The Year Was 1938 – June 2nd

Mervyn LeRoy
  • George Ungurian has brought a suit against film producer Mervyn LeRoy, his former employer. (George had been his butler). He is seeking $125,000 for false imprisonment, naming LeRoy and WB studio police chief, Blayney Matthews as those responsible. [Born in Romania, this former butler had been let go, and was finding it hard to obtain employment because he had been branded as a radical. Sneaking onto the WB lot he was stopped from confronting LeRoy and held captive for a time. At the time LeRoy was preparing for a couple of changes. He switches studios from WB to MGM, and leaves behind directing to produce. There he has one film for 1938, then for 1939 – ‘Stand Up and Fight,’ ‘At the Circus’ – and the huge production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’].
  • WB plans a world premiere in Columbia City, Indiana for their new film ‘White Banners.’ The director Edmund Goulding and stars Claude Rains, Fay Bainter, and Jackie Cooper will be in attendance. The town was chosen because it is the home town of the author of the book upon which the film is based – Lloyd Douglas. Douglas, a former minister, first gained fame with his novel, The Magnificent Obsession. [Goulding will go on to direct ‘Dark Victory’ in 1939].
  • Universal has signed Jackie Cooper to a three picture contract. First will be the next Deanna Durbin picture, ’That Certain Age.’ [Cooper would star in subsequent vehicles at Universal, but did not have the same impact as Durbin’s films through 1939].
  • Joan Fontaine and Chester Morris to take the starring roles of RKO’s The Clean-Up. Lew Landers to direct. [The film was released as ‘Smashing the Rackets’, (based on articles about Thomas Dewey cleaning up NYC), and though it did have Chester Morris, he played opposite Frances Mercer instead of Joan Fontaine – the two – Morris and Fontaine were in a previous film together ’Sky Giant,’ so perhaps there was some confusion on the reporter’s part. Fontaine’s talents were most likely tied up in ‘The Duke of West Point’ to finish 1938 and the mighty ‘Gunga Din’ to kick off 1939].
  • A bunch of old timers have been rounded up to appear in a jail sequence for ‘You Can’t Take it with You’ at Columbia. They are: Pert Kelton, from vaudeville and Broadway and sporadic films; Jim Thorpe, the Indian Olympic champ of 25 years ago; Jimmy Morton, of vaudeville fame; Kit Guard, famous for musicals; and Earl Askam, a singer. [Kelton, Guard and Askam do have listings for this film, but Thorpe and Morton have none].
  • For his performance so far in ‘Having Wonderful Time,’ RKO has signed Lee Bowman to a long term contract. [Bowman appeared in three more films for 1938 and eight for 1939, including ‘Love Affair’).
  • At Columbia, Harry Cohn wants to put to rest any rumors that an of his execs will lose their positions with the return of Sam Briskin to the company.  (See May 17th).
  • Ed Sullivan talked with cameraman Bill Daniels, the only one that Greta Garbo would permit to film her. According to Daniels, she has a certain quality that she projects on the screen – “She has the wisdom of a very old lady, and with it a remarkable tolerance. She is completely unlike the impression of her that’s been broadcast. It is her wisdom and tolerance that give her a certain spiritual glow. The camera picks that up.” [Away from the camera lens since 1937, she returns in 1939 in MGM’s ‘Ninotchka.’ With the tagline – “Garbo Laughs.”

ITEM OF INTEREST

  • A filler bit. The fan mail of Anthony Quinn has grown exponentially since his appearence in DeMille’s ‘The Plainsman’ from 1936. [DeMille used him again in 1938 for ‘The Buccaneer,’ and again in 1939’s ‘Union Pacific.’

Gunga Din How It Came to Be #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year How It Came to Be

I like tracing the beginnings of things – a facet of my fascination with research. Having enjoyed my recent viewing of Gunga Din (not the first), I wanted to know more about it. And what I have discovered has not disappointed. And hopefully you will enjoy what I have to relate on this topic.

At the nexus of course is the poem written by Rudyard Kipling, the English writer. Born “in Injia’s sunny clime, where I used to spend my time,” he wrote from his experience there. In this instance a paean to the native ‘bhisti’ – the lower caste Indian who carried ammo, water, and medical assistance to British soldiers, at their beck and call. Though despised throughout, he is extolled at the last for his selfless service.

Kipling passed away in 1936. Shortly after Edward Small, a fairly prolific independent producer in Hollywood, purchased the rights from the family to make a film based upon the poem. Though one that operated on the edge of Big Hollywood he wasn’t quite the poverty row variety, his Reliance Pictures had strong connections with United Artists. He had ambitions to make quality product and had a string of successes with projects based on some works by Alexander Dumas. But shortly after the acquisition of the Kipling rights, he had to pull the plug on his company and joined the fold of the RKO organization. And that is how Gunga Din came into their orbit.

And RKO thought they had the right director for Gunga Din in Howard Hawks.

Hawks was a recent addition to their talent stable, having come to them from Selznick when he left over creative differences. His style was well suited for a story about men of action.

Where Small had interested William Faulkner in putting together a treatment for the project, Hawks welcomed aboard the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. (He had worked with them on Public Enemy). As some have pointed out they contributed a major element to the final script by lifting the plot point from their own play of nearly a decade before – in which an additional element of conflict was injected when one of the heroes wants to leave the profession against  others’ wishes. Mirroring the relationship between the editor and the reporter in The Front Page, two of the soldiers resist the third in his attempt to leave the army to marry.

As things progressed (or actually did not) Small dropped out of the picture and Hawks went with another project at RKO, directing the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. (Though that film has advanced to iconic stature in the genre, it was not so at its release. It bears a good deal of the responsibility for putting RKO in financial straits – and whose lackluster performance at the box office ejected Hawks from his contract with them).

During this time the head of production changed at the studio. Samuel Briskin was replaced by Pandro S. Berman, who got the fire lit under Gunga Din again. He called on a new director in their stable George Stevens. And Stevens brought in two new writers- Joel Sayres and Ted Guiol. Stevens adjudged the Hecht/MacArthur to be too much of a staged piece, all closed in. He wanted it opened up to exterior settings so his heroes could range about under the sun. Sayres added an element to the antagonists, the Thuggees and the cult of Kali, cribbing from the history of conflicts in India.

So now with a sense of the big picture for the story Stevens set out to put it all on film. How he did it – I’ll cover in future posts on Watch This Space. So stay tuned.