Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Gunga Din (1939) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

After a day of exploring locations at the Lone Pine Film Festival, it was time for the Friday evening "keynote" film, GUNGA DIN (1939).

GUNGA DIN was screened for a nearly full house in the Lone Pine High School Auditorium, seen at the right. The maximum festival seating in the auditorium is 300 people.

The movie was hosted by Oscar-winning sound effects wizard Ben Burtt (STAR WARS, E.T.) and Oscar-winning visual effects creator Craig Barron (CAPTAIN AMERICA). Both men have a great love for classic films and enjoy sharing it with audiences. They presented a program on THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) at the TCM Classic Film Festival earlier this year, and I understand the 1937 version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA may be a possibility for a future presentation.

First, the movie itself, which concerns three pals serving in the British military in India and the dismay of two of the men (Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen) when the third (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) wants to marry lovely Joan Fontaine. While that story plays out, the men battle local rebels and ultimately end up the prisoners of a nasty cult led by Eduardo Ciannelli; the British army will walk right into a trap trying to save them unless the water boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) can save the day.

I'm sure mine is a minority opinion, but I'll be honest here and say I didn't care for GUNGA DIN. It was a movie I really, really wanted to like, but while I loved Fairbanks and Fontaine, loved the Alfred Newman score, and loved the Lone Pine locations, that was the extent of my enthusiasm.

For the most part I perceived GUNGA DIN as a rambling film about men making silly decisions, particularly in the second half when they needlessly put their lives and those of others in jeopardy.

Especially in his earlier days, Cary Grant was prone to overplay if not reined in, and that was certainly the case here. I felt Fairbanks walked the line perfectly, with just the right balance of giddiness and suave panache, but Grant as the "comic relief" quickly became annoying. I say that as a huge Cary Grant fan who has seen the majority of his films, some of them many, many times.

The film was often unpleasant to watch, more dark than light in tone, with extended battling, imprisonment, and torture; and in the final minutes I thought Gunga Din would never blast that blasted trumpet, the movie dragged on so slowly! I found it quite a long 117 minutes.

The hour which followed, however, was completely wonderful and made me glad that I had sat through the movie. Burtt and Barron did a terrific job presenting a vast amount of information on the making of the film, including the Lone Pine locations and special effects shots, plus they shared color home movies shot on location.

They had a great slide show which included the shot seen below of the tent village created for the movie crew in the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine. GUNGA DIN remains the biggest production ever filmed in the Alabama Hills, with two huge sets and hundreds of extras.

Burtt and Barron combined the color home movies shot on location by Grant, Fairbanks, and director George Stevens in order to give a great sense of what things like the battle scenes would have looked like if filmed in color. The footage even included shots of falling stuntmen landing.

I had previously seen some of Fairbanks' home movies at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival, but it was terrific seeing that film put together with the other movies, creating a more expansive look at the filming.

They showed photographs of the village and temple sites as they look today and then superimposed photographs of the sets over those locations to give a sense of how the areas looked during filming.

One of the most interesting bits was about the visual effects created for the precarious bridge crossed by Grant and Jaffe, which was actually built in the hills but was much closer to the ground than it appears in the film.

When production was completed much of the lumber was purchased and recycled into long-term movie sets built at nearby Anchor Ranch, which will be the topic of a future post. We were told that today remnants of the GUNGA DIN sets can still be stumbled across in the hills!

There's a GUNGA DIN plaque in the hills, mounted on dolomite, which was dedicated by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1992. My goal is to find it and photograph it on my next visit! In the meantime here's a link to shots of it at my friend Deb's site, Sidewalk Crossings.

Finally, here's a shot I took last summer of the big GUNGA DIN battle site...

...and here's how it looked in the movie:

Later in the weekend we had the chance to say hello to both Burtt and Barron and thank them for a wonderful evening. They are both very nice gentlemen who love movies, and I highly recommend taking advantage of future opportunities to see their presentations.

Previous posts I've written on a display of GUNGA DIN artifacts in the Lone Pine Film History Museum may be found here (2010) and here (2014). Here's a sample (click to enlarge):

For more on the Lone Pine Film Festival, please visit The 25th Lone Pine Film Festival in Review, which includes all links to all of my festival coverage at the end of the post.


Blogger barrylane said...

Cary Grant had originally been offered the Fairbanks part by Pandro Berman and turned it down, but agreed to play in the film as Cutter. Apparently Mr. Berman was astonished, but whatever Cary Grant wanted was satisfactory to the production. There is a second anecdote recounted by Fairbanks in the fist Volume of his autobiography in which the two men flipped a coin. Just a personal take, I thought this unreliable, but perhaps not. They may both be so.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Laura

Slightly off-subject but I have just finished watching a fine 1957 western "THE LONELY MAN" starring Jack Palance. Not seen it in years. The thing is that the bulk of it was filmed in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine (with some done at Iverson's Ranch at Chatsworth). Shot by Lionel Linden in B&W the result is stunning. Recommended.
Best wishes,

3:24 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks much to you both. Jerry, I've made note of the title THE LONELY MAN, sounds great!!

Best wishes,

3:42 PM  

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