The Year Was 1938 – June 3rd

Henry Travers in 1938 (you may recognize him as Harold the Angel from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’)
  • Actor Henry Travers has arrived from New York. He will report to WB to play Bette Davis’s father in her latest, ‘The Sisters.’ [‘The Sisters’ was his only film for 1938, but he stayed around for seven more in 1939, including ‘Dodge City,’ ‘Dark Victory,’ ’Stanley and Livingstone,’ and ‘The Rains Came’].
  • Columbia expects hundreds of aspiring actors at their studio to try out for the part of Joe Bonaparte from the Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy. Julian Evans will have charge of the proceedings. The ballyhoo is so great surrounding this search, he forsees photographers from Life magazine to be there. [Harry Cohn was probably hoping for the same type of publicity that Selznick was generating over his search for Scarlett O’Hara].
  • Three tunes have been completed for MGM’s ’Sweethearts’ the next Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald musical by Bob Wright and Chet Forrest. [Wright and Forrest had supplied music the year before for the Eddy/MacDonald film ‘Maytime.’ And for 1939 there were many contributions they made for MGM films, including Eddy (without MacDonald) for ‘Balalaika’].
  • With ‘Crime School’ and the Dead End kids doing well, WB plans another to be called ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ once issues with the title have been cleared by the Hays Office. Humphrey Bogart and Gale Page are set to star. [Ronald Reagan and Margaret Lindsay would star instead].
  • John Litel has been cast by WB in the new prison picture ‘Blackwell’s Island.’ Project to be directed by William McGann. [John Garfield replaced Litel before shooting commenced].
  • Midget sets for ‘The Terror of Tiny Town’ now guarded to keep off the swarm of curiosity seekers.
  • Ed Sullivan makes the rounds of studio commissaries. At WB –  Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland were having lunch and arguing about the best way to put on weight. Spencer Tracy and Father Flannagan were at the MGM commissary, the good Father in town to talk about their production of ‘Boys Town.’ Boris Morros in his signature flashy attire, (this time a bright red check shirt) pauses to talk with Joan Bennett at the Paramount commissary. (See May 25th).

STARS IN OTHER NEWS

  • William LeBaron at Paramount announces that they are keeping Bob Hope on, and have assigned him his next picture – ‘Thanks for the Memory.’ He will have an engagment to play in Roberta locally before traveling to New York where he will start his personal appearance tour with Jackie Coogan.
  • Clark Gable had been home sick with the flu. After three days in bed he tried to return to work on the ‘Too Hot To Handle’ picture. The director judged his voice still too husky and sent him home. 

ITEM OF INTEREST

  • One hears stories about the malapropisms perpetrated by Samuel Goldwyn, like the declaration – “Include me out.” Columnist Sidney Skolsky reports the latest making the rounds around Hollywood – someone ran into Goldwyn and invited him to lunch – to which Goldwyn replied, “I can’t eat yet. I just had breakfast for lunch.”

The Year Was 1938 – May 19th

Virginia Weidler in 1938
  • Today child actor Virginia Weidler was added to the RKO production ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens.’ She was borrowed from MGM where she was at work in ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ She is also currently loaned out to Paramount on ‘Men with Wings.’
  • United Artists board to meet today to finalize the releasing deal with Hal Roach. Roach can bring his own production money. Dr A H Gianninni, president of UA prepared the way for him. Mary Pickford to attend the meeting also.
  • Independent exihibitors at a confab in Pittsburgh have asked the government to do an investigation into the picture industry, especially pricing policies and terms of film leasing, all to be included in any anti-trust action that is pending in Washington.
  • Silent film actress Alla Nazimova has been brought into Paramount to help tutor the Italian actress Isa Miranda. Producer Albert Lewis and director George Cukor brought Nazimova in to help Miranda recreate a role that Nazimova played on the Russian stage 37 years prior. [The film was released in 1938 – but not with Isa Miranda. Claudette Colbert took the role instead. I wonder what happened].

