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.

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.