Gunga Din the Afterword #1939TheMiracleYear

Gunga Din The Afterword

The weekly studio roundup sections in Variety during the month of November mention only that Gunga Din was in the cutting room or awaiting a preview.

Once filming had wrapped on Gunga Din and the footage turned over for editing at the studio, another department stepped up their work to keep the title before the public and to remind their select target audience – theater owners –  that the film would soon be available to book in their theaters.

This work of the publicity department in an offhand way gives us another interesting look at the ways and means and challenges of the production process.

In Cal York’s Hollywood Gossip column in the November edition of Photoplay, a section focused on weight loss among the stars. His main subject was Claudette Colbert who had dropped an half inch after ten days of doing the cancan for ‘Zaza’ – a George Cukor film. He caps off this tidbit with a discussion about weight loss among the principal actors of Gunga Din. He reports that due to the heat of their location shoot, coupled with the heavy woolen army uniforms they wore, Cary Grant melted twelve pounds off his frame in the first two weeks. A reminder that the actor, as artist, sometimes sacrifices for his art.

In another article about the heavy use of ammunition in film production throughout the year of 1938, Gunga Din came in for another mention. The firm of J. S. Stembridge was kept busy around the clock supplying the weapons and making up the special charges necessary for staging celluloid conflict. It goes on to cite these films:  ‘Hotel Imperial,’ ‘Union Pacific,’ ‘Juarez,’ ‘Oklahoma Kid,’ ‘Dodge City,’ ‘Stagecoach,’ and ‘Heritage of the Desert.’ many of whom will be upcoming in this series, 1939 – The Miracle Year. For Gunga Din, Stembridge’s firm supplied 500 rifles and I know from another source they supplied the two gatling guns, at one time glimpsed being carted by two of the elephants.  Was Anna May one of the pistol packing pachyderms?

Other mentions were offered about who would score the film. Before production began Roy Webb was listed for the chore and though alluded to briefly after filming closed, his name disappeared from the running (he was very busy as music director at RKO – 28 projects credited and uncredited in 1938; 22 in 1939).  Instead another name, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was bandied about. But happily, and no doubt to Webb’s overworked relief, it fell into the talented lap of Alfred Newman, fresh from the Goldwyn studio as a freelancer.  And his joyful, jaunty score perfectly matches and enhances Stevens’ film.

An interesting article in the March edition of the Motion Picture Herald, two months after its opening, talked up a specially edited together 10 minute version of Gunga Din. It was offered to the infant TV industry to be broadcast in New York for 1939 World’s Fair – taking place there in April.

I close out with a valuation from the standpoint of the business – from how it would be judged in light of the studio’s bottom line. It cost 1.9 million to make and generated a gross of 3 million in its first year in the US. And before you conclude that it made a killing at the box office let me remind you that a gross is not equal to what RKO received back in film rental. I do not know what it exactly brought in to RKO, but I can offer an educated guess. At best the theaters would only have paid 50% to the distributor, or at worst 35 or 25%. So you can see that even at best, it fell $400,000 short of recouping its cost that first year. (Sources state that it did indeed finally make its cost back, but only with future re-releases).

A clue to its falloff in performance may be indicated from reports in Box Office magazine that a lot of theater owners in the Midwest were not keen on booking it.

In so far as film is concerned Gunga Din has left a rich legacy. Echoes of its individual parts resound in many that followed.

Take the buddy picture for instance.

Our heroes with whom we are taught to identify, though allied in their camaraderie can often be at odds with one another, at times to our delight, especially when their relationships take a comic turn. In this regard I think of the series Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, and yes – 8. And I think back a few decades to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose writer, the famous William Goldman, was deeply enamored of Gunga Din.

And then there is the adventure film. One need only mention the Indiana Jones series as the prime example overall and its Temple of Doom chapter in particular.

That said, Gunga Din on the whole stands as something greater than the sum of its parts. And I heartily recommend it to your enjoyment.

