The Mighty B’s – Charlie Chan – Changing of the Guard Pt 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 2

The Oakland Tribune [12/11/38] put it succinctly in their headline for their story about the replacement for Warner Oland:

Missouri Man Follows Swede in Chan Role

The article ran two months after the decision that Sidney Toler would be the new Charlie Chan. Having pointed out the disparity of their origins, their story went on to compare the two actors and introduce to their readers (or recall to their memory) just who the new Chan was.

The successful candidate – Sidney Toler – had many similarities to Oland. Both men were tall [6 foot] and heavyset. Both came from the stage, Oland’s first stage appearance in the early 1900s was in a Sarah Bernhardt production. He put a total of fourteen years in on the boards, and along with his wife translated the works of August Strindberg. Toler, being older by five years, started in the theater right out of college in 1892 (the same year a thirteen year old Oland emigrated from Sweden with his family), and wrote many plays as well.

Oland, however, was first off the mark when it came to film roles – he appeared with Theda Bara in Jewels of Madonna in 1909 for William Fox. Toler did not appear before the camera until 20 years later – in Madame X, (under the direction of fellow actor Lionel Barrymore).

And both Toler and Oland had played villains, and both had played Orientals.

When Oland died, he left behind some pretty big shoes. No one else in film history to that date had appeared in such a long lived series of feature films portraying the same character. His fans were legion. And the exhibitors were keen for a Chan to light up their screens and box office coffers.

And it had seemed it would come to pass.

Fox had announced a starting date (first week in August 1938) for the next production – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, but they weren’t getting any responses from Oland to their summons for his sooner return. They did not know that he was on his death bed. The exhibitors mourned at the news of his passing, and the week after rejoiced to hear that a search was underway for a new Chan, and already rumors were circulating that a contract player on the Fox lot, J Edward Bromberg, held the inside track.

However, screen tests for the part were still ongoing in October with Charles Coburn and Sidney Toler the most recent candidates. The field topped out at 35 before the final decision was made (Oland had been the chosen one from a field of 19). Fox must have been getting nervous about going forward, for they hedged their bets by canvassing the exhibitors as to their continued support for the series, arguing that they did have the Mr Moto series to fall back on. Their poll must have been reassuring.

So far 1938 was a busy year for Toler. He split himself between two studios and five projects in supporting roles.  Though his main studio had been principally Paramount, he appeared in two of Fox’s B unit films – ‘The Wild Night’ and ‘Up the River,’ both comedies about criminals. After Toler was tapped for the Chan part on October 18, the film columnists posited afterwards that Toler had angled to become Chan.  Toler confirmed it in a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1939 (before his third Chan film was released). He confessed that he won the part on the strength of his “performance as a con man in Up the River.” And then columnist Robbin Coons got more specific – in essence Toler played the part of the con man as if he were Chan (just without the accent) by making the case to the director beforehand that his character should be “quiet, subtle and restrained.”And it was reported that the rushes from Up the River and Toler’s character in particular wowed Sol Wurtzel. Such was his contribution and because of how well the film came together that Darryl Zanuck (Wurtzel’s boss) bumped Up the River to an ‘A’ picture status. Toler was rewarded with a screen test for the Chan part and walked away with the role.

The advance reviews for ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’ confirmed their choice.

The Variety review 12/21/38

“Adventures of Charlie Chan get off to a fresh start with Sidney Toler handling the title role in most capable fashion. His Chan has poise and lightness, and is less theatric than previously. Followers of the series should quickly accept him as Chan, and if comparisons with the late Warner Oland’s conception are made they will generally be in his favor.”

The Film Bulletin review (an Exhibitor publication) 12/31/38

“a lighter, more affable and less formal Charlie Chan. .. reviewer found himself more concerned with the story than comparisons between Oland and Toler.”

And gave the following promo tip: “Call him the greatest character in mystery fiction – a character that will never die!”

And soon like Oland, Toler was receiving adulatory fan mail – by the bucket loads – addressed merely to his character’s name – Charlie Chan. It led Toler to muse about his getting the role in the first place. In that article from the Philadelphia Inquirer he remarked that before Chan he was a ‘triple threat actor’ – comedian, villain or any other role. (He must have been feeling what George Reeves felt later after playing the Superman role on TV, and was no longer offered other parts). For Toler ends his comments, in a comic fashion, but with the sting of truth, relating a dream “in which he was playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, when someone in the audience jumped to his feet and yelled – ‘You can’t fool me – That’s Charlie Chan.’”

Stayed tuned for a rundown on the four Chan films released in 1939 starring Sidney Toler.

The Mighty B’s Charlie Chan The Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The year 1939 would be marked by a sea (or C C for Charlie Chan) change for the B unit at Twentieth Century Fox. It all began in early 1938 when the head of the unit, Sol M Wurtzel was presented with a huge headache – the star of his Charlie Chan series walked off the set in the midst of filming his seventeenth feature – ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside.’ Ostensively it was to get a drink of water, but the actor, Warner Oland, kept going and walked off the lot, too.

