The Year Was 1938 – May 28th

The Pogany portrait of Constance Bennett at the center of the lawsuit
  • In court, portrait artist William Pogany gives his side about his work on the portrait of actress Constance Bennett. The jurors compared the image to the real thing as the testimony was given. Bennett made her view clear when she proclaimed that the portrait made her look like “a droopy sack of cement with a rope tied around it.” (See May 26th).
  • Jack Oakie gives an interview from his dressing room at RKO where he is preparing for work on his new film – ‘The Affairs of Annabel.’ He details his recent weight loss – in six weeks he has “lost 40 pounds, two chins, a bay window, and a desire for all potables stronger than skimmed milk.” [Oakie appeared in four films for 1938, but none in 1939. Since he was working with Chaplin for his role in the Great Dictator that released in 1940, he may have been tied up on that project, being at the beck and call of the perfectionist movie legend].
  • Art Beery Sr, a  man with the job of stand-in for the actor Herbert Marshall, takes on the job of harbor master at Santa Monica, and leaves his old position to his son Art jr who gladly takes over the stand-in position. [Beery jr may have started with Marshall’s next film ‘Zaza’ at Paramount with Claudette Colbert].
  • Today’s date marks the birthday of stage and movie actress Minna Gombell. She turns 46, and started soon in the production of ‘Meet the Missus,’ with Laurel and Hardy, playing the wife of Ollie. [‘Meet the Missus’ was released by MGM as ‘Blockheads.’ The veteran stage actress, Gombell, was in 4 films for 1938, and just three for 1939, including ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame”].
  • Also it was actor Richard Lane’s 39th birthday who was hard at work at RKO on the Astaire-Rogers vehicle – Carefree. [Lane would be at 20th Century for the rest of 1938 (for ‘Mr Doodle Kicks Off’ and ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’) and for the beginning of 1939 in ‘Mr Moto in Danger Island,’ before changing over to Paramount for the DeMille film ‘Union Pacific’].

The Year Was 1938 – May 25th

Boris Morros in 1938
  • Boris Morros, musical director at Paramount has been made an officer of the French Legion in recognition of his work in behalf of the music of France. [This item bears more scrutiny. I have run across his name repeatedly in my research into this era. I was aware of his position at Paramount (he hired composers and conductors on a film by film basis). And Paramount was not his only master – for he played the same role for Walter Wanger films – ‘Blockade’ for this year, and ‘Stagecoach’ for 1939. He must have had a special agreement with Paramount. And the mention of the French honor seems strange, as he was Russian, and as of 1934 had been enlisted as a Soviet spy, and was actively in contact with a handler from 1936 on – until 1947 when he became a counterspy for the FBI. A movie based on him was made in 1960 ‘Man on a String’].
  • The Senate of the US passes an anti-block booking bill that will change the way film companies do business, if it also passes the House. Though the latter is not likely for the moment, with the remake of Congress after the elections, things could change.
  • (This led in 1940, to the gov’t opening up an investigation into the practice, which eventually led to legislation against block booking and studios owning theaters).
  • Selznick is pairing Carole Lombard with Jimmy Stewart for “Made for Each Other.”
  • Joe Penner, vaudeville and radio comedian has been signed to headline on an RKO film scheduled for the fall football season. “Mr Doodle Kicks Off” will include Lucille Ball as his college sweetheart. Production to commence in June. [Lucille Ball must have had something else to do, because June Travis took the female lead in this opus. Penner has one film for 1939 – ‘The Day the Bookies Wept’].
  • Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen have finished the first song for ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – The Jitterbug, Judy Garland will sing the tune. [The number was filmed, but left off of the final version, the running time being the main consideration].
  • Going before the cameras today at Paramount – ‘Bulldog Drummond in Africa.’ John Barrymore was to have played one of the roles, but was replaced by H B Warner. Barrymore was tied up in ‘Spawn of the North,’ and was slated for the upcoming ‘Zaza.’
  • Harold Lloyd putting on a private exhibition of his water colors. [The film comedian had only the one film this year – ‘Professor Beware,’ and nothing for 1939. In fact nothing at all until 1947].
  • Clark Gable’s stand-in Lew Smith given his first speaking role by Metro. [For this speaking role I could not locate what film it was for at MGM, but he is listed as Gable’s stunt double for Gone with the Wind].
  • Henry Fonda presented with birthday pipes by James Stewart and Chico Marx. (See May 19th, for mention about his May 16th birthday).

ON THE MOVE

  • George Stevens back from a hunting tour in New Mexico. [On a prior date I knew he was looking in Mexico for location to shoot ‘Gunga Din.’ Perhaps he was mixing pleasure with business].
  • James Cagney due back from Martha’s Vineyard in June for work at WB in ‘Angels with Dirty Faces.’