Columnist Sidney Skolsky often wrote about “Watching Them Make Pictures” for this week he details three happenings:

  • On the MGM backlot, Jack Conway was directing Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon in a scene for ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ Playing competing newsreelmen Pidgeon was to chase Gable and Gable was to trip and fall face first into a mud puddle especially prepared for him. He fell into the mud perfectly – but Pidgeon blew his line, so they had to do it all over again.
  • Out on the movie ranch in the Valley, Richard Thorpe was shooting a scene for “Give and Take” with Robert Taylor and Maureen O’Sullivan. A man was plowing in the far background and was whistling. The sound man warned the director that his mic was picking up this whistling. Thorpe said to just keep it as background – but then the sound man broke in again and told him that they would not be able to use it as the man was whistling “Thanks for the Memory,” a Paramount song. [The film was released as ‘The Crowd Roars’].
  • He checked in at Paramount and entered a sound stage where “The Spawn of the North” was being shot. Business was on hold for the moment, for they were celebrating Henry Fonda’s birthday (May 16th). Fonda was serving out the cake when two Western Union messengers arrived and sang Happy Birthday to Fonda. They had been sent by his former roommates John Swope and James Stewart. Before he knew it Fonda had handed out all the pieces, not having reserved one for himself. One of the visitors surrendered his piece to Hank. Soon, director Henry Hathaway had Fonda, Dorothy Lamour, Louise Platt and George Raft back to work.

ITEMS OF INTEREST

  • Ed Sullivan in his column extolls a list of names you were never meant to see in the credits. Claire Meyers – Sally Sage – Marjorie Lane – Eadie Adams – Virginia Verrill. The legs of Meyers, or more properly Myers, stood in for closeups of those of Joan Crawford, Virgina Bruce and other ladies in the MGM stable. Sage’s hands stood in for those of Bette Davis in ‘Jezebel.’ [She had uncredited parts in six WB films for 1939]. The last three lent their voices for songs that came from the lips of, respectively, Eleanor Powell for ‘Broadway Melody of 1936,’  ‘Born to Dance,’ ‘Rosalie,’ as well as ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’; for Jean Harlow in ’Suzy’ and ‘Reckless’; and for Andrea Leeds in ‘The Goldwyn Follies.’

The Year Was 1938 – May 14th

Hal Roach
  • Hal Roach announces his deal to go with United Artists for distribution of his films bringing to an end his 12 year arrangement with MGM. His deal with UA is to run for 8 years. He is to deliver four to six feature films per year and also four Laurel and Hardy features. [See May 11th, 1938]
  • With an emphasis on economy spreading across the studios, the effect was being felt among those actors who free lance. Those performers currently with contracts were not affected. The free lancers at one time held contracts, but at the end of the contract’s term, if their popularity was such that they were in demand, it was more lucrative to go out on their own and not be tied down to one studio. And a big plus was the ability to choose scripts to their liking, and not to be herded into programmers. Probably the actors most effected by the pull back were the character actors, those who fill the supporting roles to the stars. Their names filled the files of the casting directors at each studio, but they were being passed by for now.

ON THE MOVE

  • Mr & Mrs Spencer Tracy left for Honolulu from LA on the Lurline. [Tracy’s latest film ‘Test Pilot’ with Clark Gable just came out in April. He would return from vacation to work on Boys Town. Then MGM, his contracted studio, would loan him to 20th Century Fox for the 1939 film ’Stanley and Livingstone.’ His only film released that year. Separated from his wife Louise in 1933, they reconciled in 1935, but the marriage continued to be troubled].
  • Joe Schenck, chairman of 20th Century Fox and president of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, arrives in NY from Florida with his brother Nick. [Nicholas Schenck was the president of the Loew’s Theater circuit, and also controlled MGM. Louis B Mayer thus reported to him].

The Year Was 1938 – May 12th

  • Exhibitors who recently complained about producers paying huge salaries to stars who are Box Office poison, are now complaining about double bills as the root of all evil in the film industry.
  • Strained relations between the producers and directors continues. Frank Capra accuses Zanuck of trying to split the Directors’ Guild and that Zanuck and the pesident of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Joseph Schenck, have acted for the producers without authority. [I’m not sure how Capra could make that last statement, given that Schenck was the president of the producer organization. Unless perhaps by inference he was trying to divide the two from the other producers, by making it known what they were doing or not doing in the negotiations]. (See May 9th).
  • Stan Laurel as producer releases his western feature ‘Songs and Bullets,’ – director Sam Newfield with Fred Scott, Al St John, and Alice Ardell. Variety pans it. [Laurel has another film (Swiss Miss) with his partner Oliver Hardy coming out this month from Hal Roach. Laurel’s foray into production petered out after his 1939 offering ‘Two Gun Troubador,’ another western with Fred Scott. For the most part here on out, he stays in front of the camera].
  • Shirley Temple is appointed sponsor of National Airmail Week. She is visited on the set of ‘Little Miss Broadway’ for the presentation by acting Postmistress of Los Angeles, Mary D Briggs.
  • Nancy Kelly, a 17 year old actress, is just in from New York and her role in the play ‘Susan and God.’ Feeling very much the new face and lonely her first day on the 20th Century Fox lot, she spotted two actors that she had worked with as a child in films made in New York – Warner Baxter and Jean Hersholt – and felt more at home. [Fox had three films for her in 1939 – Jesse James, Tail Spin, and Stanley and Livingstone].
  • In an article about Clark Gable, it is noted that his girl friend Carole Lombard has a nickname for him – “Moose.” [Once married they began calling each other ‘Pa’ or ‘Ma’].