(You can thank me for the minimum of spoilers).

Gunga Din The Making of a Classic Part 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 the Miracle Year the Making of a Classic. Pt 2

July and August were busy months for the cast and crew of Gunga Din. And they were hot ones too. Temperatures soared in the semi desert location of Lone Pine, topping out officially at 115 degrees, and unofficially at 120.

Once the village set of Tantrapur was put back together after the fire, director George Stevens, tackled the all action skirmish scenes that pitted the three British sergeants and their small British company against the murderous Thuggees. The fights ranged from the village streets up to the rooftops.

      Stevens kept his stuntmen going at full tilt, in the main, falling from everywhere – out of windows, from the rooftops, and off of charging mounts. One of the men who subbed for Cary Grant was a name that is familiar to me, Mike Lally, whom I hope write about in a future post.

Aside – Variety reported in November, after shooting had completed, that RKO had spent a total of $85,353.97 for the stuntmen and extras for location work on Gunga Din at Lone Pine.

Stevens kept the action flowing at a furious clip, notably using a camera technique from the silent comedy days. He undercranked the camera speed which in effect speeds the movement. Not at a severe rate that would have rendered them versions of the Keystone cops, but just slightly under the norm to lend the action a determined edge, not giving the audience time to catch their breath.

And at a crucial juncture Stevens ‘plays with time’ again, in this instance by overcranking (again by only a slight difference) slowing the images, to add tension and suspense when a lit stick of dynamite lands beside Doug Fairbanks Jr. who is struggling to extract his leg from a hole in the roof.

Besides the brutal temperatures, unpredictable winds created havoc and would bring filming to a halt. One such wind incident caught a camera crew atop a 35 foot parallel*. Cast and crew rushed to their aid and kept the structure from toppling and taking the three men with it. A similar parallel was caught in a wind sheer but thankfully no one was on it at the time.

(*Not being exactly sure what a parallel is in its film context, I contacted my producer friend and he provided this explanation – “a parallel is similar to scaffolding except it is usually a six by six platform on top of a six by six platform or as many levels as one might need.  If it is too high on stage it is secured by 2×4’s or something like that on an angle to the metal brace.  If built for an exterior scene we would use wires (cable) to steady it if it is built too high.”)

Watching the sequence unfold on screen one marvels at all that was going on. Clearly days and many setups had been needed to capture all this action. Stevens was known for his improvisation and there are stories about nightly meetings between him and his writers and cast members to plot out the following day’s shots. A methodology that also had a touchstone in his former work in comedy shorts.

Late in August, the company returned to the studio for interior work. During the short weeks there they covered some important sequences, including the interiors for the temple.

After their sojourn in the relative ease of the city, Stevens again took his production back out to the wilds of Lone Pine for the climactic battle scenes that wind up Gunga Din. They would find altogether different conditions there at the end of September 1938.

The Dunning of Gunga Din #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Dunning of Gunga Din

The article in Variety was, really, little more than a blurb. But it got my attention.

Reading it I felt sympathy for the individual affected by hard financial circumstances.

Locked Out

Hollywood, Oct 18 (1938)

With a bankroll of $2,250 earned acting in RKO’s ‘Ginga Din,’ Anna May has no place to park her trunk. While she was on location the sheriff plastered an eviction notice on the California Zoological Society, her old home. …

As it turns out the subject of our pity was Anna May – an actor with very special attributes – she was an elephant.

Having been brought to America from India at a tender age in 1913 by the pioneer filmmaker Col. William Selig, she was given a home at his zoological park in LA. She and its other denizens did more than earn their keep by attracting the curious to view them in their cages. They also brought home the bacon by appearances in film.

Anna’s first foray on celluloid was in the second ever serial The Adventures of Kathlyn. Between then and 1939 she racked up an impressive number of roles in over thirty films – including Chaplin’s City Lights and many Tarzan features.