Oland was very troubled at the time. His wife was suing him for separate maintenance, and complaining about his alcoholism. These two factors easily explain his odd behavior the week prior to his exit.

The Ringside film was to have begun shooting on Monday, January 10th, but Oland was a no show, sending word that the scheduled sound stage was too drafty and thus a danger to his health. By that Wednesday the producers had lined up a ‘warmer’ sound stage, and filming commenced with Oland playing the Chan character, but come Saturday he walked out without a word of explanation.

Oland was back in the fold on Monday January 17th, up until the time of the ‘drink of water’ incident. Then he just disappeared. To where? Nobody knew. As to why, nothing was mentioned about it at the time, but I noticed in my research that that month marked their 30th wedding anniversary. Perhaps, he was overwhelmed on that score.

Finally he was located at home on January twentieth, but that was too late as far as the producers were concerned. In the meantime, they had suspended him for three months and had pulled the plug on the film. There was much speculation in the press as to what would happen next. Many columnists were working their contacts within the studio, and brought back the report of the confusion reigning there. Louella Parsons wrote on the 25th that Fox was narrowing their options down to two; either get a new Chan, or promote Keye Luke, Chan’s number one son to take over the series altogether. By early February, Wurtzel came up with another option. He made a decision to salvage ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside’ by converting it into a Mr Moto film, another series produced under his aegis. New scenes would be shot with Peter Lorre’s character grafted into the story, which had him interacting with Chan’s number one son Keye Luke.

About the time the newly named ‘Mr Moto’s Gamble’ was shooting, Oland took off with his chauffeur and his nurse and created more problems in Arizona. Evidently, he had not told his companions his plans until they reached Tucson. A heated argument broke out with Milton Tharp, his chauffeur, when Oland wanted him to cross into Mexico and head for Guaymas (Oland owned a substantial ranch a little further down, on an island off Mazatlan). Tharp refused. For he knew that Oland was broke and had no access to any funds as all he had, had been placed in receivership by his wife’s lawyers. Instead Tharp drove them to the police station where the argument escalated and their resultant spat drew a crowd. Bristling about the curious onlookers, Oland tried to disperse them by hurling stuff at them – his thermos, lighted cigars, then his shoes and his socks – anything that came to hand. When photographers arrived, Oland got out and chased after them, bare foot and wrapped in an Indian blanket. Tharp was able to explain the situation to Police Chief Wollard, who detailed a former deputy sheriff to accompany the troop back to LA, where Oland was admitted to a private sanitarium in Hollywood.

Two weeks later, the United Press was reporting that Oland was on the way to recovery. The studio changed his three month suspension into three month vacation, and they were hoping he could return to the role in the fall.

  Just before the release of the Mr Moto ex-Chan film in April, Oland’s divorce became final, and soon after he left for Europe. He would travel to Italy, France and England before settling in to his native Sweden to complete his rest and recovery.

Sadly though – on August 6th, Oland contracted pneumonia (per press accounts) and died in a hospital in Stockholm. (Official cause of death was listed as cirrhosis hepatitis cardiosclerosis).

Recovering from their shock, 20th Century Fox was left scrambling again. The Chan films were too lucrative to drop, for they churned out a million plus per year. Time to get serious about a replacement to play Charlie Chan.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story next time, here on Watch This Space.

The Fatal RIng - Pearl White - Oland upper rt

Aside – Oland’s death was connected to that curiosity of celebrity deaths – those that occur in threesomes. Oland (in the upper right corner of the above photo) in an even stranger coincidence was related to the two celebs whose deaths proximated his. On August 4, just two days prior to his demise, Pearl White, the heroine of highly popular serials in the silent era, passed away in Paris. Oland played the heavy who was trying to kill her at every turn. (He remembers that one episode called for him to dispatch her with a pile driver). The other – director John G Blystone died the same day as Oland. He had been his director on ‘Charlie Chan’s Chance’ back in 1932.

The Midshipman was an Inventor Roswell Evander Morey

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This time out I am writing about another appointee from the state of Maine, Roswell Evander Morey. The last time I wrote about a midshipman who hailed from the Pine Tree state (L. B. Foster), he was one who turned his back on his state and the Union, went south and became a rebel. Roswell left the state also, though he took a different direction. He went west and became an inventor.

Though the 1860 US census lists Roswell was born in Maine, other records (the earlier 1850 one and then all the later censuses) indicate he was born across the US border in St Stephen Canada. Had this fact been known, his appointment to the Naval Academy would have been null and void. I have run across another midshipmen, who was born in Canada and kept that fact secret also.

If it’s any consolation, both of Roswell’s parents, his father Gibeon and his mother Abigail Sarah Farnesworth, were born in Maine and hence American citizens. According to that same 1860 census, Gibeon was a machinist in Machias, Maine. The area was known for machinery that processed one of Maine’s major crops – converting pine trees into lumber. These circumstances may explain Roswell’s later interest in machinery and invention.

