QUIET ON THE SET! GUNGA DIN (1939) and the Hollywood Mirage

Quiet on the Set! is a unique behind-the-scenes look into the making of films big and small from Hollywood’s golden age. 

The picture-perfect profile of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was silhouetted by the crimson flames that rose high into the midnight sky. The hard, sweaty labor of more than 300 craftsmen, in the face of oppressive 115 degree heat, had been swallowed up by fire: a tent city that had transformed the rural town of Lone Pine, at the base of California’s majestic Mount Whitney, into the Himalayan village of Tantrapaur was burning.

Fairbanks had done little to mask his discontent with this massive location shoot, lamenting over the unbearable heat to his director, George Stevens, with that irascible Fairbanks family wit. “After all,” he’d said, with a sly curl of his mustachioed lip, “you can’t photograph the heat. Why not shoot someplace cool?” But Fairbanks stood, along with hundreds of fellow cast and crew, in shock at the scene unfolding before them. A number of quick-thinking crewmembers battled the blaze by soaking thick burlap sacks with water and heaving them into the fray, waiting for a water truck to arrive. But many simply stared—a comical sight, this clan of Hollywood actors and craftsmen, clad in their pajamas, deep in the High Sierras, watching their Hollywood mirage disappear.

And, true to Hollywood fashion, the production unit’s still photographer was quick to the scene, scrambling to photograph the blaze and the crew. As he turned his camera on the cast, the crowd obliged him by posing with their prettiest angles—Fairbanks’ among the prettiest. For George Stevens, a director already famous for his zen-like temperament, this was too much. His agitation at the sight of his cast and crew posing for photos whilst two years’ preparation and nearly two million dollars went up in flames caused him to scold his cast, telling them that they’d make much better firefighters if they’d forget about their profiles.

The fire eventually was extinguished, but the damage had been done. According to Lloyd’s of London (who paid the bill) it would be the biggest loss in the film industry for the next 16 years [note]The Making of GUNGA DIN by George E Turner. American Cinematographer,Vol. 63, No. 9 , September 1982[/note]. The cause was never determined, although Fairbanks was quite happy to offer the theory of spontaneous combustion. (100 degrees was a cool day.)

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The GUNGA DIN location shoot in Lone Pine, CA. (Copyright The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. )

But the fire was not the first disaster to plague MGM’s ambitious screen adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din. The sheer scope of the production, deep in the arid wilderness, positively begged for it; as Stevens discovered, even the smallest of details could easily flare up into a full-blown crisis. The epic nature of the shoot was entirely fitting for the epic nature of the film.

An advertisement in Colliers magazine dated February 5, 1939 declares: “Fabulous has been the cost of this great picture, thrilling the story of its production — the erection of cities, the building of temples, the fighting of battles and quartermastering an army of actors, technicians, and soldiers in a tent city under the blistering sun of a mountain-guarded desert. Penned from an 85 line powem, penned in the glory of marching words to the heroism of a lowly man, has come a motion picture for which sweep and emotional blaze promises new meaning to entertainment.”

Unlike most of the egregiously flamboyant prose of the era, this bit of marketing copy is hardly an exaggeration. Gunga Din was the Indiana Jones of the 1930s. Actually, that’s not quite right. Jones is the Gunga Din of the ‘80s. The formula created with this action packed, tongue in cheek, slick adventure flick that was immortalized in Spielberg’s films—which are affectionate love letters to Din—remain a box office model for success.

George Stevens (left) converses with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant on location. (Copyright The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
George Stevens (left) converses with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant on location. (Copyright The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

The film is a buddy flick action adventure loosely based on Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem of the same name. Set in Northwest India during the late 19th century, Cutter (Cary Grant), Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) are three sergeants in the British Indian Army with a gift for mischief and a flair for adventure. When but when Ballantine  decides to break rank in order to settle down and get married (Joan Fontaine, here as a 19th century Yoko Ono), it’s up to Cutter and MacChesney to snap their friend out of it. But the band of musketeers have bigger problems on their hands thanks to Cutter’s childlike irresponsibility.

