The Year Was 1938 – May 20th

Cecilia Parker in 1937
  • Just finishing ‘Love Finds Andy Hardy,’ a  long term contract at MGM is awarded to Cecilia Parker for her work in the family series. She began the role of Mickey Rooney older sister in 1937. [She has one more ahead for 1938, then three more Hardy features and one short for 1939].
  • A meeting was held at the home of Sam Goldwyn to discuss the deal they will receive for releasing via United Artists for the 1938-39 season (the distributor will sell only on percentage, not flat). Also present were David O Selznick, Dr A H Gianninni, Walter Wanger, Edward Small, Hal Roach.
  • Shake up at Universal, with VP in charge of production, Charles R Rogers, on the way out, Cliff Work will take his place under President Nat Blumberg and VP Matthew Fox. [Active since the silent days, Rogers had been head of production at RKO in 1931, switching to Universal in 1935. He had some notable successes with them – ‘My Man Godfrey’ for instance, and for signing the teen singing sensation Deanna Durbin. He would wind up at Paramount in 1939, and produce The Star Maker with Bing Crosby, a fictionalized version of the life of Gus Edwards].
  • At WB, ‘For Lovers Only’ begins filming, with Dick Powell in the lead and with Olivia DeHavilland playing opposite him. [The romantic comedy is released under the title – ‘Hard to Get’].
  • Margaret Sullivan is discussed as the lead for Hal Roach’s new romantic comedy ‘There Goes My Heart.’ The part had been turned down by Irene Dunne. [Sullivan must have turned it down too, as Virginia Bruce is credited in the part].
  • Ed Sullivan points out that Gene Reynolds is playing a lot of roles when the lead character needs to be shown as a child – for James Stewart in ‘Of Human Hearts’; for Tyrone Power in ‘In Old Chicago’; for Ricardo Cortez in ‘The Californian’; and for John Beal in ‘Madame X.’ [Gene Reynolds has four films for 1939. He had a long career in entertainment, and later was a TV producer for MASH and Lou Grant].
  • Jackie Coogan is in San Francisco working on a personal stage appearance, making jokes about his impoverished situation. And hoping to earn enough until August when the suit with his parents will be tried. Bob Hope has written his routine, between takes on his current film ‘Give Me a Sailor.’ Hope and Coogan will have a vaudeville tour together in the East beginning in June. (See May 13th)

ON THE MOVE

  • Pat O’Brien will be taking off for a three week vacation, and will start ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ upon his return. [Per Ed Sullivan he plans to take in the War Admiral – Seabiscuit match race. The race scheduled for May at Belmont did not come off with Seabiscuit. The race finally took place on November 1st].
  • Joel McCrea heads off to Montana for a fishing trip, accompanied by his stand in, Carl Andre. His station wagon is fully equipped for the expedition. Upon their return they will report to Universal along with other Goldwyn contracted people – Andrea Leeds and director Archie Mayo. Some think it strange that so many from the Goldwyn stable would be going to a rival studio. Shooting to begin June 4.
  • The 20th Century Fox film ‘Five of a Kind’ with the Dionne quintuplets will see its company leave for Canada tonight, but without Joan Davis. She is now home from the hospital after her back injury, sustained will rehearsing with Buddy Ebsen. She plans to join them next week. [Davis must not have made it, for she is not listed in the credits]. (See May 9th).

OPENED IN THEATERS THAT DAY

  • Swiss Miss with Laurel & Hardy (directed by John Blystone) from MGM.
  • Mystery House with Humphrey Bogart from WB.

The Year Was 1938 – May 19th

Virginia Weidler in 1938
  • Today child actor Virginia Weidler was added to the RKO production ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens.’ She was borrowed from MGM where she was at work in ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ She is also currently loaned out to Paramount on ‘Men with Wings.’
  • United Artists board to meet today to finalize the releasing deal with Hal Roach. Roach can bring his own production money. Dr A H Gianninni, president of UA prepared the way for him. Mary Pickford to attend the meeting also.
  • Independent exihibitors at a confab in Pittsburgh have asked the government to do an investigation into the picture industry, especially pricing policies and terms of film leasing, all to be included in any anti-trust action that is pending in Washington.
  • Silent film actress Alla Nazimova has been brought into Paramount to help tutor the Italian actress Isa Miranda. Producer Albert Lewis and director George Cukor brought Nazimova in to help Miranda recreate a role that Nazimova played on the Russian stage 37 years prior. [The film was released in 1938 – but not with Isa Miranda. Claudette Colbert took the role instead. I wonder what happened].

Columnist Sidney Skolsky often wrote about “Watching Them Make Pictures” for this week he details three happenings:

  • On the MGM backlot, Jack Conway was directing Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon in a scene for ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ Playing competing newsreelmen Pidgeon was to chase Gable and Gable was to trip and fall face first into a mud puddle especially prepared for him. He fell into the mud perfectly – but Pidgeon blew his line, so they had to do it all over again.
  • Out on the movie ranch in the Valley, Richard Thorpe was shooting a scene for “Give and Take” with Robert Taylor and Maureen O’Sullivan. A man was plowing in the far background and was whistling. The sound man warned the director that his mic was picking up this whistling. Thorpe said to just keep it as background – but then the sound man broke in again and told him that they would not be able to use it as the man was whistling “Thanks for the Memory,” a Paramount song. [The film was released as ‘The Crowd Roars’].
  • He checked in at Paramount and entered a sound stage where “The Spawn of the North” was being shot. Business was on hold for the moment, for they were celebrating Henry Fonda’s birthday (May 16th). Fonda was serving out the cake when two Western Union messengers arrived and sang Happy Birthday to Fonda. They had been sent by his former roommates John Swope and James Stewart. Before he knew it Fonda had handed out all the pieces, not having reserved one for himself. One of the visitors surrendered his piece to Hank. Soon, director Henry Hathaway had Fonda, Dorothy Lamour, Louise Platt and George Raft back to work.