Roswell’s career at the Academy got off to a rough start, with his academic standings hugging the bottom of the class. However, he did follow the regulations closely, indicated by his extremely low accumulation of demerits in his plebe year (1857-58). They totaled only 38 on the year  – nearly half of them involving a two day contretemps with a fellow midshipman – upon whom he had thrown water from an upper window. He was sent on the summer cruise on the USS Preble and would continue as a plebe.

There is a noticeable improvement the next year (1858-59), academically speaking – perhaps because he repeated all the plebe classes. His standings jumped to the top third in his class, but so did his demerits, almost tripling to 92, officially. He shipped aboard the USS Plymouth for the 1859 summer cruise, and reported for the 1859-60 school year as a third classman.

Come the end of his third year at the academy, a mystery crops up.  In the official record for the year most of his classmates – 42 out of the 45 total were continuing on to the next year, 1860-61. Roswell would not. He was listed 44th, two below those passing – this despite placing well in 5 of the 7 classes. And it seems particularly odd given that his standing in Seamanship was number three. Such a high mark would carry a lot of weight when it comes to one’s standing in the naval service. The number of his demerits also declined (down to 74).

So what kept him from continuing at the Academy? Why was he forced to resign?

Looking back on other correspondence there is one severe sounding reprimand from the Superintendent in January of 1860. Was this the camel back breaking straw that resurfaced to haunt him?

“Naval Academy
 Annapolis Md
Jan 3 1860

Sir
You are reported to me for
breaking the lock of a trap door in the
quarters & opening the same.-  You will
please reply in writing through the
Commandant of Midn to this most serious
charge.-

I am respectfully
Your obt servt
G S Blake
Sup’t’d’t

Acting Midn
R E Morey USN
       Naval Academy
       Annapolis Md”

I could find no reply from Roswell to the charge. His conduct roll states only that “No excuse” was given for this infraction, for which he received ten demerits.

Yet, he was still at the Academy five months later with no sign of a problem. In fact, his name was put on a list of midshipmen granted leave for the summer to commence on 6/16.  But a few weeks later (7/6), he was notified by Superintendent Blake that because he had failed to tender his resignation, as so directed on 6/19, his appointment was revoked. What happened between those two dates in June?

The only clue I have points to a matter of timing. The June examinations closed on 6/16, so perhaps his standings were not known at the time his name was included with those allowed a furlough.

In any event one way or another Roswell was going home. He was back in Machias with his family just in time for the (already cited) 1860 census on 7/17, in which he was listed as a sailor. The draft registration records for 1863 indicate that he still followed the sea in the merchant marine, but curiously lay no claim to prior military service.

After the war, he moved out to Lake Valley near Tahoe in California, bringing his parents with him, and remained in the state for the rest of his life, moving to San Francisco, then Alameda, and finally, Oakland, along the way working as an engineer, a bookkeeper and finally the manager at the Union Box Factory in Oakland.

Something about the Box Factory inspired his creativity. He applied for four separate patents over a period of 15 years.

1879 – for a return-crate

1880 – an improved fruit and berry basket

1892 – for a machine to form berry baskets

1894 – for a fruit basket and a crate.

As far as I can ascertain Roswell’s family was not aware that he had been at the naval academy. In the obituary for his son Charles, it only mentions that Roswell was a pioneer in Oakland, and had a box making plant.

Perhaps the stigma of dismissal, like that trap door in his academy room, was something better left unopened.

A Closer Look at J S Stembridge #1939TheMiracleYear

A Closer Look at J S Stembridge

In my last post for – 1939 The Miracle Year, I mentioned J. S. Stembridge who rented out  weapons for use in movies. It didn’t seem on point to write more about him at that time for it would have been a huge rabbit trail. So I thought – why not give him his own post.

James Sidney Stembridge was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1869. The town had been the capital of Georgia until displaced by Atlanta just the year before. Though it was a great place in which to grow up, its struggle to keep financially solvent, may have been the reason James wound up in Baltimore as a clerk by the 1890s. It was from that metropolis in 1893 that he landed in his calling as a soldier, the experiences from which formed the basis for his future success in his rather unique business.

By the time of the Spanish American War he was a sergeant in the US 18th Infantry and was dispatched to the Philippines where the US Army’s mission was the pacification of that new territory. He reupped in Manila in August 1898 – a “Most excellent sgt.,” finishing out his term a year later at the Presidio in San Francisco.

From this first encounter with the Golden State, he felt the need to return to family on the east coast after his discharge. Both parents were gone by this time, but his eldest sister and her family in Sanford FL gladly took in the ailing veteran. He had contracted malaria in the Orient and such were his doubts about his longevity that he decided to forswear ever marrying. This notion may have been reinforced when his sister’s husband Herbert Munson died in 1905 from tuberculosis and as a result she descended into madness and was incarcerated in an insane hospital. (Their two daughters, his nieces, later worked for Stembridge).

