The Year Was 1938 – May 16th

Fay Bainter
  • Critics and patrons at the Pantages theater to see ‘Holiday’ like the George Cukor directed film – with Grant and Hepburn. [Are the theater owners wrong about ‘poison’ Hepburn?] (See May 12th)
  • Fay Bainter’s stock in Hollywood rose with her performance in Warner Brothers’ film ‘Jezebel’ which not only garnered her an Oscar but also earned her a contract to star in two future features at that studio. The stories are not yet chosen. [Not only was she nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1938 (for ‘Jezebel,’ which she won); she was also nominated for Best Actress (for ‘White Banners,’ which she lost to Bette Davis. Due to confusion about the double nomination, the rules of the Academy were changed].
  • W H Moran, the head of the US Secret Service, has been landed by WB to supply stories from his experiences for a new series about the Service to feature Ronald Reagan. [This led to a three picture series for 1939 – ‘Secret Service of the Air,’ ‘Code of the Secret Service’ and ‘Smashing the Money Ring.’ One of the films inspired a young boy to join the Secret Service, and is credited for saving President Reagan after he was shot by Hinckley in 1981].
  • Regarding Spencer Tracy’s trip to Honolulu, news was added that it was also to recover from his recent surgery. Upon his return two films we be waiting for his participation – both at MGM, ‘Northwest Passage’ and ‘Boys Town.’
  • Norman Taurog, known for his work with child performers, has been assigned to direct ‘Boys Town.’ Not for Spencer Tracy’s sake but for his supporting cast – Mickey Rooney and Spanky McFarland.
  • Universal will start shooting ‘Danger in the Air,’ their next installment in the Crime Club series. Louis Hayward and Nan Gray will top the cast. [Louis did not make the cut].
  • Per Ed Sullivan – Susan Hayward (no relation to Louis) has appeared in 1,373 publicity photos for WB, yet has never appeared on the screen. [Actually she appeared in the background in a few titles, uncredited. And for one film her scene was left on the cutting room floor. She had a small part in ‘Comet Over Broadway,’ the film that Bette Davis refused to do. Hayward would take the femme lead in the 1939 film – ‘Beau Geste’ for Paramount]. (See May 3rd)
  • Producer Walter Wanger has sent a communication to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Word is out that strongman Franco of Spain is unhappy about his current production ‘Blockade’ with Henry Fonda and Madeleine Carroll. Wanger says people had been caught and thrown off of his sets which depict the devasting effects of the civil war in Spain. Purportedly they were spies. He goes on to say that he has put $900,000 into this film and he will release it as is, and if it is banned in Europe, he’ll take the loss. [Wanger had an even bigger picture (in my estimation) for 1939 – Stagecoach].

ON THE MOVE

  • In New York, John Hay “Jock” Whitney returns from Europe to confer with Selznick Int’l head Henry Ginsberg (over from Hollywood) about 1938-39 season. Gone with the Wind is in a testing phase. UA a possibility to release it (they have a bonus system for rentals that look promising).
  • Claudette Colbert leaves for the Coast (from NY) after 4 months abroad to discuss her next project at Paramount. They have three possibilities for her.