Her home changed hands over the years and financial hardships plagued each new owner. Worst of all was a flood that hit LA in April of 1938. It killed several of their animals and rocked their finances back on their heels.

So this was the situation referred to in the blurb in Variety. The park was in trouble despite her earnings from her turn in Gunga Din.

I came across another article about Anna May. This time in Photoplay magazine for February 1939, page 68, which I quote in full:

Portrait of a New Star

Anna May. Recently risen to fame in RKO’s “Gunga Din,” is thirty years old and a spinster by choice. She has had many suitors in her day, but none that pleased her.

Quiet and conservative, she dislikes frills and folderols and was known during the filming of “Gunga Din” to object strenuously to wearing a jeweled headpiece that they cut it out of the script. She did consent, however, to don false eyelashes, since her own failed to photograph.

Anna May is something of a moralist. If her manager stays out late, she scolds loudly until he returns. She is also a tobacco addict, with a special yen for cigarettes, which disappear in her presence with disconcerting rapidity.

She is inordinately lazy, insisting on riding on various “Gunga Din” excursions when she is perfectly able to walk. Still, her earnings in pictures are sufficient to support three friends.

Like many women, she goes in for trick diets and will make a whole meal on carrots and perhaps a melon or two, including the rind. Like many women, she is terribly afraid of thunder and lightning and on the “Gunga Din” location at Lone Pine disrupted many a scene by her nervousness during bad weather. Also like many women, she harbors a strong affection for Cary Grant and used to follow him around at Lone Pine, much to his embarrassment.

There are a few rather queer things about Anna May, too. She likes to sleep standing up. She has ears something like Clark Gable’s. And she eats a bale of hay a day.

Still, these aren’t too queer when you remember that, after all, Anna May is an elephant.

Benny the Smuggler #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Benny the Smuggler

I came across a surprising little bit in Variety dated 1/10/1939. The radio comedian/violinist Jack Benny made a court appearance in New York to answer to a charge of smuggling.

Based on the strength of his popularity over the air waves he had returned to the silver screen with a contract at Paramount (an initial contract with MGM in the late 1920s, was cancelled due to low grosses on his films for them). So, for a decade now he and his wife Sadie Marks (aka Mary Livingstone) were living in LA. These charges forced him to make repeated trips across the nation to tend to this matter. And in January 1939, as the case came to a close, he had to to leave off production on his then current Paramount film – “Man About Town.”

The article goes on to list his lawyer and his agent who were advising him. The best advice, however, came from his New York lawyer – another surprise – a man by the name of Colonel Bill Donovan.

This was a name I immediately recognized – the future founder of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).

Of course, this immediately raised all sorts of speculation, indeed plots for screenplays percolated in my brain, involving a reluctant performer doing the bidding of a spymaster in a bumbling manner behind the lines in Fortress Europe in the coming world war.  (Not quite the plot for “To Be or Not to Be,” but what if?)

Further research revealed a more mundane course of events. Mr. Benny had been preyed upon by a conman on a trip to France where he bought over $2000 worth of jewels for his wife. The gentleman falsely claimed to hold diplomatic immunity when he offered to carry Benny’s valuables through customs, thereby avoiding duty taxes. In this the comedian foolishly acquiesced (as the judge duly noted when he passed sentence on him – a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine).

Donovan, in his capacity as Benny’s legal advisor had wisely counseled him to plead no contest, and to take an apologetic stance before the bench. To do otherwise Wild Bill thought would threaten any good will his audience felt towards him.

His film ‘Man About Town’ premiered in Benny’s hometown of Waukegan IL on June 25th, with general release in early July 1939.

Other than this post I don’t plan to cover it any further in this series. It did smash summer business, which in itself was a minor miracle for Paramount, but it has not stood the test of time. As its contemporary critics noted, the music numbers ground the forward momentum to halt, something for which today’s audience have little patience.