The army detail’s water bearer, a native named Gunga Din (a brown-faced Sam Jaffe—more on that later), is overly eager to please and impress Cutter, whom he has befriended, in hopes of one day being a soldier himself. When Din tells Cutter about a temple made entirely of gold, Cutter’s toddler-like temperament takes hold and, in spite of MacChesney’s efforts to keep him out of trouble, seeks out the temple. The problem is that the temple is the meeting place for a cell of assassins called The Thugee—a highly dangerous  cult and sworn enemy of the British who will stop at nothing to wipe the army off the map. Cutter, not exactly being the subtle type, is unsurprisingly taken captive by the assassins who are planning an uprising.  Ballantine must choose: in order to help MacChesney save Cutter, he must re-enlist and in so doing guarantees the film another 60 minutes of gleeful, edge-of-your-seat derring do.

The Three Musketeers ... British style.
The Three Musketeers … British style.

Din is not without its criticisms. The Indian media was, quite rightfully, offended by the portrayal of the evil Thuggees (and yes, this is in fact where we get the word ‘thugs’ from) as misrepresenting the people of India, as well as disrespecting their religion. (The Thugees worship the Hindu goddess Kali.)

The Breen Office had been extremely careful to portray the British army in the best light possible, while scarcely giving any thought to the possible offense caused to Indians by portraying them as murderous villains. (Although, typical of the Breen Office’s hypocrisy, there was at least one aspect of the Indian culture they paid great attention to:  “Care should be taken with Din’s costume, to avoid objectionable exposure.” #BreenOfficeFacepalm.)

The Indian National Congress called for a boycott of the film, and the editor of the influential magazine filmindia, Baburao Patel, cited spoke out voiciferously on the film’s ‘unsympathetic’ portrayal of Indians as indicative of Hollywood’s unsampathtic portrayal of Indians as a whole—and yet even he had to acknowledge the fact of Hollywood’s unshakable influence. “We import 250 american pictures annually, and last year [Hollywood] took in a profit of $2 million from India.” [note]Orienting Hollywood: A Century of Film Culture Between Los Angeles and Bombay by Nitin Govil. Page 186[/note]

(It’s also of note that Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which takes several cues from Din, was also initially banned in India upon release for similar objections.)

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Image via The Stalking Moon

Gunga Din had originally been penned by the crackfire team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and while the script sparkled with the cutting wit so unique to the Hecht/MacArthur style, it lacked cohesion and intensity. George Stevens knew that the storyline needed a dramatic element to “tie the whole thing together,” and hired studio writers Fred Guiol and Joel W. Sayre as script soothsayers. Guiol hunkered down to research, and came across an article about the Thugees who had killed more than a million people in India before the British government reined them in. It was, of course, perfect fodder for the film: glorifying the ‘gallantry’ of the British Army in the face of murderous ‘savages’ who must be put back in their places.

Not helping the film for the 21st century audience is the image of the “good savage”, Gunga Din, not dissimilar from the “good Negro” image. Din is a friend of the white man, recognizes the white man’s inherent superiority, and his efforts to help the white man’s cause makes him “good” and therefore acceptable within the white man’s empire. (Not equal, of course, that’s ridiculous, but acceptable.)

Twisting the knife is the fact that Din, an Indian, is played by Sam Jaffe, a Russian Jew in brown face. The production, in fact, had the herculean task of brown facing hundreds of Caucasian extras: A 55-gallon drum of brown makeup was rigged up to a spray gun so that extras, seated on a wooden turntable, would be sprayed brown as the turntable rotated. You just can’t make this shit up.

In defense of George Stevens, however, he did want the Indian actor Sabu to play the role of Din. It was a natural choice, but the handsome young Indian actor was under contract to British mogul Alexander Korda who was starting production on The Thief of Bagdad, starring Sabu, and  theregore could not loan him out to RKO.

But once a 21st century audience can understand the culture and society responsible for perpetrating such ideas, one is able to detach and enjoy the film for its inarguable strengths: its witty writing, the electric chemistry, and rapturous direction by Stevens— a vital energy and sly intelligence infuses every last inch of his frames. The magic, augmented by the delightful chemistry between the three leads, comes across as effortless and, as with most things seemingly effortless, such magic was the result of tremendous effort. It was rigorous shoot, even in the best of circumstances.