The Year Was 1938 – May 11th

Kate Hepburn
  • Katherine Hepburn refuses to play in ’Mother Carey’s Chickens’ at RKO. She entered into negotiations to cancel out of her contract (she’d been with them since 1932); they dropped the balance of her commitment to them (six months) and the two films she owed them. The cost to her was the $200,000 in salary she would have gotten for those films (plus an additional $75,000 that she personally coughed up). [Fay Bainter, Anne Shirley and Ruby Keeler anchor the film instead – a family comedy based on a novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the writer of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm].
  • Columbia began a billboard campaign all around Los Angeles – “Is it true what they say about Katherine Hepburn?” This was in reference to the complaint theater owners were making to the film producers – that Hepburn was Box Office poison. And was a backhanded way to produce curiosity in their new release of “Holiday” with Hepburn and Cary Grant. [Holiday was not a financial success, and Hepburn retreated to New York and the stage where she landed a success with The Philadelphia Story, and later brought it to Hollywood].
  • Darryl Zanuck came up with an original idea (perhaps in response to the above). For his forthcoming production of The Rains Came (based on the novel by Louis Bromfield). Aside from his main choice for the lead (Ronald Colman), he offered the opportunity for the exhibitors to send in their choices of actors to play the other characters from the best-selling novel. [By the time it went into production Colman was out and George Brent was in for this 1939 film].
  • United Artists has 24 features planned for the 1938-39 season. Hal Roach, currently producing for MGM, is looking to join the UA studio and contribute nine films in the next three years. [Actually his poor choice of partnering in a business with Mussolini in Italy, and Mussolini’s subsequent decision to join in with Hitler and his ant-semitism, led to the decision of those at the top in MGM to cancel Roach’s contract. Roach was just switching from short films, such as The Our Gang series (which he sold to MGM) to feature films and hit a gold mine with Topper (1937). Roach had some big films coming in 1939 – Captain Fury, A Chump at Oxford, and the prestigious ‘Of Mice and Men’].

ITEMS THAT PIQUED MY INTEREST

  • Story out of Hartford CT – where Snow White had opened – patrons complained afterwards to be victims of pickpockets. The investigating detectives reported that grifters were now following hit shows from town to town, like they used to follow the carnival. 
  • Laurence Olivier now being talked about for the part of Lawrence of Arabia, replacing Robert Donat who was originally to be the lead. [See May 6th]
  • Plagiarism damages for “Letty Lynton” may cost MGM one million dollars.  [This was a film made by MGM in 1932, starring Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery. It was pulled from release in 1936, when they lost a suit brought by the authors of the play Dishonored Lady, who claimed that MGM had used it without their permission. Except for ‘bootleg’ copies the film is still not available].

ON THE MOVE

  • Claudette Colbert sailing on the Normandie from London to New York. [Zaza, Midnight, Drums Along the Mohawk in her future for 1939].
  • David Niven and Brian Aherne sailing on the Queen Mary from New York to London.
  • Donald Crisp yacht vacationing.
  • Walter Pidgeon on a motor trip to New Brunswick.
  • Dalton Trumbo writing weekends on his new ranch at Lebec. [Six films will be made from his scripts in 1939].
  • Cecil B DeMille back at Paramount after an operation. [And at work on his film for 1939 – Union Pacific].
  • Clark Gable, John Boles and Lanny Ross on a 110-mile horseback ride. [A big year ahead for Gable; not so for Boles; and Ross’s voice was used for the lead in the Fleischer animated film ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ for 1939].
  • Olivia DeHavilland vacationing in Europe. [She would return bouyed with the news of a major success in WB’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. And  she would be in good position to go after a major role in Selznick’s production of ‘Gone with the Wind’ – not the Scarlett part that every actress in Hollywood was vying for, but the Melanie Hamilton part].