By 1906, James wound up on his own in Jacksonville FL working as a salesman for a shoe retailer. The pull of family had him back in Georgia by 1910, near Waynesboro, working as a salesman in a drugstore – most likely for his younger brother Henry, who was a pharmacist there. (Henry’s son James Edward, born in 1913, would later join his uncle in his gun rental business in 1933, taking over from him upon his death in 1942).

In investigating Stembridge’s move back to CA from GA, the timing has proven problematic. Most credit his connection early on to Cecil B DeMille when the director was creating ‘The Squaw Man’ in 1914. The story goes that DeMille was exasperated over some extras playing soldiers who acted anything but soldierly. Stembridge, being a former drill sergeant, volunteered his services – to the grateful satisfaction of the director. But the LA city directory for 1914 does not list Stembridge. Neither does the one for 1915.  He does show up finally as a shoe salesman in 1916 which seems appropriate, given his work history. And he did not appear in any of the LA directories with a film industry occupation until 1920. (Stembridge did have a few acting parts in the early 1920s and for such he was listed).

    Loose threads sprouted as I passed down this particular rabbit trail. Just when I thought I was set to close this post, I could not, not so long as questions dangled without answers.

What I uncovered in pursuit of those answers has given me a negative proof of sorts that Stembridge was not in California in 1914 and probably not involved with film in 1915.

In looking through DeMille films that would have utilized extras as soldiers, besides The Squaw Man of 1914, I discovered two that were made back to back in 1915 – The Unafraid and The Captive. Both are stories with the Balkan War of 1912-13 as a backdrop, and called for extras to portray Montenegrin and Turkish troops.

     During the filming of the second a serious tragedy occurred. An extra was accidentally shot and killed. According to DeMille’s own account, he had called for live ammunition to be fired outside a house at its door before they were to rush it. In preparation for the follow up scene DeMille had ordered blanks to be loaded instead. One rifle, sadly, did not have its live round replaced.

     No mention was made of a firearms expert on set. If there had been, the fault would have rested squarely with him. DeMille carried the guilt and arranged for a pension for the victim’s widow.

If Stembridge had been present it is easy to imagine that the tragedy would not have occurred. (And the converse, if it had happened despite his presence, he would no longer have been employed as such).

     So, to my mind, it seems all the more likely that Stembridge was not involved in the industry until late in 1916 or in 1917. DeMille remade The Squaw Man in 1918, just four years after the first version. This may align the timing better to another statement that claimed Stembridge was called on to drill studio employees facing a call up with the US entry into the World War (April 1917).

It would seem that the circumstances in the studio at this later time were more conducive to bringing the ex-soldier on board. War movies, at least patriotic ones, were being pushed into production.

What at first was a maintenance position at the studio, blossomed into a unique relationship. By 1919 it seems Stembridge convinced DeMille and Jesse Lasky (the principals of Paramount Studios)  to advance the capital to set him up as a supplier for gun rentals, both for the studio itself and to rent out to other productions at other lots. They set aside space at the studio to warehouse the weapons and in which he could repair and service them and to manufacture the crucial blank ammunition.

His stock of guns was limited at first, so part of his job was to hunt down the requisite arms as needed. In 1924, he had a particularly hard time putting together enough period correct weapons for The Devil’s Cargo, an adventure set in gold rush California. It seems gun collectors, then on the rise, had snapped up the readily available supply.

A big break for his firm came in 1925 when director King Vidor came to him to solve some tricky problems with the automatic weapons needed for his film – The Big Parade – set against the background of the recent World War. Vidor’s home studio (MGM) had given up on firing blanks from machine guns, declaring it impossible.  The recoil was not strong enough with the lesser force from the smaller charges in the blanks to eject the shell casing and chamber the next round.  Stembridge, with the help of his assistant Fritz Dickie solved the problem. Their success brought more work when Howard Hughes tapped them to supply weapons (a record 1200) for his war film – Hell’s Angels (in production between April 1927 and July 1928; released in 1930).

By 1930, Stembridge had 6,000 weapons in his collection and he reported that the only gun he did not possess was a Chinese matchlock, an antique flintlock dating from the 1600s.

This decade saw the rise of the gangster film, which meant even more business for the Thompson sub machine guns in his collection. Warners came calling with its Public Enemy for 1931, and Hughes brought him back for Scarface, released in 1932. And RKO had him train his guns on King Kong.

Besides all the 1939 film titles listed in the prior post, the Miracle year also saw the re-release in September of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ an anti-war film, based on the Erich Maria Remarque bestseller, which gave the flip side of the World War from the perspective of German soldiers in the trenches. Back in 1929, Universal had hired Stembridge and 800 of his guns to bring it to life.

Aside: I recently watched All Quiet on DVD. It is a stunning achievement of cinematic art. The art direction behind the staging of the scenes is particularly striking, giving the whole a reality that is palpable. The German machine guns [supplied by Stembridge] sweep the field from their positions in the trenches and add greatly to that authenticity. They are only details, passing minutia, but underpin the actions and emotions of the cast, as they “live” out before us their hopes and fears.