Hoorah for Vaudeville #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Hoorah for Vaudeville

There is a large section in the first edition of Variety for January 1939 given over to the discussion of vaudeville. Unlike their reports on the state of film and radio which floated a generally upbeat prognosis, the future for vaudeville was looking rather bleak. Yes, it had been pronounced down and out before, but it was still with them – with even signs of a tiny resurgence. Emphasis on ‘tiny.’

Many performers in vaudeville had and were translating themselves into careers in film and/or radio. For example, Buster Keaton, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and George and Gracie Burns.

But as history has proved vaudeville as they knew it did pass from the scene.

[Aside – I have had the thought lately that it has reappeared in our age under the form and content of the reality talent shows].

One of the articles in this section entitled ‘Firsts’ by Joe Laurie jr.  enumerates for us milestones and first time acts in the world of vaudeville.

Several caught my attention and I now bring them to yours.

Michael Leavitt is generally credited to have first used the term “vaudeville.” Originally a blackface minstrel show singer in the mid 18th Century, he rose to become a theatrical entrepreneur by touring the country with US and European acts with his variety shows.  In France such entertainments were called “vaudeville.”

An early reference had a Civil War connection that captured my Civil War geekiness. “Nick Norton and Bill Emmett did the first ‘double-dutch’ act in 1864.” A double dutch act was a skit acted out by two people speaking an ethnic English, in this case German (called at the time dutch, springing from the name of their language Deutch). Humor arose from their fractured application of the language arising from their mother tongue. They would close with a song – in this instance “Going to Fight Mitt Siegel,” a reference to the Union general Franz Sigel, who led other German immigrants into battle against the southern armies in the Civil War.

Al Jolson was the first to sing on his knees. (Needing no further explanation).

Then, this oddity – “Harper & Stencil were the first and about the only double one-legged song and dance men. Harper had his right leg off while Stencil had his left. They wore the same size shoes and would buy a pair for both of them, one wearing the right and the other the left.”

“Lumiere’s motion pictures were first shown at Keith’s Union Square in July 1895.” The French brothers, inventors of the motion picture in France were here used as filler between the acts in this vaudeville house. Increasingly, this would be the case until the matter flipped topsy-turvy as vaudeville acts were used as filler in cinemas. RKO studios – (Radio Keith Orpheum) was put together with the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit making up its exhibition wing.

“Lew Randall the first buck and wing dancer.” I couldn’t find much on this individual, other than acknowledgements that he was first. The buck and wing is a particular tap dance style. The first time I became cognizant of the form was my viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor left me breathless with astonishment in their “Fit as a Fiddle” number early on in that film. The scene in this 1952 film is a flashback to when the pair were a couple of barnstorming vaudevillians, prior to landing in Hollywood where they landed work at the studios.

Many vaudevillians will be making appearances in this series. So, stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Tidbits from Variety #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Tidbits from Variety

I like perusing the pages of old film related periodicals (such as Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, Motion Picture World,  American Cinematographer), and among such titles Variety is a particular favorite. I am especially attracted to the shorter blurbs when a name or film title catches my eye.

Below I have a selection of a few from its pages for the month of January 1939. With some exceptions I will be writing about these films as I continue in #1939TheMiracleYear.

“Boris Morros, draws the musical direction on Walter Wanger’s “Stage Coach.”
It’s his first assignment since leaving Paramount, where he headed the music department. Louis Lipstone succeeded him there.”

“Desert near Yuma Ariz., is the location of main operations for Paramount’s ‘Beau Geste’ slated to roll late this month with William Wellman producing and directing.
Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston are cast as the three brothers. J. Carroll Naish and Brian Donlevy the heavies.”

“C. B. De Mille Monday (1/9) directed ‘Union Pacific’ from a stretcher.
He suffered a recurrent attack of an ailment, which forced him to undergo surgery last summer.”