In late 1938, writer Edwin Hilis reported to Silver Screen magazine from Lone Pine, detailing daily life on the set. [note] “Adventures on Location with the Gunga Din Troupe,” Silver Screen magazine, November 1938. [/note] He describes the day as beginning at 5:40 AM with the alarm clock, sounding over the public address system. (A humorous suggestion offered by Cary Grant and then taken seriously by a crewmember.)

“Actors and extras dressed for work and reported to the makeup tent” writes Hilis, “while the crew started equipment rolling. With breakfast over, (14 tons of food was dished up weekly by a staff of 37), the gang piled into trucks buses for runs to the sets. Shooting began at 8, lunch was called at 12, and you could hear the siren all the way to Hollywood. Shooting was resumed at 1, lasting until the light failed. Curfew rang at 10.”

The elements were not kind to the Hollywood invaders. In the comfortable temperature-controlled confines of a Hollywood studio, the off-white wardrobe chosen for the film’s Hindu army photographed perfectly. But in the desolate sprawl of Lone Pine? 4,000 feet higher than Los Angeles, bathed in blinding sunlight? Well, cinematographer Joseph August had something of a problem. A rush shopping spree (to all of Lone Pine’s whopping three stores) as well as raiding the sheets from the camp itself had to suffice as the wardrobe men cobbled together new costumes on the fly. The crew was also dismayed to realize that while the soil in the Himalayas is black, the soil in Lone Pine photographed a bright, gleaming white. The production department shipped 26,000 gallons of crude oil up to Lone Pine in order to dye the soil black.

The magnitude of the production presented another problem: continuity. Shooting in sequence was (and is) hardly a Hollywood norm, and moving from scene 1 to scene 33 over the course of a few hours is part of the movie magic process. On location, however, the wildly changing weather made shooting in sequence desirable. Unfortunately, it was impossible and the crew found themselves having to splice together shots to give consistency to the surroundings. Rain storms, dust storms, windstorms, and a pre-season snowstorm all ravaged the location shoot. (The latter monkeywrenching the effect of a Himalayan setting.)

George Stevens directing a battle sequence on location in Lone Pine, CA. (Copyright The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
George Stevens directing a battle sequence on location in Lone Pine, CA. (Copyright The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

And even if the weather cooperated, an orchestration of such complexity required heavily time-consuming rehearsals. As George Stevens remembered, “[we] rehearsed the cast in small detachments and in ‘slow motion’ until the mechanics of the action were established. As the scene took shape, the number of people and animals was gradually increased, the action speeded up until we had the scene going at top speed-then we shot it.”

All of the above spelled out the one word that George Stevens had been hired to avoid: delays. Howard Hawks had been originally considered by RKO head Pandro S. Berman, but was thought too risky with his reputation for going over budget. Stevens was a sturdy, dependable studio man and less likely to be a financial risk—however the elements were against Stevens. As the production passed the six week deadline, Berman grew panicky and ordered the production back to Hollywood where exteriors were shot in the more controllable environs of Bronson Canyon and the RKO Ranch. That is, as ‘controllable’ as you can get when you’re dealing with several hundred horses, 1,500 men, and four African elephants.

Following the film’s premiere in January of 1939, reaction from India wasn’t the only outcry facing Stevens. Rudyard Kipling had died in 1936 and his family raised objections to the depiction of Kipling  in the film. Kipling is present during the film’s epic battle scene, suggesting he was inspired to write his poem by witnessing the action.  Stevens appeased the family by superimposing an obstruction over the writer’s tent, blocking out the name “Kipling”.

But he plagues were well worth their worry.

Ginger Din proved to be hugely popular, so much so that it eventually did recoup it’s nearly $2 million price tag. (To put that number in perspective, only three films to that point had cost more: Ben Hur (1925) Hell’s Angels (1930) and fellow 1939 competitor Gone with the Wind, the latter of which would remain the most expensive until 1946’s Duel in the Sun.)

Gugna Din remains a solid piece of pure escapist fun—effortless, requiring only a bag of buttered popcorn and a box of milk duds to complete the experience, making it a brilliant example of what a movie lovers’ movie is meant to be, and what classic Hollywood filmmaking is all about.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are copyright the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and may not be reproduced without written consent.

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