'Gunga Din' Movie 1939: Cary Grant & Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Adventure Classic

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga Din
Gunga Din movie 1939: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

George Stevens' rousingly politically incorrect – and for the most part much admired – action-adventure tale Gunga Din will have a special screening on Friday, June 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Prior to the film, Oscar winners Ben Burtt and Craig Barron will discuss the sound and visual effects used in this 1939 classic starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen.

Gunga Din will also will be presented in New York City on Monday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy Theater.

Written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol, from a story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which in turn was based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, Gunga Din follows the adventures of three British soldiers as they fight for Queen and Country in savage India, where the evil deeds of dark-skinned men – a murderous sect known as the Thuggees – threaten to make the sun finally set in the British empire.

Ah, but those schemers weren't counting on the the loyalty of another dark-skinned folk: Gunga Din, a simple waterbearer who'll do whatever it takes to save India for the British, thus preventing night from ever falling on the Jewel of the Queen's Crown. And to think the guy didn't even get knighted for his troubles. (By the way, the Good Gunga, plastered with dark make-up, is played by Sam Jaffe, the wise, 350-year-old Shangri-La monk from Lost Horizon.)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Joan Fontaine

Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant in Gunga DinOne curious thing about Gunga Din is a discussion I saw on Turner Classic Movies between Robert Osborne and film historian Molly Haskell, in which she stated that the film adaptation of Gunga Din is (at least to a certain extent) The Front Page set in British India.

That had never crossed my mind, though it should have been obvious – especially considering that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page. In Gunga Din, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wants to leave behind the happy-go-lucky carousing soldiers get into when they're not killing people so as to lead a peaceful existence with none other than a pre-stardom Joan Fontaine. Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, however, just won't let the poor guy go. (Much like Walter Burns wouldn't let Hildy Johnson leave the newspaper office to get married.) But back to Gunga Din, really, what Man would let a mere woman get in the way of his, ahem, friendship with his very, very close buddies?

So, Gunga Din may not offer a very enlightened view of war, colonialism, ethnic relations, gender relations, et al., but at least after watching it you'll understand the origin of the English word “thug.”

Presented as an installment of the Academy's George Stevens Lecture Series, Ben Burtt and Craig Barron will talk about the techniques used to create the film, for which Lone Pine, California, was used as the stand-in for India.

Burtt has won Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing on Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He was most recently nominated for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing on WALL-E (2008).

Barron won an Oscar for the visual effects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and was nominated for his work on Batman Returns (1992). He currently serves as a governor representing the Academy's Visual Effects Branch. Barron also worked as matte cameraman in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which also features those pesky Thuggees.

Reginald Sheffield, George Stevens on the set of Gunga Din
Reginald Sheffield (who plays Kipling in the film), George Stevens on the set of Gunga Din

 

Tickets for Gunga Din (Los Angeles or New York City) are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at www.oscars.org or by mail (a printable order form is available in the Events & Exhibitions section of the Web site). Tickets may also be purchased at the box office on the night of the event (subject to availability). All seating is unreserved.

As an aside, The Front Page was officially transferred to the screen four times: as The Front Page in 1931 and 1974, as His Girl Friday in 1940, and as Switching Channels in 1988.

Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind
Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald in Dark Victory
Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights
Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (top); Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald in Dark Victory (middle); Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (bottom)

 

Gone with the Wind, the 1939 Best Picture winner, will kick off the New York presentation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' latest screening series, “Hollywood's Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939,” on Saturday, June 20, '09, at 12:30 p.m. at the Academy's Theater in New York City. Turner Classic Movies host and film historian Robert Osborne will host the event.

“Hollywood's Greatest Year” will continue through mid-October, showcasing all 10 Best Picture nominees from 1939. Screenings will take place on Monday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 12:30 p.m., or Saturday at 3:30 p.m., with Osborne as host.

The complete schedule for “Hollywood's Greatest Year” is as follows:

Saturday, June 20, Gone with the Wind
Saturday, June 27, Dark Victory and Wuthering Heights
Monday, July 20, Ninotchka
Saturday, July 25, Love Affair and Goodbye Mr. Chips
Monday, August 10, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Saturday, Aug. 15, Stagecoach and Of Mice and Men
Monday, October 12, The Wizard of Oz

Each screening includes a preshow consisting of one of the year's animated shorts and a chapter of the 1939 serial, Buck Rogers, starring Buster Crabbe and Constance Moore. The preshow will start a half-hour before the feature.

Tickets for each screening are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at www.oscars.org or by mail (a printable order form is available in the Events & Exhibitions section of the Web site). Tickets may also be purchased at the box office prior to the event (subject to availability). All seating is unreserved.

Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

'Gunga Din' Movie 1939: Cary Grant & Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Adventure Classic © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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