“Ernst Lubitsch’s two-picture deal with Metro is due to net him more than $200,000. First job is the direction of ‘Mme Curie’ starring Greta Garbo. Second is ‘Shop around the Corner,’ which he intended to produce on his own before he made the Metro deal.”

“’Titanic’ story of the greatest modern sea disaster, gets the gun April 1 at the Selznick-International studio. Alfred Hitchcock, British director, arrives late this month with Richard Blaker, English novelist, who is doing the script.
Hitchcock was also set to direct ‘Rebecca,’ but it is not likely to be filmed this year.”

“Lee Garmes is en route from London to be chief cameraman for David O. Selznick on “Gone with the Wind.”  
Susan Myrick, Macon Ga., newspaper columnist and friend of Margaret Mitchell gets the job of head coach of Southern accents and customs on ‘Wind.’ Latest addition to the cast is Hattie McDaniel in the mammy role.”

So – as a quiz to you, dear reader, which of the titles above do you think won’t be written about as part of the 1939 the miracle year series?

Boo Jr #1939The MiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Boo Jr

You got to hand it to Variety for their eye-catching and funny headlines, titles, and phrasing. They christened ‘The Son of Frankenstein” with the moniker – BOO, JR which at once encapsulated and entertained.

In its January 4 edition, it announced:

“Boo, Jr.
Hollywood Jan 1 [1939]

‘Son of Frankenstein’ completed Saturday (31) at Universal, goes into national release Jan
13 with heavier advance bookings than any other U feature.
Cutters kept pace with the shooting schedule to speed up the distribution.”

There is an excellent reason that Universal garnered “heavier advance bookings” than usual. Back in the spring and summer of 1938, when a dearth of product hit the theaters, an enterprising theater manager (Emil Uman at the Regina Theater in Beverly Hills) put together a triple bill of older films for his venue.

The unspooling of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Son of Kong” caused the cops to be called out to control the crowds. Word spread and soon other theaters were looking to book the reissues. Universal gladly offered their titles “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” as a stand alone double bill (Kong, both original and Son were RKO properties – I’m sure Universal did not want to share the film rentals). And the crowds – and the cops – were repeated – from San Francisco to Boston. Initial short bookings were held over, in some instances, multiple weeks (Philadelphia ran seven).  St Louis packed in over 34,000 people in the first three days.

Such business was a bellwether indication that the horror genre was ready for a new installment. Thus, Universal decided to take the money coming in from the revivals and make a sequel. By October 1938 they were negotiating for talent. Boris Karloff took another turn in the monster role; and Bela Lugosi lurked menacingly as the murderous deranged cripple. Willis Cooper, a writer for radio horror programs and three Mr Moto films at Fox, was tapped for the scripting chores. By the 18th the cameras were turning, but not without a few hiccups. No director was listed for the first day of shooting (a role filled soon after by Rowland V Lee), and a principal actor (Peter Lorre) announced for the title roll dropped out. He was replaced on the 24th by Basil Rathbone.

It was given an ‘A’ picture status – better production values, sets, costumes etc., and shoehorned into the few available soundstages at Universal. (Their ‘B’ lineup, judged to be ahead of schedule for upcoming release, caused others of the same designation to be put on hold, freeing up stage space for the ‘A’s). Another ‘A’ production at Universal at the same time was the W. C. Fields vehicle, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

I recently watched the film online and enjoyed it despite its predictability and formulaic writing. The atmosphere was fittingly dark and foreboding. And it wasn’t too far along when I realized that Mel Brooks must have used the plot as a template for his “Young Frankenstein.” Here too the son of the monster creator was returning to the scene of his father’s ‘crime.’ The clincher was the local police inspector, played by Lionel Atwill. The character sports an artificial arm, which Kenneth Mars spoofs in Brooks’ version.  The only thing is, Mars wasn’t all that far off of what Atwill had done in his characterization, even down to using the wooden arm when striking a light and while using darts.