ITEMS OF INTEREST

  • Ed Sullivan in his column extolls a list of names you were never meant to see in the credits. Claire Meyers – Sally Sage – Marjorie Lane – Eadie Adams – Virginia Verrill. The legs of Meyers, or more properly Myers, stood in for closeups of those of Joan Crawford, Virgina Bruce and other ladies in the MGM stable. Sage’s hands stood in for those of Bette Davis in ‘Jezebel.’ [She had uncredited parts in six WB films for 1939]. The last three lent their voices for songs that came from the lips of, respectively, Eleanor Powell for ‘Broadway Melody of 1936,’  ‘Born to Dance,’ ‘Rosalie,’ as well as ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’; for Jean Harlow in ’Suzy’ and ‘Reckless’; and for Andrea Leeds in ‘The Goldwyn Follies.’

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].

The Year Was 1938 – May 11th

Kate Hepburn
  • Katherine Hepburn refuses to play in ’Mother Carey’s Chickens’ at RKO. She entered into negotiations to cancel out of her contract (she’d been with them since 1932); they dropped the balance of her commitment to them (six months) and the two films she owed them. The cost to her was the $200,000 in salary she would have gotten for those films (plus an additional $75,000 that she personally coughed up). [Fay Bainter, Anne Shirley and Ruby Keeler anchor the film instead – a family comedy based on a novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the writer of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm].
  • Columbia began a billboard campaign all around Los Angeles – “Is it true what they say about Katherine Hepburn?” This was in reference to the complaint theater owners were making to the film producers – that Hepburn was Box Office poison. And was a backhanded way to produce curiosity in their new release of “Holiday” with Hepburn and Cary Grant. [Holiday was not a financial success, and Hepburn retreated to New York and the stage where she landed a success with The Philadelphia Story, and later brought it to Hollywood].
  • Darryl Zanuck came up with an original idea (perhaps in response to the above). For his forthcoming production of The Rains Came (based on the novel by Louis Bromfield). Aside from his main choice for the lead (Ronald Colman), he offered the opportunity for the exhibitors to send in their choices of actors to play the other characters from the best-selling novel. [By the time it went into production Colman was out and George Brent was in for this 1939 film].
  • United Artists has 24 features planned for the 1938-39 season. Hal Roach, currently producing for MGM, is looking to join the UA studio and contribute nine films in the next three years. [Actually his poor choice of partnering in a business with Mussolini in Italy, and Mussolini’s subsequent decision to join in with Hitler and his ant-semitism, led to the decision of those at the top in MGM to cancel Roach’s contract. Roach was just switching from short films, such as The Our Gang series (which he sold to MGM) to feature films and hit a gold mine with Topper (1937). Roach had some big films coming in 1939 – Captain Fury, A Chump at Oxford, and the prestigious ‘Of Mice and Men’].

ITEMS THAT PIQUED MY INTEREST

  • Story out of Hartford CT – where Snow White had opened – patrons complained afterwards to be victims of pickpockets. The investigating detectives reported that grifters were now following hit shows from town to town, like they used to follow the carnival. 
  • Laurence Olivier now being talked about for the part of Lawrence of Arabia, replacing Robert Donat who was originally to be the lead. [See May 6th]
  • Plagiarism damages for “Letty Lynton” may cost MGM one million dollars.  [This was a film made by MGM in 1932, starring Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery. It was pulled from release in 1936, when they lost a suit brought by the authors of the play Dishonored Lady, who claimed that MGM had used it without their permission. Except for ‘bootleg’ copies the film is still not available].

ON THE MOVE

  • Claudette Colbert sailing on the Normandie from London to New York. [Zaza, Midnight, Drums Along the Mohawk in her future for 1939].
  • David Niven and Brian Aherne sailing on the Queen Mary from New York to London.
  • Donald Crisp yacht vacationing.
  • Walter Pidgeon on a motor trip to New Brunswick.
  • Dalton Trumbo writing weekends on his new ranch at Lebec. [Six films will be made from his scripts in 1939].
  • Cecil B DeMille back at Paramount after an operation. [And at work on his film for 1939 – Union Pacific].
  • Clark Gable, John Boles and Lanny Ross on a 110-mile horseback ride. [A big year ahead for Gable; not so for Boles; and Ross’s voice was used for the lead in the Fleischer animated film ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ for 1939].
  • Olivia DeHavilland vacationing in Europe. [She would return bouyed with the news of a major success in WB’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. And  she would be in good position to go after a major role in Selznick’s production of ‘Gone with the Wind’ – not the Scarlett part that every actress in Hollywood was vying for, but the Melanie Hamilton part].

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.