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 18th

Zanuck’s strategy for 20th Century Fox
  • Darryl F Zanuck expounds on the biz – some are saying that negative costs must come down to meet a lesser box office take, but he points out that quality films never are made with short budgets. And that is why they are spending more on their films than ever before. He agrees with exhibitors when they say that double billing is a mistake. Little pictures are a good training ground for up and coming actors. He would rather go with his solution – cast the younger players in big pictures (and cites the example of Tyrone Power in ‘Lloyd’s of London’). He intends to gamble on Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Richard Greene and Arlene Whelan. He goes on to give credit to their writers – touting originals, written in “the technique of pictures.” The future of films counts on writers.
  • Twentieth Century Fox cut the vacation allotment for Tyrone Power down to 10 days this summer in order to ease his schedule once ‘Jesse James’ starts shooting.
  • Scat singer, Johnnie Davis is the latest added to the cast of ‘Brother Rat,’ being made for WB. Eddie Albert who had the lead in the NY play takes the lead here too. The leading lady is yet to be selected, between Priscilla Lane and Olivia DeHavilland. Camera crews are now at work shooting exteriors in Virginia at VMI, the film’s setting. [The decision was for Priscilla Lane (or did Olivia say no?). Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were also added to the cast. Johnnie Davis appeared in four films in 1939, 2 features and 2 shorts].
  • Carole Lombard is building a home for her mom in Brentwood.
  • Edward Small rests at home under a doctor’s care. [The powerhouse independent producer had ‘The Duke of West Point’ for this year, and two for 1939, one of which was ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’].
  • Leon Schlesinger is welcomed by an office party after a long hospital seige. [I can only imagine what that would have been like. Schelsinger was head of the animation unit at WB, so the likes of Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, and voice talent Mel Blanc would have been on hand].
  • Gene Autry starts work back at Republic today after nearly a half year absence.
  • According to Ed Sullivan, “most wigs for the movies are made from human hair from the Balkan and Scandinavian countries.”

SOME SIDE NOTES

  • Howard Hughes planning an around the world flight to promote the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. He will bear invitations to the European nations.
  • According to a reporter taking in the shooting of the latest Sonja Henie film at 20th Century Fox, she had to be provided with special socks, costing $35 a pair. Even then she puts runs in them when strained by the leaps she does, running through five pairs a day. The makeup department in preparing her for the day, sprays a glue in her hair to keep her tresses from flying every which way.

ON THE MOVE

  • Hal B Wallis, associate in charge of production at WB, in NY today for business & pleasure, to look over the current stage plays. [Given his position at the company his name is on linked to 47 film for 1939 – 16 credited (including The Old Maid, in which his wife, Louise Fazenda, played a maid), and 31 uncredited].
  • Departing for London from NY on the Normandie – Danielle Darrieux with her husband Henri de Coin, writer-director (though she would like to stay in US, she needed to return to France for her mandatory one film per year, according to French regulations), Brian Aherne, David Niven, Diana Barrymore
  • NY to LA – Billy Halop, Fredric March, Luise Rainer.
  • Arrivals in LA – Olivia DeHavilland, Mr & Mrs Paul Lukas, Lily Pons, Claudette Colbert, John Hay Whitney.

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].

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).