A viewing is worthwhile just for the comparison.

Announcement #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Announcement

Now that I have finished the last post for DEW (Diary of the End of the World), I’ve been thinking about making another daily post on another of my interests.  For some time I have been researching the background for a play that I plan to write. I have always had an interest in ‘film’ – aka ‘the movies’ – aka ‘the picture show’ – aka ‘the flickers.’ (I guess that covers the generations). I propose to chronicle the people, films and events of a year that many consider to be a watershed in the history of film – 1939. I hold a particular fondness for those that were released that year – the year that many call the “Miracle Year.”

The show business newspaper Variety kicked off the new year of 1939 with an article touting the 33rd anniversary of their publication, and tied it back to a similar milestone which marked a third of century since the beginnings of Hollywood, the film capital of the world.

It enumerates a number of companies that made the journey from the east for the sunshine state and for the freedom that move allowed them from the fees of the Edison Patent company. There were some instances of visits purely to cover newsworthy events – such as the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but most were sent by the entrepreneurs responsible for the growing number of nickelodeons sprouting across the face of the nation – with the intent of making films themselves to keep those silver screens lit, and their seats filled.

Hopefully everyone will find this as entertaining as I do. And mayhaps will move them to sample the films of that bygone era. They will be immeasurably enriched.

So stay tuned and Watch this Space.

Before the Wind Came

before-the-wind-came

In writing my most recent Memories post (The SoCal Trip 1975), I was curious about one of the sites we visited on that particular vacation, so I did a little research.

The site was (and is) the Selznick Studio, which is wedged away in a small enclave in Culver City, California. (It still does business but now under the name of the Culver Studios). Formed in 1919 when Thomas Ince broke away from Triangle Pictures (whose other two partners of the troika were D. W. Griffith and Hal Roach), it has changed hands a number of times over the years. After the mysterious death of Mr. Ince in 1924, Cecil B. DeMille moved into the lot. He merged the concern with the Pathe company in 1926, which in turn was acquired by RKO in 1932. Selznick leased the lot from RKO in 1936.

[Check out this history, that chronicles some of the films (and TV shows) done on the lot. Of particular note were the old sets on the lot (i.e. ones for King Kong, etc.) that were torched for the burning of Atlanta sequence for GWTW.]

When doing some research for another project, I came across this brief article in Variety for October 30, 1935 p 7.

Shearer-Garbo in with Selznick-Whitney Prods.

Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are among those who are reported tied in financially with the new Dave Selznick producing firm in which Jock Whitney is also concerned.

I realized this article heralded the genesis of Selznick’s involvement at the Culver Studio (then RKO). Shearer and Garbo disappear from any connection to Selznick, in so far as any corporate involvement is concerned. He had been pursuing Garbo prior to this for the role that finally went to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” when the rights were sold to WB. Instead Garbo chose to do “Anna Karenina” as one of Selznick’s last projects as a producer in the employ of MGM. Garbo was close to Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg, so this conjunction of their names is not unusual. The untimely death of Thalberg the following year and the subsequent turmoil may explain their absence from the concern going forward.

This article also set me off on another “rabbit trail,” in so far GWTW was involved.

The name in the last phrase, Jock Whitney, was completely new to me, and it proved fascinating to learn more about him.

Whitney was the young well-to-do scion of an East Coast family (who inherited 20 million from his father after 1927, and 80 million from his mother after 1944). His full name – John Hay Whitney gave the first clue to his family history. To anyone who has read about Abraham Lincoln, John Hay is a familiar name. He was one of Lincoln’s secretaries during his time in office. Later he was appointed ambassador to London, and later still served as Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. And Jock Whitney is his grandson and namesake. His other grandfather, served as Naval Secretary under Cleveland.

