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.

The Dunning of Gunga Din #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Dunning of Gunga Din

The article in Variety was, really, little more than a blurb. But it got my attention.

Reading it I felt sympathy for the individual affected by hard financial circumstances.

Locked Out

Hollywood, Oct 18 (1938)

With a bankroll of $2,250 earned acting in RKO’s ‘Ginga Din,’ Anna May has no place to park her trunk. While she was on location the sheriff plastered an eviction notice on the California Zoological Society, her old home. …

As it turns out the subject of our pity was Anna May – an actor with very special attributes – she was an elephant.

Having been brought to America from India at a tender age in 1913 by the pioneer filmmaker Col. William Selig, she was given a home at his zoological park in LA. She and its other denizens did more than earn their keep by attracting the curious to view them in their cages. They also brought home the bacon by appearances in film.

Anna’s first foray on celluloid was in the second ever serial The Adventures of Kathlyn. Between then and 1939 she racked up an impressive number of roles in over thirty films – including Chaplin’s City Lights and many Tarzan features.

Her home changed hands over the years and financial hardships plagued each new owner. Worst of all was a flood that hit LA in April of 1938. It killed several of their animals and rocked their finances back on their heels.

So this was the situation referred to in the blurb in Variety. The park was in trouble despite her earnings from her turn in Gunga Din.

I came across another article about Anna May. This time in Photoplay magazine for February 1939, page 68, which I quote in full:

Portrait of a New Star

Anna May. Recently risen to fame in RKO’s “Gunga Din,” is thirty years old and a spinster by choice. She has had many suitors in her day, but none that pleased her.

Quiet and conservative, she dislikes frills and folderols and was known during the filming of “Gunga Din” to object strenuously to wearing a jeweled headpiece that they cut it out of the script. She did consent, however, to don false eyelashes, since her own failed to photograph.

Anna May is something of a moralist. If her manager stays out late, she scolds loudly until he returns. She is also a tobacco addict, with a special yen for cigarettes, which disappear in her presence with disconcerting rapidity.

She is inordinately lazy, insisting on riding on various “Gunga Din” excursions when she is perfectly able to walk. Still, her earnings in pictures are sufficient to support three friends.

Like many women, she goes in for trick diets and will make a whole meal on carrots and perhaps a melon or two, including the rind. Like many women, she is terribly afraid of thunder and lightning and on the “Gunga Din” location at Lone Pine disrupted many a scene by her nervousness during bad weather. Also like many women, she harbors a strong affection for Cary Grant and used to follow him around at Lone Pine, much to his embarrassment.

There are a few rather queer things about Anna May, too. She likes to sleep standing up. She has ears something like Clark Gable’s. And she eats a bale of hay a day.

Still, these aren’t too queer when you remember that, after all, Anna May is an elephant.

The Midshipman Who Wasn’t There – Thomas Theodore Turner

The Midshipman Who Wasn’t There T T Turner

I have researched 400 plus candidates who came to the Naval Academy between the years of 1857 and 1861, (both those who were accepted and those who failed either the academic or the medical exam).

In the course of running down what had happened afterwards to the successful candidates, I ran into numerous instances of obits and histories (family ones, written years later) that claimed such and such an individual graduated from the USNA. But according to government records, he hadn’t. Assumptions had been made that since ‘he’ was there – ‘he’ was a graduate.

The instances are almost too numerous to tally (a project for another day, perhaps). I was surprised then to come across a claim by an historian that one midshipman had not been there, whom I knew to have been there.

It happened early on when I was trying to winnow down the details behind the life of Thomas Theodore Turner.  Turner was appointed to the US Naval Academy from the first congressional district of Missouri in 1859.

One of my online researches turned up a reference in a book edited by Terry L Jones – “Campbell Brown’s Civil War: With Ewell and the Army of Northern Virginia.” The explanatory footnote for the individual mentioned in the diary on page 63 reads:

“Thomas Theodore Turner, of Baltimore, was eighteen years old and had received some military training in European schools and the Virginia Military Institute.  He accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy when the war began but never attended. Turner also refused an offer by Brigadier General William T Sherman, a close friend of Turner’s father, to secure him a lieutenant’s commission in the 7th US Cavalry.  Instead, Turner apparently joined the Confederate navy but then resigned his naval commission and joined Ewell’s staff in the fall of 1861 as a volunteer aide.  Upon the recommendation of Ewell, Johnston, and Stuart, Turner was appointed first lieutenant on April 29, 1862, and was assigned to Ewell as aide-de-camp.  He stayed with Ewell for most of the war, was wounded at Spotsylvania in 1864, and was captured along with Ewell and Campbell at Sayler’s Creek on April 6, 1865.  In October 1865, Turner married Campbell’s sister, Hattie.”

This flummoxed me. The only detail that appeared correct was his age when examined. Through further research I was able to ascertain that most of the information could be tied back to my T. T. Turner from Missouri, but not the Baltimore reference, nor the statement that he did not attend.

