The Year Was 1938 – May 31st

Bette Davis in 1938
  • Lots of news for Bette Davis. She is to begin work on ‘The Sisters’ this week. This is to be followed by ‘The Phantom Crown’ which will begin production as ‘Juarez.’ And another project calls her back to the old South – a post Civil War story called ‘Memphis Belle.’ [The Sisters which pairs her with Errol Flynn closes out 1938 for her. ‘Juarez’ did go ahead, but another project came on line before it – ‘Dark Victory’ (one of the biggies for 1939). The ‘Memphis Belle’ title remained on the shelf].
  • Sidney Franklin (director) due in tomorrow at Metro to conference about his next film – ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ – to be filmed in England with Robert Donat. 
  • Laurel and Hardy start shooting today their final Roach production for Metro. [This is the ‘Meet the Missus’ project that was released as ‘Blockheads’]. (Mentioned in prior posts – see May 28th)
  • RKO is so happy with the dailies on ‘The Affairs of Annabel’ that they are considering adding more titles and making it into a series. [There was a quick turn around on this idea for ‘Annabel Takes a Tour’ came out in the same year. Jack Oakie went directly between the two; Lucille Ball squeezed in her part in ‘Room Service’ between them].
  • Walt Disney is looking to expand to a bigger plant – his Hyperion Ave site – covering 70,000 sq ft and employing 735 workers has become too cramped, hence plans are going forward for a million dollar facility. As for this next projects, slated next is Pinocchio, then Bambi.
  • 20th Century Fox is prepping ‘The Little Princess,’ the beloved story by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a film for Shirley Temple. To start 9/1. [It would be released in 1939].

CONTRACT TIME

  • Metro signed Gabriel Dell and Huntz Hall to term pacts. [Two of the Dead End kids gang. Dell has one short and four features for 1939].
  • 20th Century Fox lifted the option on Pauline Moore. [Charlie Chan, Abe Lincoln and the Musketeers keep her busy for 1939].
  • Republic renewed director James Cruze’s contract for one year. [Former silent actor and director Cruze had one film on the screen at this moment – ‘Gangs of New York.’ He has only one more credit for the year, none in 1939. Alcoholism over-shadowed his career and life until his death in 1942].
  • Fay Bainter had her contract at WB extended for two more pictures.
  • Frank Wead inks writer contract at 20th Century Fox. [The former navy pilot had written the story upon which MGM’s ‘Test Pilot’ was based. After the freak accident in which he broke his neck in 1926, he turned his skills to a writing career. He would work on two projects for Fox in 1939, one of wich was ‘Tail Spin’].
  • John Huston signed for a writer’s contract at WB. [Huston’s contribution to the screenplay for ‘Jezebel’ no doubt raised him in the eyes of WB. His involvement with ‘Jaurez’ for 1939; and an uncredited contribution to ‘Wuthering Heights’ put him on course to reach his goal – to direct the films based on his own scripts].
  • Florence Rice’s new contract with MGM, guarantees her time off to go East to catch the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight.
  • WB lifts the ban in director Lloyd Bacon’s contract on flying, so he can fly to Florida to do his research in Pensacola before he shoots ‘Wings of the Navy.’

ITEMS OF INTEREST

  • Eight casting directors rate the top supporting actors. The top 8 were Mischa Auer, Beulah Bondi, Walter Connelly, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Hersholt, Donald Meek, Alan Mowbray, Frank Morgan. (With 7 of the 8 votes, none unanimous). Next group (with 6 votes each) – Billie Burke, Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine, Hugh Herbert, Lewis Stone, Charles Winninger. Next (with 5 votes) – Una Merkle, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Henry Stephenson, Fay Bainter, Alice Brady, Spring Byington, Walter Brennan. Next (with 4 votes) – Edward Arnold, Ralph Bellamy, Humphrey Bogart, Herman Bing, Donald Crisp, Fritz Feld, Glenda Farrell, Bonita Granville, Edna May Oliver, May Robson, C Aubrey Smith, Ned Sparks, Slim Summerville, George Sanders, Akim Tamiroff.
  • Regarding premiers in Hollywood – for “A pictures” six to eight arc lights were the norm. The prize houses were Grauman’s Chinese, the Village in Westwood, and the Paramount in downtown LA, and sometimes the Carthay Circle (seating 1600) on the edge of the Beverly Hills District. Disney’s ‘Snow White,’ garnered historic grosses there on a two-a-day run.  [Now you know why a replica of the Carthay Circle graces the main street in Disney’s California Adventure park].
  • Inside the sound stage of ‘Four Daughters’ at WB, the Lane sisters under the direction of Michael Curtiz arrive via a Pullman car at the station of a small town. The snow – cornflakes; the slush on the ground – cornflakes, gypsum, salt and water. The Pullman car was real, but there was no motive power. It was pulled into the station by a winch, which could only move the rail car 20 feet, but that was all they needed.

The Year Was 1938 – May 28th

The Pogany portrait of Constance Bennett at the center of the lawsuit
  • In court, portrait artist William Pogany gives his side about his work on the portrait of actress Constance Bennett. The jurors compared the image to the real thing as the testimony was given. Bennett made her view clear when she proclaimed that the portrait made her look like “a droopy sack of cement with a rope tied around it.” (See May 26th).
  • Jack Oakie gives an interview from his dressing room at RKO where he is preparing for work on his new film – ‘The Affairs of Annabel.’ He details his recent weight loss – in six weeks he has “lost 40 pounds, two chins, a bay window, and a desire for all potables stronger than skimmed milk.” [Oakie appeared in four films for 1938, but none in 1939. Since he was working with Chaplin for his role in the Great Dictator that released in 1940, he may have been tied up on that project, being at the beck and call of the perfectionist movie legend].
  • Art Beery Sr, a  man with the job of stand-in for the actor Herbert Marshall, takes on the job of harbor master at Santa Monica, and leaves his old position to his son Art jr who gladly takes over the stand-in position. [Beery jr may have started with Marshall’s next film ‘Zaza’ at Paramount with Claudette Colbert].
  • Today’s date marks the birthday of stage and movie actress Minna Gombell. She turns 46, and started soon in the production of ‘Meet the Missus,’ with Laurel and Hardy, playing the wife of Ollie. [‘Meet the Missus’ was released by MGM as ‘Blockheads.’ The veteran stage actress, Gombell, was in 4 films for 1938, and just three for 1939, including ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame”].
  • Also it was actor Richard Lane’s 39th birthday who was hard at work at RKO on the Astaire-Rogers vehicle – Carefree. [Lane would be at 20th Century for the rest of 1938 (for ‘Mr Doodle Kicks Off’ and ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’) and for the beginning of 1939 in ‘Mr Moto in Danger Island,’ before changing over to Paramount for the DeMille film ‘Union Pacific’].

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].

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.