Stembridge Gun Rentals continued on through the 1940s under his nephew, James Edward “Ed” Stembridge. Their services rose in demand throughout the 1950s what with all those Westerns populating the TV networks. This slowed down as the 1960’s advanced. Yet the Westerns were replaced by the rise of spy themed and sci-fi based TV shows and movies, calling for more exotic and at times fantastic weaponry, and Stembridge was at the forefront (e.g. Han Solo’s blaster fashioned from a Mauser machine pistol).

“Ed”’s son Sydney R Stembridge took over in 1978, and the following year their stay at Paramount ended, (two years after my wife and I saw them on the lot, completely unaware of all this history- see old post).

They were “back” with more exotic weaponry for Schwarzenegger in the 80s and 90s. But by 1999, things wound down and the firm was dissolved, as the family members sought to cash in on the most valuable pieces in the collection. A private investor took over the firm with Syd managing and in this downsized form they have hung on.

Surprisingly in researching this post I glimpsed Stembridge Gun Rentals in the credits for early video games- listed under the sound credits:

EA’s Agent Under Fire (James Bond) which I have enjoyed playing, and

Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon.

Gunga Din the Afterword #1939TheMiracleYear

Gunga Din The Afterword

The weekly studio roundup sections in Variety during the month of November mention only that Gunga Din was in the cutting room or awaiting a preview.

Once filming had wrapped on Gunga Din and the footage turned over for editing at the studio, another department stepped up their work to keep the title before the public and to remind their select target audience – theater owners –  that the film would soon be available to book in their theaters.

This work of the publicity department in an offhand way gives us another interesting look at the ways and means and challenges of the production process.

In Cal York’s Hollywood Gossip column in the November edition of Photoplay, a section focused on weight loss among the stars. His main subject was Claudette Colbert who had dropped an half inch after ten days of doing the cancan for ‘Zaza’ – a George Cukor film. He caps off this tidbit with a discussion about weight loss among the principal actors of Gunga Din. He reports that due to the heat of their location shoot, coupled with the heavy woolen army uniforms they wore, Cary Grant melted twelve pounds off his frame in the first two weeks. A reminder that the actor, as artist, sometimes sacrifices for his art.

In another article about the heavy use of ammunition in film production throughout the year of 1938, Gunga Din came in for another mention. The firm of J. S. Stembridge was kept busy around the clock supplying the weapons and making up the special charges necessary for staging celluloid conflict. It goes on to cite these films:  ‘Hotel Imperial,’ ‘Union Pacific,’ ‘Juarez,’ ‘Oklahoma Kid,’ ‘Dodge City,’ ‘Stagecoach,’ and ‘Heritage of the Desert.’ many of whom will be upcoming in this series, 1939 – The Miracle Year. For Gunga Din, Stembridge’s firm supplied 500 rifles and I know from another source they supplied the two gatling guns, at one time glimpsed being carted by two of the elephants.  Was Anna May one of the pistol packing pachyderms?

Other mentions were offered about who would score the film. Before production began Roy Webb was listed for the chore and though alluded to briefly after filming closed, his name disappeared from the running (he was very busy as music director at RKO – 28 projects credited and uncredited in 1938; 22 in 1939).  Instead another name, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was bandied about. But happily, and no doubt to Webb’s overworked relief, it fell into the talented lap of Alfred Newman, fresh from the Goldwyn studio as a freelancer.  And his joyful, jaunty score perfectly matches and enhances Stevens’ film.

An interesting article in the March edition of the Motion Picture Herald, two months after its opening, talked up a specially edited together 10 minute version of Gunga Din. It was offered to the infant TV industry to be broadcast in New York for 1939 World’s Fair – taking place there in April.

I close out with a valuation from the standpoint of the business – from how it would be judged in light of the studio’s bottom line. It cost 1.9 million to make and generated a gross of 3 million in its first year in the US. And before you conclude that it made a killing at the box office let me remind you that a gross is not equal to what RKO received back in film rental. I do not know what it exactly brought in to RKO, but I can offer an educated guess. At best the theaters would only have paid 50% to the distributor, or at worst 35 or 25%. So you can see that even at best, it fell $400,000 short of recouping its cost that first year. (Sources state that it did indeed finally make its cost back, but only with future re-releases).

A clue to its falloff in performance may be indicated from reports in Box Office magazine that a lot of theater owners in the Midwest were not keen on booking it.

In so far as film is concerned Gunga Din has left a rich legacy. Echoes of its individual parts resound in many that followed.

Take the buddy picture for instance.

Our heroes with whom we are taught to identify, though allied in their camaraderie can often be at odds with one another, at times to our delight, especially when their relationships take a comic turn. In this regard I think of the series Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, and yes – 8. And I think back a few decades to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose writer, the famous William Goldman, was deeply enamored of Gunga Din.