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 9th

  • Comedienne Joan Davis was taken to the hospital after a fall when doing a knockabout dance number with Buddy Ebsen in “My Lucky Star” at 20th Century Fox. At the top of the bill was Sonja Henie and Richard Greene. [Don’t worry Joan made it back to complete this film and was around for “Tail Spin “with Alice Faye in 1939].
  • By mutual agreement W. C. Fields and Paramount have called off making “Mr Bumpus Goes to Town.” Fields had been writing the script, but the studio was unhappy over story content. [The film was never made, under that title at least. He and Paramount also parted ways and the comedian ended up at Universal for the 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”].
  • According to Ed Sullivan – Clark Gable and Carole Lombard claim they will be married by the end of the year. [But first Clark needs to obtain a divorce from his second wife. He and Lombard would marry in 1939].
  • Also according to Ed Sullivan – Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures was casting about for actors to play in a film based on the play by Clifford Odets. He had acquired Odets’ “The Golden Boy,” a drama about boxing. He wanted Tyrone Power, but he was not available. Instead he decided to look for an unknown to act opposite Jean Arthur. [The unknown would be William Holden in his first starring role. Barbara Stanwyck took the place of Arthur in this 1939 film].
  • Actress Billie Seward, asks in court for a divorce from her husband William R Wilkerson, testifying that he was always sullen and morose and told her that he did not love her. In the two years they were together he was so immersed in his businesses that he was never home. [Two of his enterprises were the trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter and the cafe the Trocadero (see May 7 1938), which he had just sold. I guess she had not heard. She wound up back in front of the camera in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island for 1939].
  • Zanuck writes Frank Capra a letter chastising him for airing their controversies publicly and reiterates the position of the producers – separate negotiations with the three branches within the Directors Guild – directors, assistant directors and unit managers.

The Year Was 1938 – May 5th

A few items of interest, datelined on May 3rd:

  • The Jackie Coogan case is in the news. At question was how did the fortune he earned as a child actor (e.g. Chaplin’s The Kid) pegged at 4 million, dwindle down to $535,932. The judge has granted him permission to examine the books, kept by his mother and stepfather. [Rough times ahead for the actor now 24, and for his marriage to Betty Grable. And on another aside, I may be related to him].
  • Betty Grable’s contract taken up by 20th Century Fox.
  • Paramount has plans for the 1938-39 production schedule. To pay for improvements to the studio laboratory, $20,000 was appropriated. Fifty-eight features are planned and 102 shorts. Zukor and DeMille from earlier in the year were getting themselves into hot water with the exhibitors, claiming that the theater owners were responsible for the poor product, because they were not paying enough in film rental. [Film rental always the bone of contention between the two, I should know].
  • Bette Davis is returning to work at WB. She had been under suspension since April 1st for refusing to take a part in ‘Comet over Broadway.’ [Kay Francis starred in it instead – a story in which a girl has a struggle making it in the legit theater].
  • The National Confectioners Association files suit against 20th Century Fox for dialogue that desparaged candy in their film ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.’ When her aunt asks Shirley Temple’s character if she had had anything to eat, Shirley replied, “Oh, yes. A candy bar.” To which the aunt handed her over to her servant with the command – “Take the child to the kitchen and get her something decent to eat.” Besides damages they were requesting that the offensive part be removed from the film. [And after all the good she did for them with her song ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ from the 1934 film ‘Bright Eyes’].
  • Carole Lombard has been tapped to play her first role in two years for Selznick-International – ‘Made for Each Other.’ She has a deal with Selznick for one film yearly. [This film opened in Feb 1939, the month before her marriage to Clark Gable].
  • Merchants in Lone Pine CA looking to stimulate for film business coming to their area plan on spending $20,000 for a western street set. They had recently lost a Hopalong Cassidy film, when its Paramount producer took them to Kernville instead. [Lone Pine was very busy, especially for the 1939 film ‘Gunga Din’].
  • Jack Carson’s player contract renewed by RKO. [He arrived in Hollywood just the year before; for 1939 he made one film for RKO (Fifth Avenue Girl with Ginger Rogers), and was loaned out to four other studios including to Universal for ‘Destry Rides Again’].
  • Robert Montgomery announced he was not running for re-election of SAG president (Screen Actor’s Guild). Edward Arnold may run. Vote postponed til September.

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.