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.

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

We were canyon dwellers in Seattle, and spent the majority of our time in the one canyon called Fifth Avenue. Out where our apartment was located the canyon was a little more open, but as we trudged off to work the canyon walls grew steeper and the shadows lengthened. My wife’s place of work came first on the trek up the arroyo. She cashiered at the Coliseum theater, a gleaming white Roman-like structure at the corner of Fifth and Pike. (Bruce Lee was mixing it up with Chuck Norris in “Return of the Dragon”). My theater was farther up the avenue past our opposition, SRO’s Music Box theater, at this juncture running the first run hit, “Chinatown”, the Jack Nicholson starrer, directed by Roman Polanski.

[Aside – though I was gone from the UA Cinema, I remained in contact with the cinephile’s there. Pat and Wendy, Karl, Stephen and Billie caught the film at the Music Box, too. We all liked it. Except Billie. For some strange reason she took umbrage to the red and green Lucky Strike cigarette packages, an Art Director’s touch that lent an additional layer of authenticity for the rest of us.]

On the first day I walked under the marquee, it was lettered with the title “Uptown Saturday Night,” a comedy starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Oddly, it was double billed with “The Getaway” (the Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw version, directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill).

I have a lot of memories linked to the entrance of the Fifth Avenue theater. At break times I relieved the cashier in the octagonal box office, which sat smack dab in the center of the entrance. I took tickets at the ornate doors behind and in line with the box office. I changed the posters in the large shadow box frames lining the sides of the entrance. And I watched one building come down, and another go up.

By the time we changed our bill of fare (two thrillers – “The Black Windmill,” directed by Don Siegel; doubled with “The Day of the Jackal,” directed by Fred Zinneman) some big changes were underway across the street. The Fifth Avenue sat across from the White Henry Stuart Building. Both were within that section of Seattle known as the Metropolitan Tract. This valuable acreage of real estate is owned by the University of Washington, having been the former campus of the school (prior to 1895). The decision had been made to demolish the White Henry Stuart building in order to put up a newer and bigger structure. Now as the wrecking balls moved into place and began battering away at the canyon wall in front of us, we were introduced little by little to views of the setting sun on Puget Sound. The pounding continued throughout our run of “Airport 75” (directed by Jack Smight), and the pile drivers added their tune somewhere along the line to our Christmas film, “The Front Page” (directed by Billy Wilder, assisted by Howard Kazanjian). By the time John Cassavetes’ film “Woman Under the Influence”  moved in, we were treated to the spectacle of a non-ending convoy of cement trucks adding their contents to the continuous pour that resulted in that “golf-tee” like structure that is the base of the Rainier Tower. And two huge cranes worked in tandem as the new building sprouted up forty stories.

At one of these change of billings, I was almost seriously wounded by a falling plate glass window. No, it did not wing in from across the street. I was changing posters in that afore mentioned shadow box frame. The posters were enclosed behind two huge pieces of sliding plate glass. A cylindrical lock slid on and off a bayonet-type piece of metal that was attached to the plate glass that slid behind the other. I had just unlocked and removed the lock, and was gripping the plate glass in front to slide it open when that glass cracked in half. All the weight of the upper portion of the window came down on top of my right thumb, glanced off, and crashed back into the box frame, instead of falling towards me and chopping me off at the ankles.

The incident gave me pause to reflect. I had the smallest of wounds on the knuckle of my thumb, a mere quarter inch long (and a tiny scar that lasted a decade or so). It left me with a deep sense of gratitude. A thankfulness for God’s protection from injury. Something I will always remember.