And then there is the adventure film. One need only mention the Indiana Jones series as the prime example overall and its Temple of Doom chapter in particular.

That said, Gunga Din on the whole stands as something greater than the sum of its parts. And I heartily recommend it to your enjoyment.

(You can thank me for the minimum of spoilers).

Gunga Din The Making of a Classic Part 3 #1939TheMiracleYear

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One of the scenes filmed within the confines of the sound stages of RKO in September 1938 was set in the interior of the Kali temple. The action for one sequence called for a snake pit. Cobras, the venomous snake indigenous to India were the obvious choice to writhe their menace down in its depths, but none were to be had in Hollywood. That didn’t mean that Hollywood didn’t have any. It did. But every single one was committed to another production in town. Walter Wanger had cornered the market on cobras for his film ‘Trade Winds.’

There being no way around but forward. RKO technicians came up with a solution. Other snakes were to be had – of the harmless, nonpoisonous variety. They just fitted them up with a cape (or cowl) that would mimic the signature cobra hood. The cow snakes and other serpents, thus attired, didn’t cotton much to the appendages. (No Union reps for these reptiles).

As director George Stevens took his forces back out to Lone Pine to shoot the battle that would close Gunga Din, the PR department stepped up their efforts to keep the production in the news. One article (Variety 9/7/1938) talked up the Herculean effort put forth by James Parker’s makeup department in preparing and maintaining the hundreds of extras (per another Variety article, a number put at 700) portraying the dark skinned Indians – Hindu, Muslim and Thuggee. In assembly line fashion, coupled with turn tables and spray nozzles, many coats of the nut colored dye (called “dark Samoan stuff”) were applied as needed throughout the day.

It was a little harder for cast and crew this time around up in the Sierras. They were no longer plagued by the heat of summer. Still it could get up to 90 degrees, but now the lows dropped below 50. This change particularly affected the extras who wore little more than g-strings, who for continuity’s sake were restricted to the same costumes worn over the summer months. The warmth generated by the action shots must have been welcome indeed.

And George Stevens climactic battle scenes are masterful – well thought out and intelligently rehearsed. Once the suspense of the pending ambush is broken by the alarm raised by Gunga Din’s heroic bugle blowing (acted out on the sound stage), the action breaks out seemingly on every front. Skirmish lines of British soldiers, charging lancers, sniping Thuggees perched atop lofty rocks, cannons firing, massed forces colliding in mortal combat – altogether a fitting and satisfying denouement to the main action of the film.

Stevens wrapped production in mid October 1938, and handed over his footage to the cutting room at RKO. Other departments in the post-production process set to work too.

But more of that next time, on Watch This Space.

Gunga Din The Making of a Classic Part 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 the Miracle Year the Making of a Classic. Pt 2

July and August were busy months for the cast and crew of Gunga Din. And they were hot ones too. Temperatures soared in the semi desert location of Lone Pine, topping out officially at 115 degrees, and unofficially at 120.

Once the village set of Tantrapur was put back together after the fire, director George Stevens, tackled the all action skirmish scenes that pitted the three British sergeants and their small British company against the murderous Thuggees. The fights ranged from the village streets up to the rooftops.

      Stevens kept his stuntmen going at full tilt, in the main, falling from everywhere – out of windows, from the rooftops, and off of charging mounts. One of the men who subbed for Cary Grant was a name that is familiar to me, Mike Lally, whom I hope write about in a future post.

Aside – Variety reported in November, after shooting had completed, that RKO had spent a total of $85,353.97 for the stuntmen and extras for location work on Gunga Din at Lone Pine.

Stevens kept the action flowing at a furious clip, notably using a camera technique from the silent comedy days. He undercranked the camera speed which in effect speeds the movement. Not at a severe rate that would have rendered them versions of the Keystone cops, but just slightly under the norm to lend the action a determined edge, not giving the audience time to catch their breath.

And at a crucial juncture Stevens ‘plays with time’ again, in this instance by overcranking (again by only a slight difference) slowing the images, to add tension and suspense when a lit stick of dynamite lands beside Doug Fairbanks Jr. who is struggling to extract his leg from a hole in the roof.

Besides the brutal temperatures, unpredictable winds created havoc and would bring filming to a halt. One such wind incident caught a camera crew atop a 35 foot parallel*. Cast and crew rushed to their aid and kept the structure from toppling and taking the three men with it. A similar parallel was caught in a wind sheer but thankfully no one was on it at the time.

(*Not being exactly sure what a parallel is in its film context, I contacted my producer friend and he provided this explanation – “a parallel is similar to scaffolding except it is usually a six by six platform on top of a six by six platform or as many levels as one might need.  If it is too high on stage it is secured by 2×4’s or something like that on an angle to the metal brace.  If built for an exterior scene we would use wires (cable) to steady it if it is built too high.”)

Watching the sequence unfold on screen one marvels at all that was going on. Clearly days and many setups had been needed to capture all this action. Stevens was known for his improvisation and there are stories about nightly meetings between him and his writers and cast members to plot out the following day’s shots. A methodology that also had a touchstone in his former work in comedy shorts.

