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.

They Call It Screwball

They Call it Screwball

No. I’m not writing about the baseball pitch that behaves in an opposite manner to the curve ball.

I am referring to the meaning of the word when it is applied to a slightly (or totally) off-kilter personality. When it comes to film, the word is usually shackled hand and foot to another word – “comedy.” In this genre, these aforementioned personalities are thrown together into situations that range from the absurd to the downright silly.

And they’re a lot of fun.

My wife and I received our indoctrination into the form in Seattle in 1974. A little storefront theater had sprouted out of “nowhere” down in the Pioneer district. The young couple (the Curtises) who gave it “birth,” christened it – The Rosebud Movie Palace. It was all of 88 seats, to which you gained access by running the maze of plywood walls thrown up to enclose the auditorium area. To my notion it was a throwback to the old Nickelodeon era.

[Research aside – The whole film industry in these United States owes its existence to similar tiny beginnings. In New York City of, say, 1904 – these establishments in the statutes of the city were known as “common shows.” This term described theaters of under 299 seats, and were not subject to the fire code of the larger legit theaters. And because the admission was five cents, they gained the moniker Nickelodeon.]

I first ran across the Rosebud theater when perusing movie ads in the newspaper. A film title caught my eye – “The Philadelphia Story.” It was a film we had heard about, but never seen. So we paid them a visit on my day off from the Fifth Avenue Theater (a bus man’s holiday). And we were delighted to watch the trials and tribulations of the three main characters played by Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Want to know anything more? I don’t do spoilers. Catch it for yourself.

We kept a weather eye out for other titles in the genre and soon tracked down the likes of:

It Happened One Night

Bringing Up Baby

You Can’t Take It with You – (my personal favorite)

His Girl Friday

Will you look at that  – Capra – Hawks – Capra – Hawks. I am aware that other directors toiled in the genre, but those two are easily the best. But I am thankful to Cukor, as the director of The Philadelphia Story, the “gateway drug,” as it were, to this rather mild addiction.

I come to the end of this post and hesitate to mention that we also saw films of other genres at the Rosebud. Like “Fury” the Fritz Lang thriller with Spencer Tracy; and “Queen Christina” the historical drama with the enigmatic and beautiful Greta Garbo.

But look I’ve gone and done it anyway. I didn’t hesitate at all.

Just call me “screwball.”