  Whitney graduated from Yale, and was a member of the Scroll & Key secret society while there, (his father also was an alumnus, but a member of the Skull & Crossbones secret society). He started as a clerk in a banking house. But once he came into money, he invested in personal interests. He was a major “angel” for Broadway productions during the 1930s. – “Here Goes the Bride,” “Life with Father,” and “Jumbo.” From there it was short hop to film.

He had been brought into the film business by Merian C. (“King Kong”) Cooper, then a producer and head of production at RKO. By 1933, Jock founded his own production company, Pioneer Films.  And around the same time he acquired a 15% interest in Technicolor. He used the process in making a musical short “La Cucaracha,” and later the first technicolor (three strip process) feature “Becky Sharp.” Pioneer was merged with Selznick Int’l Pictures in 1936, and Whitney ended up as chairman of the board of the new company.

Together on the Culver lot they were responsible for such films as “A Star is Born,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Rebecca,” and “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, it was through Whitney’s direct investment that Selznick acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel, which laid the foundation for what would be Selznick’s “signature” film.

In the Yale yearbook for 1926, in its write up about Whitney it noted that his future plans looked to an occupation in either the field of literature or diplomacy. Actually he “checked off both boxes.” The thirties and forties mark his time of involvement with literature as literary projects were translated to the stage and to the screen (in the 1940 census he lists himself as an executive in the Motion Picture Industry). He was an Eisenhower supporter in the fifties, and was consequently appointed the US ambassador to London, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.

Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 2

Image-1

I had to laugh when I realized that this Research post had its reference point centered in 1928 San Francisco, a time and a place about which I have written five other posts.

This time around it is a starting point for unraveling a timeline problem in the life history of Walt T. Coy, the stagehand whom I knew at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington. Occasionally during the 11 month gig (June 1927 to May 1928) that the Herb Wiedoeft Band put in at the Trianon Dance Hall, Walt filled in for their drummer (Walt spelled his name as “Weidoff”). Herb got an offer from a major studio in Hollywood to score a picture. He did not have a regular place on the band for Walt just then, but dropped a hint that he might be able to use him if he happened to find himself down south.

Walt did pick up a job that would serve to that end. He joined the band on the H. F. Alexander, a passenger liner that sailed up and down the West Coast, making calls at Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once the ship was beyond the three mile limit out came the booze without limit. When the ship called at San Francisco, Walt bought a San Francisco Examiner in which he learned to his dismay that Herb Wiedoeft had died as the result of an automobile accident.

I looked up the details about this event. Herb Wiedoeft died in Medford, Oregon on May 12th 1928, the day after the car accident. So, this places Walt in San Francisco, most likely in a seven day window after the accident. After this news Walt says he decided to try his hand at acting down in Hollywood. This seems logical because as I established in last week’s post, he already had some experience as an extra on the production of “The Patent Leather Kid,” the year before.

After the news in San Francisco, Walt records :

“Finding myself eventually in Los Angeles with a few extra nickels in my pocket, I decided to take a fling at being an actor. This turned out to be a rather short-lived adventure.

One of the studios I was in was called the Chaplin Studio – later changed to United Artists – and a Charlie Chaplin picture was in the process of being filmed. For a young fellow to be there, it was a big deal. Charlie Chaplin was a meticulous artist. The same scene was reshot hour after hour until it was perfect in Chaplin’s eyes. As young as I was then, I classified him as a perfectionist.” (from My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me, page 67).

I confess I was really curious to know which Chaplin film this could be. According to his filmography, “The Circus” seemed to be closest in time, but it was released in January 1928. The next film in order was “City Lights” which was not released until 1931. I remembered that “City Lights” did have a longer than normal production period, so that seemed the logical place to start. (This Chaplin film is one of my all-time favorites, and in my opinion a masterwork).

One online source listed that it was in production from 12/31/1927 to 1/22/1931. This seemed to fit the bill easily, but what if the scenes employing extras were all before May 1928? So, I did more checking.

Variety gave the negative to that question, for it reported in their 1/29/1929 edition, that the Chaplin Studio had remained dormant for the first five months of the preceding year (1928).