ITEMS OF INTEREST

  • Early silent film star Maurice Costello has sued for maintenance from his daughter, Dolores Costello, a later silent film star, (and was probably a bigger name than his, having the sobriquet “The Goddess of the Silent Screen,” and having been the wife at one time to John Barrymore). She had been paying him $200 per month for ten years, but since she had been paying the medical bills for her ailing sister for almost two years, she could no longer afford to carry him at that rate.
  • Bibles have been placed in dressing rooms at all major studios by the Gideons.
  • Ed Sullivan writes about ‘The Coolest Sets in Town” – the ice rink at 20th Century Fox where Sonja Henie is making ‘My Lucky Star.’ (See May 9th and May 18th). The one constructed at Paramount for ’Spawn of the North’ – a stream in Alaska, beside which a grip had the enviable job of sitting by the tank and paddling the water so that the water will glimmer in the lights – George Raft and Dorothy Lamour in their heavy parkas would gladly exchange places with him. And the snowstorm scene on a stage at RKO on the film ‘Ground Crew,’ in which the star Richard Dix forgets the reality and tosses a cigarette only to ignite the ‘cotton snow.’ [‘Ground Crew’ was released as ‘Sky Giant’].

The Year Was 1938 – May 17th

Samuel Briskin
  • Sam Briskin, producer, left RKO last November, being recalled to Columbia to an exec prod post. Had been there between 1926-1934. [Briskin was the real talent behind the successes at Columbia in that earlier period. Cohn lost him over a dispute about the stock options in the company. Briskin could have gone anywhere in 1935 – Fox – MGM – Universal – and wound up at RKO. Cohn got him back at Columbia with a seven year contract and stock options. He was immediately involved in the dispute between the directors and the producers].
  • As part of their economy, Paramount announces they are trimming film budgets and film schedules (cutting 8 weeks to 6). No bidding against rival studios for novels or plays. Tightening in all departments. 
  • RKO now has a writing staff with 38 writers working on 22 scripts.
  • Tailors and seamstresses are busier than they have been for several years, because of a flock of historical films upcoming – for Paramount – 6 (includes ‘Zaza’ for 1939); for WB – 6 (includes ‘Juarez’ and ‘Dodge City’ for 1939); 20th Century Fox – 1; Metro – 1 (‘Northwest Passage’ for 1939). [20th Century Fox actually had many more – ‘Jesse James,’ ‘Young Mr. Lincoln,’ ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’; and the MGM title did not make it into release until 1940. MGM did have ‘Gone with the Wind,’ but not at this point in 1938].
  • Jerry Wald, writer at WB, is going to court to untangle the problem of three agencies claiming to represent him. They are – Zeppo Marx Inc, Myron Selznick & Co and Leland Hayward, Inc. [Wald had four screenplays made into films for 1939, including the gangster film ‘The Roaring Twenties’].
  • Deal in the making between David O Selznick and W C Fields. Selznick tried to borrow him from Paramount before, but was unsuccessful. Now that Fields left Paramount, it is possible that Fields will be in their film ‘Heartbreak Town,’ about the trials of Hollywood moppets. [Sounds like they were trying to capitalize on the Jackie Coogan situation. W C Fields ended up at Universal instead]. (See May 9th)
  • Cecil B DeMille settles with the IRS on a tax bill going back to his 1934 earnings.
  • Robert Pirosh and George Seaton called in to collaborate with Irving Brecher on the script for MGM’s ‘A Day at the Circus,’ the next Marx Bros movie. Brecher started it last week. [Pirosh and Seaton had worked together on Marx Bros films before, and ended with no credit on this one, their only film for 1939 was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and even that was uncredited; Brecher did get the credit for ‘A Day at the Circus,’ but he also was uncredited for Oz].
  • Gene Autry to draw $10,000 per picture in his new pact. It had been $5000. When he was out due to  his feud with Republic, his side kick Smiley Burnett was assigned to work as Roy Rogers’s sidekick. (Roy was filling in for the missing Autry). [Now what to do about Burnett].
  • Buck Jones sues Republic to restrain the release of their serial ‘The Lone Ranger’ – for imitating those films in which he played a Texas Ranger. On top of that the name of horse was Silver also. [His only film for 1939 had him as a boxer, not a cowboy – ‘Unmarried,’ a remake of a 1932 film – both Paramount].

ON THE MOVE

  • Wesley Ruggles dueling with Paramount on a new contract (to produce and direct) before departing on a European vacation. [He got the contract and did ‘Invitation to Happiness’ for Paramount in 1939].

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 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).