The Year Was 1938 – May 10th

Joan Crawford
  • 20th Century Fox calls off their 2 million dollar building plan for two reasons: 1) the unsettled state of the foreign markets, and 2) the current tax situation at home. This effects plans for five new sound stages.
  • Republic Pictures plans to start building their own studio on a 48 acre lot next to the old Mack Sennett lot which they are currently leasing. 
  • RKO, in trouble financially since 1933, is looking to reorganize and emerge from their 77B bankruptcy by end of summer.
  • Paramount has over 2000 people currently employed at the studio – a high for the past 12 months. The number of the people in the back lot and in technical positions has increased 50%.
  • Major and minor companies are turning away from screwball comedies in favor of outdoor, big action historical and/or biographical films.
  • Joan Fontaine has been selected for a part in director George Stevens’ big action film “Gunga Din.” Her costars will be Cary Grant and Jack Oakie. Victor McLaglen will also be aboard, the Oscar winner is on loan from Fox. [Stevens had his latest film open on this date – ‘Vivacious Lady’ starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers – a screwball comedy – so it seems the director is trying to get ahead of the curve for 1939].
  • Ginger Rogers is guaranteed a month long vacation between pictures as part of her new RKO contract. [Could screwball comedy be more tiring than dancing with Fred Astaire]?
  • Stan Laurel is marrying a Russian singer, Ileanna, (Vera Ivanova Shuvalova) for the fourth time since Jan 1. [This may be popping up over and over for they were battling constantly all the way through 1939].
  • Joan Crawford re-upped with MGM, signing a five year contract for 1.5 million dollars. She came to Hollywood in 1925, at the height of the flapper era, and could dance the Charleston. [In her interview with Ed Sullivan at this time Crawford states that her first picture was a western with Tim McCoy, entitled ‘Winners of the Wilderness,’ instead of ‘Pretty Ladies’ from 1925. I’m not sure if her memory was playing her tricks, for ‘Pretty Ladies’ was her first credited role, and the McCoy film was in 1927. Perhaps she remembers the western fondly because it was a co-starring role (with no other ladies sharing the spotlight). Or maybe, being from Texas, she liked playing a cowgirl].
  • To make westerns more realistic the William Hays office is proposing meeting with author Will James (author of Western fiction Smokey) and Harry Carey to work on a possible code.
  • Gene Autry goes back to work at Republic after holding out since December on salary and other contentions (radio and in person appearances – acting for other producers and for his own company). [Things look good for Westerns, if the film execs are sensing the right direction].

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 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.

They Call It Screwball

They Call it Screwball

No. I’m not writing about the baseball pitch that behaves in an opposite manner to the curve ball.

I am referring to the meaning of the word when it is applied to a slightly (or totally) off-kilter personality. When it comes to film, the word is usually shackled hand and foot to another word – “comedy.” In this genre, these aforementioned personalities are thrown together into situations that range from the absurd to the downright silly.

And they’re a lot of fun.

My wife and I received our indoctrination into the form in Seattle in 1974. A little storefront theater had sprouted out of “nowhere” down in the Pioneer district. The young couple (the Curtises) who gave it “birth,” christened it – The Rosebud Movie Palace. It was all of 88 seats, to which you gained access by running the maze of plywood walls thrown up to enclose the auditorium area. To my notion it was a throwback to the old Nickelodeon era.

[Research aside – The whole film industry in these United States owes its existence to similar tiny beginnings. In New York City of, say, 1904 – these establishments in the statutes of the city were known as “common shows.” This term described theaters of under 299 seats, and were not subject to the fire code of the larger legit theaters. And because the admission was five cents, they gained the moniker Nickelodeon.]

I first ran across the Rosebud theater when perusing movie ads in the newspaper. A film title caught my eye – “The Philadelphia Story.” It was a film we had heard about, but never seen. So we paid them a visit on my day off from the Fifth Avenue Theater (a bus man’s holiday). And we were delighted to watch the trials and tribulations of the three main characters played by Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Want to know anything more? I don’t do spoilers. Catch it for yourself.

We kept a weather eye out for other titles in the genre and soon tracked down the likes of:

It Happened One Night

Bringing Up Baby

You Can’t Take It with You – (my personal favorite)

His Girl Friday

Will you look at that  – Capra – Hawks – Capra – Hawks. I am aware that other directors toiled in the genre, but those two are easily the best. But I am thankful to Cukor, as the director of The Philadelphia Story, the “gateway drug,” as it were, to this rather mild addiction.

I come to the end of this post and hesitate to mention that we also saw films of other genres at the Rosebud. Like “Fury” the Fritz Lang thriller with Spencer Tracy; and “Queen Christina” the historical drama with the enigmatic and beautiful Greta Garbo.

But look I’ve gone and done it anyway. I didn’t hesitate at all.

Just call me “screwball.”