The Year Was 1938 – May 13th

  • ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ opens – a WB release, directed by Michael Curtiz, with Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHaviland, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale. Also opening – ‘Vivacious Lady’ from RKO – George Stevens directing with Ginger Rogers and James Stewart.
  • The WB publicity department to promote their Robin Hood film planted nearly 4,000 arrows in the lawns of local residents (Hollywood and LA). Particular attention was paid to the lawns of local newsmen, reviewers and columnists.
  • Jackie Coogan faces off with his Mom and stepfather over the money he claimed was from his earnings as a child star. He claimed his earnings totalled 4 million, his mother counters that it was only 1.5 million, of which only $500,000 remains. They further claim that he had no rights to any of it before he became of age, and in addition had no claim to anything his father had bequeathed after the auto crash that ended his life. Jackie does not accept their answer and vows to press on in court.
  • Director George Stevens is reported to be headed for Mexico to look for a location where an Indian (make that East Indian) village could be built. RKO is budgeting $800,000 to built it. But then again there is concern that Mexican President Cardenas could confiscate the site. [This would be for ‘Gunga Din.’ Stevens ended up going elsewhere].
  • At RKO writers Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur have turned in the first draft for ‘Gunga Din.’ They solved the problem of turning a poem into a film by borrowing from their successful play and film ‘The Front Page.’ They transferred the story element in which the newspaper editor is trying to retain the services of his reporter who wants to quit – over to a military setting. In this instance a soldier who wants to return to civilian life has his fellow sargeants plotting to keep him in harness.

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.