Production reports for the studio indicate that Chaplin was working on the story for that time period, clear up to August of 1928, when set construction began. Another source confirms the construction month:

“Charlie Chaplin’s unit is building sets for “City Lights.” (from the Daily Exhibitors Review for 8/20/1928).

This very same article mentioned that Gloria Swanson’s “Queen Kelly” was to enter production after September 1st.

This gave me the idea to look into the Swanson picture. I thought that whatever time Walt spent as an extra on that film, might shed some light on his Chaplin Studio tenure.

“Queen Kelly” did not start on September 1st. In the trades there are articles showing it moving back and back. Finally Variety on 11/7/1928 (p 4) reported:

Los Angeles 11/6 – “Erich Von Stroheim’s second day directing “Queen Kelly” was a long one. During the day he worked on exteriors. In the evening, he came into the studio to kill one sequence with certain actors. There was a little delay in getting going, but the original plan was adhered to. It was 6:30 in the morning, when the troupe was dismissed. The call was for the following evening when the company again worked during the night.”

In the same edition of Variety (over on page 7) there is another short article that identifies the exteriors noted in the above quote.

Los Angeles 11/6 “…While the schedule calls for 10 weeks’ shooting it is deemed doubtful if this will be observed on account of the large number of mob scenes to be photographed out of doors – and the sun at this season is not dependable.”

Therefore, it would seem that Walt gained work as an extra on Von Stroheim’s “Queen Kelly,” before he was at the Chaplin Studio. Variety reported that the silent version of “Queen Kelly” was finished before Christmas. They then moved over to the Pathe Studios to work on the sound version, one for which they would not be needing extras, as only the leads had speaking parts. Things fell apart for Von Stroheim with the new year (1929), he was fired off the production and another director brought in for the dialog version. It was all a big mess after that. In fact, “Queen Kelly” was released in Europe and South America but never saw the light of a theater projector in the US (it was televised in the 1960s).

[Aside – with one exception – there was a clip from “Queen Kelly” that was inserted into Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” whose cast included Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim.]

This dovetails nicely with the start of filming for “City Lights.” I could not find any proof that Chaplin had ever pointed a camera at any extras in 1928. But once 1929 rolled around, (and Walt would have been looking for extra work after “Queen Kelly”), I found some substantial proofs. Variety again (for 2/6/1929, page 7):

Los Angeles 2/5 – Charles Chaplin after many delays has started “City Lights.” Previously he had done some work alone, but now he is surrounded by Virginia Cherrill, leading woman; Henry Clive, Henry Bergman, and Harry Crocker.

There are two sequences in the beginning of “City Lights” that called for lots of extras. Both, I believe, were filmed in the first two months of 1929.

The first was a scene where the Tramp character (“working alone” – i.e. not with named performers) fidgets with a stick that is stuck in a sidewalk grate. A ton of extras pass back and forth in the background. The sequence was cut from the release print, but you can view it in the Kevin Brownlow limited series, “The Unknown Chaplin.”

(The cut sequence from “City Lights.”)

The second scene covers the meeting between the Tramp and a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). I like to think that Walt was present for this segment. It does seem to fit his description above (“The same scene was reshot hour after hour”), for Chaplin famously took 342 takes on this very scene.

I watched both sequences with an eye to catch a glimpse of Walt, but I could not make him out anywhere – but I guess that is the purpose of an extra, to be an unrecognizable presence.

The Chaplin Studio shut down production on “City Lights” from mid-February until April 1st. Illness in the cast was the main cause, including Chaplin himself who was sent home with ptomaine poisoning (Variety 2/27/1929). When Charlie returned he again tackled the meeting scene with the blind flower girl (a scene that he would revisit in December, and again in 1930).

It is my guess that Walt left Los Angeles when production halted in February, and went back to Seattle. And his future involvement in film making was from the other side of the camera.