Tonight: One of the greatest adventure films of all time. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., with Joan Fontaine and Sam Jaffe in the RKO classic Gunga Din.
Directed by George Stevens.
With a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Inspired by the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Bombay-born Kipling published his poem in a collection titled Barrack Room Ballads in 1892, at the age of 26.
A silent short, inspired by the poem, was made in 1911, and MGM had several writers work on feature versions between 1928 and 1931, but the studio never obtained the rights to the property and the project was abandoned.
In October, 1934, Film Daily reported that independent producer Edward Small’s Reliance Pictures, then releasing its films through United Artists, planned on making Gunga Din.
Negotiations for the screen rights to Kipling’s poem outlasted the author, who died in January 1936. Two months later, his widow sold the rights to Small and his partner, Harry Goetz, who by then had joined RKO.
Howard Hawks was originally supposed to direct, but when he went way over budget on Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn in 1938, RKO turned Gunga Din over to George Stevens.
William Faulkner was originally hired to write the screenplay, but the future Nobel Prize winner was replaced by Hecht and MacArthur when he got lost in the convoluted story.
In Faulkner’s version, Gunga Din was a drunk and a gambler, with a wife and child.
The Hecht-MacArthur script has great wit and style. It also has a plot device involving a thwarted marriage that is right out of Front Page, the hit Broadway play by Hecht and MacArthur.
Cary Grant appeared in a remake of Front Page the following year titled His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks.
This is a “buddy movie”–the ultimate buddy movie really–so the love interest is secondary.
The love interest involves Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Fontaine.
Joan Fontaine is the younger sister of actress Olivia De Havilland.
Immediately after completing this film, she starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca with Lawrence Olivier, for which she won an Oscar.
RKO, envisioning a spectacular production, offered leading roles to Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Ronald Colman, Franchot Tone and Robert Montgomery were among them. Even Jack Oakie, under contract to RKO at the time, was considered.
The casting of Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was almost a last minute decision. They could hardly have been improved upon, even if Louis B. Mayer had agreed to loan Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Franchot Tone to RKO as Howard Hawks had originally hoped.
Grant, McLaglen and Fairbanks are perfect in their roles–and their camaraderie and high jinks makes this movie a grand adventure.
Cary Grant was originally offered the romantic lead that went to Fairbanks, but Grant preferred the part of Cutter, because he thought it had more comedic possibilities.
Victor McLaglen was a boxer before he became an actor–and once went six rounds with heavyweight champ Jack Johnson.
McLaglen won an Oscar for his performance in John Ford’s The Informer in 1935.
The filmmakers wanted Sabu for the title role, but Alexander Korda was preparing to star him in the 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad, and wouldn’t let him go.
Garson Kanin suggested Sam Jaffe for the part and Jaffe modeled his audition after Sabu and got the role.
Jaffe also played the High Lama in Lost Horizon in 1937.
Principal photography on Gunga Din began on June 24, and wrapped on October 15, 1938.
The Lone Pine shooting, originally scheduled for six weeks, took ten to complete.
The film’s “negative cost”–the total amount expended on production prior to striking prints for theatrical release–was $1,909,000. More than half a million over budget, so RKO executives were nervous.
They needn’t have been. The film was enthusiastically received by both critics and audiences alike, when it was released nationally on February 17, 1939.
Variety proclaimed, “If Kipling had been writing for pictures, this is the kind of poetic melodrama he would have contrived. It is fabulous, rather than realistic. A magnificent narrative poem spun into vigorous, ecstatic action….”
The film failed to earn back its negative cost in its initial release, but was reissued several times, turning a very nice profit and becoming a classic.
Gunga Din was remade in less successful variations as Soldiers Three (1951) and Sergeants Three (1961).
It was also the inspiration for the second Indiana Jones movie.
So now–the original–from 1939—