saw with him.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Stevens, Gunga Din (1939) begins in an encampment of Her Majesty's Lancers in Colonial India, where the commanding officer (Montagu Love) is distressed by the cutoff of communications from an outpost ten miles distant. He wants three of his most dependable sergeants to embark on an investigative mission; however, the trio must first be pulled away from a bar brawl to receive their orders. The comrades in arms include the calculating Cutter (Cary Grant), ever dreaming of finding a cache of riches; the grizzled veteran MacChesney (Victor McLaglen); and the gentlemanly Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), whose sole focus is his imminent discharge and marriage to his fiancé (Joan Fontaine), much to the chagrin of his comrades.

Among the troops taken on the mission is the humble bhisti Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), for whom life would hold no greater honor than to serve as regular Army. They arrive at the outpost to find the streets empty; the soldiers' rousting of the homes turns up one small cluster of ostensible survivors. After being summarily revealed as the marauders, they summon waves of mounted reinforcements who send the British forces scurrying for their lives over the rooftops and into the river below. Making their way back to camp, the sergeants present their CO with a captured pickaxe. The colonel immediately recognizes it as the weapon of choice of the Thuggee, the criminal sect devoted to the Hindustani goddess of destruction Kali. The sergeants are left to their own devices while the military response is planned. Cutter's drunken fixation with a legendary golden temple leads to a one-sided slugfest with MacChesney, a stint in the brig, and an audacious escape courtesy of Din and MacChesney's beloved pet elephant. In their flight, Cutter and Din discover the mythical temple which, as they unfortunately learn too late, is also the Thuggee's gathering place. Cutter offers himself to the cult to buy Din time to escape and a quest for his rescue begins.

Colonel Weed: Though I've belted you and flayed you / By the living Gawd that made you / You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
 
Acclaimed author, poet, and journalist Rudyard Kipling allowed very few of his works to be adapted into motion pictures during his lifetime. There was a short silent film version made in 1911 of his famous poem, "Gunga Din," but it was probably unauthorized. Years later, Irving Thalberg, head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had entertained the idea of a film called Gunga Din. Director W. S. Van Dyke, in the wake of the success of Trader Horn (1931), was attached to the project, but no film resulted and the property never got past the treatment stage. After Kipling died in 1936, however, his widow began selling the film rights to various properties, resulting in a rush of production. Three Kipling adaptations were released in the span of a year: Alexander Korda's Elephant Boy (1937) was based on "Toomai of the Elephants" and made a star of young Indian actor Sabu; John Ford's Wee Willie Winkie (1937) came from a story about a small boy, but the gender was changed to allow for this vehicle starring Shirley Temple; and Victor Fleming's Captains Courageous (1937) was based on the novel of the same name and won Spencer Tracy his first Academy Award for Best Actor.
 
The screen rights to "Gunga Din" were purchased in 1936 by independent producer Edward Small, who paid Kipling's widow £5,000 for the story and hired no less than William Faulkner at $750 a week to write a treatment. Faulkner spent weeks on the project, devising several somber variations on a theme, all of them painting Din as a drunk and a gambler. Small felt that a serious approach with a complex plot was the wrong way to go, so other writers were brought in for new treatments. In the meantime, RKO acquired the rights to "Gunga Din" from Small and put the film on its roster, with Howard Hawks set to produce and direct. When Hawks' screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) failed at the box office, however, RKO decided to assign its large-scale Kipling project to George Stevens, a rising young producer-director. Stevens had distinguished himself at the studio in recent years, moving up from helming Wheeler and Woolsey comedies to directing such properties as the Katharine Hepburn drama Alice Adams (1935) and the musical comedies Swing Time (1936) and A Damsel in Distress (1937). During Hawks' brief tenure as director of Gunga Din, he brought in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to pen the script, but it was Stevens's own writers, Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, who eventually received screen credit.
 
Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Casting for the picture was all-important, in order to retain the proper "3 Musketeers" chemistry. Veteran Victor McLaglen, an Oscar-winner for Ford's The Informer (1935), was cast as the brawny Sgt. MacChesney. McLaglen had also appeared in Wee Willie Winkie, as Sgt. MacDuff. Cary Grant, who had a non-exclusive contract with RKO, was offered the role of Sgt. Ballantine, but he preferred to play the smaller role of Sgt. Cutter. Grant was anxious to play a broad Cockney character with a lot of physical comedy and he and Stevens worked up several new bits of business for Cutter. Grant also gave the character his own real first name, Archibald. With Grant playing Sgt. Cutter, the role of Ballantine was open for the film's third lead. Only two weeks before the start of principal photography, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was cast - at Grant's own suggestion.
 
RKO originally wanted Sabu to play the title role in Gunga Din, but Korda, who held the actor's contract, was unwilling to loan him out; Korda's epic The Thief of Bagdad (1940) was in pre-production and the producer wanted to keep his star nearby. The role of Gunga Din was open, and although he was 47 years old at the time, character actor Sam Jaffe auditioned for the part of the water-boy. Jaffe, whose most recent appearance was as the wizened High Lama in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), knew of the desire to have Sabu play the role and so he simply played it as Sabu might have. 
 
Sam Jaffe in a publicity still
Filming on Gunga Din began in June 1938, with location shooting taking place near Lone Pine, California, in the middle of the High Sierras, about 225 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The compliment of actors, crew, extras, technicians, horses, elephants, and trainers was huge - the largest company sent on location in Hollywood history up to that time. The largest set was that built for the Tantapur village, several blocks of complex structures and rooftops. About six miles from that location, in a flatter desert terrain, an Army encampment for the British troops was constructed. At a third location, higher into the Sierras, the Thuggee Temple was built. Due to Stevens' working methods and a studio anxious to produce its most prestigious picture to date, Gunga Din would ultimately go over budget, miss its release date of Christmas 1938 and the shooting schedule would stretch well beyond the originally allotted 64 days to a total of 104 days.
 
Three previews were held for Gunga Din near the Los Angeles area; all were very successful and indicated that RKO had a hit on its hands. The film premiered in Los Angeles on January 24, 1939, two days before opening in New York. Critical reviews were extremelu positive. Newsweek wrote, "Capably acted, and given the most elaborate production in RKO-Radio's history, the blood-and-blundering heroics of Gunga Din make for sweeping, spectacular melodrama." The New York Times reviewer was particularly impressed by the film's battle sequences, commenting, "All movies [...] should be like the first twenty-five and the last thirty minutes of Gunga Din, which are the sheer poetry of cinematic motion." Released to the general public on February 17, the picture was very successful at the box-office, but because its final negative cost was an astonishing $1,909,000, Gunga Din did not see a profit in its first year of release. 
 
Joan Fontaine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen
 

1 comment:

  1. Hello there This is a Cary movie I still have to see! It looks wonderful thanks to your post! Great as always- I love all the behind the scenes info! Emily!

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