What I could tell for sure, Thomas Theodore Turner of St Louis MO was at the USNA. I have the date that he appeared before the examination boards and was accepted (11/24/1859), and the pages from the Register of Demerits for 1859-1860 in which his infractions are listed. Then there was all that correspondence from Superintendent Blake about Turner’s dabbling in alcohol in the spring of 1860. The first instance was overlooked and not reported to Isaac Toucey, the Secretary of the Navy, predicated upon a promise from the guilty middie that he would not touch it again. The second time he crossed the line, the report went all the way to the top with details about the first, and much details about the second (which was tied to a third). Evidently Thomas sought to excuse his behavior (to Superintendent Blake’s obvious annoyance) in a sea lawyer fashion by claiming that he had not broken his promise.

“I once gave you my word of honor Sir, that I would never have any thing more to do with liquor on board the ‘Plymouth’ & I have not-“

To his thinking, since he had been found drunk on a cutter “stowed away in her sails,” just hoisted from the water, and NOT on the schoolship Plymouth, his honor was intact.

A subsequent search gave me the answer to the confusion of identity in the Jones book footnote. Here another diary (In the Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany) contained a footnote about the cousins Turner, all with the given name of Thomas (to honor their mutual grandfather). To distinguish them within the family, each one’s locale was appended to their names – ‘Baltimore’ Tom, ‘Kinloch’ Tom (the Virginia family plantation), and our middie – ‘St Louis’ Tom.

Originally Blake had recommended ‘St Louis’ Tom’s dismissal based on his flagrant disregard for the regulations – and for the fact that he should have known better given his age – (at 18 he was one of the oldest members of the plebe class).

Turner had two uncles, both holding the rank of commander in the Navy. One Charles Cocke Turner then posted to the Washington Navy Yard may have lobbied Toucey upon his nephew’s behalf. Toucey wrote Blake and instructed him to supply a fuller explanation about the matter, Thus prompted to take a closer look Blake uncovered a possibility that Turner had not been intoxicated in the first instance.

The upshot was Turner remained in the class completing his plebe year in June, and went on the summer cruise as a member of the Third class. But almost immediately upon his return from the cruise – with the permission of his father, ’St Louis’ Tom Turner tendered his resignation from the naval academy – almost a year after his entrance.

Adventures Along the Rabbit Trail

Adventures along the Rabbit Trail

Research is always fun (for me). Especially when I find what I set out to discover. But sometimes it becomes a delight when something I was not looking for falls under my purview.

Such is the case recently when I was looking into the family background of Adolphus Dexter, a midshipman who had been appointed from the state of Ohio in 1857.
Adolphus was a first generation American. His father Edmond Dexter, had emigrated from England through Philadelphia in 1823. And soon found his way to Cincinnati where over the next quarter century he built a very successful business rectifying and selling whiskey. Trade was good, helped greatly via the nearby Ohio river, which extended his reach all the way down to New Orleans.

One of my web searches turned up a diary by someone who had worked for Adolphus’s father. Joseph J Mersman was the whiskey maker’s apprentice. He was an immigrant too, who went to work for Mr Dexter at the age of 15 for a total of ten years, during which he learned everything he needed to know to go out on his own. This journal which he kept between 1848 and 1862, was unearthed by Linda A Fisher. (She was researching a cholera outbreak in St Louis to which Joseph had moved when he went into business for himself). She found more than she was looking for. It was a treasure trove of daily life in Cincinnati and St Louis for that epoch in American history. Ms Fisher ended up transcribing the entire diary for publication, and copiously and in great depth annotated the text as an aid for the reader, creating a who’s who of the people therein and explanations for the customs etc. alluded to.

And here’s where I branched out once again on a rabbit trail. Joseph had a younger sister, Maria Agnes Mersman. She lived an unconventional life. A young girl with an affinity for horses, by age 16 (1842) she was performing as an equestrian. She ran off and joined the circus that headquartered near Cincinnati and exercised her equine gifts in the ring. While in their employ, she added to her repertoire – high wire and slack wire walking, and lion taming, and married the star (and clown) of the troop, William Lake Thatcher (stage name Bill Lake), eloping with him when they were performing down in Louisiana.

I was carried further afield, following what happened later in her life. She and her husband acquired their own circus company in 1861 (the year that Adolphus graduated from the Academy and went to war). Tragedy struck in 1869 when a bully at one of the performances in Granby Missouri shot and killed Bill Lake. She assumed control of their troop at the loss of her husband.

It was in this capacity that she met her future husband in Abilene Kansas in 1871. The town marshal, James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok took an interest in the vivacious widow. And the interest was mutual. They kept up a romantic correspondence over the next five years, which culminated in their marriage in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

She was a widow again only five months later, when Hickok was murdered in that infamous incident in Deadwood.

There were more rabbit trails branching out from here, but I’ll let you pursue those if you’ve a mind to.

Now I just want to circle back to my midshipman Adolphus Dexter and indulge in a rabbit trail of a purely imaginary kind (but not implausible). Maria’s brother Joseph mentions that he gave Christmas presents to the Dexter children in 1847, and I can’t help but wonder if he could have taken young Adolphus to see his sister that next spring when she debuted her new act as a rope walker somewhere out on the outskirts of Cincinnati – a decade before he would climb the rigging in a warship of the US Navy.