Late in August, the company returned to the studio for interior work. During the short weeks there they covered some important sequences, including the interiors for the temple.

After their sojourn in the relative ease of the city, Stevens again took his production back out to the wilds of Lone Pine for the climactic battle scenes that wind up Gunga Din. They would find altogether different conditions there at the end of September 1938.

The Midshipman Who Really Wasn’t There – Joel Welcome Berry

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I am trying to be thorough in my canvassing of the midshipmen at the Naval Academy for the school year of 1860-1861. There are certain statistics I am collecting to include in the history I am writing. To that end I went about gathering the names of the midshipmen that were at the institution in all four classes that fed into that time period. This meant going back to the class that entered in the fall of 1857, ditto for the classes of 1858, 1859, and for the entering plebe class of 1860.

I learned about an annual publication listing the graduates of the Naval Academy, and I found one on eBay that had been published in 1944 and won the bid for it. This gave me a good base from which to start. So I dutifully harvested the names into a database – both those who had graduated, and those who had not. Those were the only two categories included therein.

I eventually realized that I was missing the complete picture. Nowhere had I come across a list of the people that had showed up for the exam, but failed to get in – either for academic or medical reasons. That is, not until I was able to look through the microfilm containing the correspondence of the Naval Academy Superintendent. In them I was able to locate the entire list of candidates that appeared before the boards for the target years I was studying.

I identified the missing ones and added them to the database.  I now had all the candidates listed with a date and a number, which represented the order in which they were examined. And it is this order that I utilized, when going through the names one by one for research.

A few years later when I arrived at Midshipman Joel Welcome Berry of Georgia, the 58th candidate for the class of 1859, I ran into a mystery. Here was someone who clearly had been accepted into the academy but was missing from all the official lists. I found him, no problem, in other documents – the 1850 and 1860 censuses; he was a student at Georgetown College in DC (just prior to his appointment to the academy); and ascertained that he fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy in Phillips’ Georgia Legion.

The mystery was solved by delving further into the correspondence of the superintendent – in which I turned up this letter written to the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey:

                            Naval Academy
Annapolis Md
Oct 31 1859
Sir
I beg leave to state to the Department
that Mr Joel Welcome Berry, obtained from
the Store Keeper of the Academy the usual
outfit immediately after passing his exami-
nation, but subsequently returned the articles,
& left Annapolis without having joined the
institution.-
I would ask whether his name is
to be retained on the rolls.-
I am respectfully
Your obt servt
G S Blake
Superintendent

I had encountered short naval academy careers before, but none as short as Berry’s – which looks to be at most a single day, and just might possibly be measured in hours.

But why had he walked away?

It may be impossible to decisively conclude the exact reason for his action, but the other records I turned up, reveal specific circumstances that within themselves would give a young man strong impetus to pull away from the naval profession. (And I am not ruling out that it could be as simple as when he stepped aboard the schoolship Plymouth as a plebe, this brief view of what a naval life entailed, turned him off).

His father, Andrew Jay Berry, was a planter, a prosperous merchant and a local political leader in Coweta, the county he helped pioneer and settle. There he met and married Emily Elizabeth Parks in 1830. Their first born, William Byrd Berry, followed in his father’s footsteps. The next, Thomas J. graduated from West Point in 1857 and had a career in the army out west. Joel came next and was to represent the family in that other branch of government service, the Navy.

His mother passed away in 1857, and I surmise that he may have received an inheritance from her. For in the 1860 census (taken 6/8/1860) J W Berry was listed in his own household, right next door to his father and brothers in Newnan, GA. He was quite wealthy for an 18 year old – his real estate holdings of 10,000 ($312,000 in today’s dollars) and personal holdings of 13,000 ($405,000) meant that he did not have to find his way in the world. His occupation was listed as Farmer (in distinction to his father as Planter) and according to the slave schedules for that year, he owned 12 slaves to aid in his farm’s operation. This may have weighed foremost in his mind when after qualifying for the academy on that day in October, he immediately returned his uniform and left.

It was a short life for J W Berry after leaving the academy. As mentioned above he enlisted in Phillips’ Georgia Legion and was fairly active as his unit was sent north from Georgia to the battlefields of Virginia. But when 1863 rolled around he was absent without leave from the muster rolls for months on end.

Drink may have been increasingly the driving factor in his life (his brother Thomas once advised him in a letter “to shun it as you would the most poisonous reptile”). The advice went unheeded, for in one drunken episode in 1864, Joel killed two men in his hometown, and fled northward from the expected retaliation of the slain men’s families – not just to the Carolinas or Virginia, but clear out of the Confederacy, and held up in New York City.

There he remained. He never returned to Georgia, and died in NYC in 1869.

 

Gunga Din The Making of a Classic Pt 1 #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 the Miracle Year the Making of a Classic. Pt 1

Gunga Din was given the greenlight and George Stevens launched out on the waters of production despite being not exactly satisfied with the script. But he was not overly concerned. He had his two scripters along to sand down the rough spots and paper over the cracks.

Stevens was used to flying by the seat of his pants. He had cut his teeth at the Hal Roach studio as a cameraman. First with the action filled adventures of Rex the Wonder Horse, and then later adding gag man to his lenser chores on Laurel and Hardy shorts. These experiences had helped him on his features thus far and would bring solid gold to his production of Gunga Din.

So the following will be part chronology and part discussion of how problems arose and how they were solved.

Casting had been a long process, stretching back to when Howard Hawks was in charge.

Before a script was in place RKO looked to finagle a deal to trade with MGM for the services of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Robert Montgomery. That was 1936, two years later after many more names (and combinations) were considered along the way they landed their dream cast of Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen – the term of their contracts – to run from 6/1/1938 to 9/3/1938.

The million dollar production did not kick off until the last week of June with work on interiors at the studio (stage 14 the punch bowl scene). Work was ongoing constructing the outdoor sets up in Lone Pine CA (in the shadow of Mt Whitney, the surrounding Sierras dubbing in for the Khyber Pass) and on the RKO ranch in Encino.

All was ready when the caravan of technicians set out on the morning of July 13, with the coterie of performers following three and a half hours later.

They had no sooner settled in to the tent city prepared for them when a fire broke out on the outdoor set of the village (called Tantrapur in the film). Despite everyone’s efforts five buildings and many props were destroyed (Lloyd’s of London was on the hook for $5000, or $91,000 in 2019 dollars).

Fortunately the village set was not the only one they had built, two more were available- the Kali-Thuggee temple and the British army canton.

Stevens met this first obstacle the very next day by setting to work on the canton set. With his writers in tow he put together a scene with the army parade ground as the backdrop. It was a great example of making lemonade from a bad situation. While the extras were put through the paces of learning their drill, Sam Jaffe (Din) and Cary Grant enacted a scene that gives the viewer crucial information about these characters. They were getting excellent value for the money spent.

And nothing makes a studio happier than when they can see the money they are spending reflected back to them on the screen.

Gunga Din How It Came to Be #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year How It Came to Be

I like tracing the beginnings of things – a facet of my fascination with research. Having enjoyed my recent viewing of Gunga Din (not the first), I wanted to know more about it. And what I have discovered has not disappointed. And hopefully you will enjoy what I have to relate on this topic.

At the nexus of course is the poem written by Rudyard Kipling, the English writer. Born “in Injia’s sunny clime, where I used to spend my time,” he wrote from his experience there. In this instance a paean to the native ‘bhisti’ – the lower caste Indian who carried ammo, water, and medical assistance to British soldiers, at their beck and call. Though despised throughout, he is extolled at the last for his selfless service.

Kipling passed away in 1936. Shortly after Edward Small, a fairly prolific independent producer in Hollywood, purchased the rights from the family to make a film based upon the poem. Though one that operated on the edge of Big Hollywood he wasn’t quite the poverty row variety, his Reliance Pictures had strong connections with United Artists. He had ambitions to make quality product and had a string of successes with projects based on some works by Alexander Dumas. But shortly after the acquisition of the Kipling rights, he had to pull the plug on his company and joined the fold of the RKO organization. And that is how Gunga Din came into their orbit.

And RKO thought they had the right director for Gunga Din in Howard Hawks.

Hawks was a recent addition to their talent stable, having come to them from Selznick when he left over creative differences. His style was well suited for a story about men of action.

Where Small had interested William Faulkner in putting together a treatment for the project, Hawks welcomed aboard the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. (He had worked with them on Public Enemy). As some have pointed out they contributed a major element to the final script by lifting the plot point from their own play of nearly a decade before – in which an additional element of conflict was injected when one of the heroes wants to leave the profession against  others’ wishes. Mirroring the relationship between the editor and the reporter in The Front Page, two of the soldiers resist the third in his attempt to leave the army to marry.

As things progressed (or actually did not) Small dropped out of the picture and Hawks went with another project at RKO, directing the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. (Though that film has advanced to iconic stature in the genre, it was not so at its release. It bears a good deal of the responsibility for putting RKO in financial straits – and whose lackluster performance at the box office ejected Hawks from his contract with them).

During this time the head of production changed at the studio. Samuel Briskin was replaced by Pandro S. Berman, who got the fire lit under Gunga Din again. He called on a new director in their stable George Stevens. And Stevens brought in two new writers- Joel Sayres and Ted Guiol. Stevens adjudged the Hecht/MacArthur to be too much of a staged piece, all closed in. He wanted it opened up to exterior settings so his heroes could range about under the sun. Sayres added an element to the antagonists, the Thuggees and the cult of Kali, cribbing from the history of conflicts in India.

So now with a sense of the big picture for the story Stevens set out to put it all on film. How he did it – I’ll cover in future posts on Watch This Space. So stay tuned.