Friday, November 14, 2014

Gunga Din - Go Blow Your Horn!

This is the British Empire Blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires, from November 14 through November 19, 2014.  Enjoy the other bloggers’ posts, as well, eh what?

RKO’s 1939 adventure Gunga Din is an adventure of men who know when to have boyish fun, while also knowing when get they must realize when to also be dead serious!  Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be pranksters, bless them!

Fun Fact:  Producer Pandro S. Berman had been Lucille Ball’s sweetie at the time Gunga Din was in theaters!

Story by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol  
Story by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem.
Music: Alfred Newman
Produced and directed by George Stevens (Giant; A Place in the Sun)

Cutter (Cary Grant) shows Din (Sam Jaffe)
how to be all military
The Place:  Colonial India, in an encampment of Her Majesty’s Lancers, where there seems to be a shortage of manpower, mostly because soldiers are disappearing – talk about foul play!  No, the luckless men aren’t going AWOL –they’re being murdered by the fearsome Thuggee cult! 

Who can get to the bottom of this evil mystery?  Meet our wild and crazy Lancers and best buddies:

Grant's perfect Stan Laurelesque expression
never fails to get a laugh from us!

*Cutter (Cary Grant from Notorious; North By Northwest.) He’s always wishing, hoping, and praying for riches; get in line, Cutter!  But he’d better be careful what he wishes wish for…

 *MacChesney, the most seasoned and brashest of the men, played by Victor McLaglen from The Quiet Man, who also won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935 for John Ford’s drama The Informant.  Our rowdy heroes are a lively bunch, boozing and brawling; men will be boys, bless them!  It’s great rollicking fun, while still being surprisingly moving.  

This isn't a Bollywood number -- these Thugee
mean business!
What should I know about it? Why axe me?
*Last but not least, we meet the more gentlemanly Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. from Green Hell); who’s about to marry his sweetie, Emmy (Joan Fontaine, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion).  As Ballantine’s soon-to-be son-in-law, he’s giving up derring-do to work with Emmy’s dad in the family tea business, and our boys are crestfallen that our three comrades will be leaving!  Will he really be content with a life of Oolong and Earl Grey tea after all the excitement they’ve had together?

Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks are truly a dream team, especially the nimble Grant, who was an acrobat in real life.  The gags about Annie the elephant especially crack us up! But it all turns dead serious when our boys’ yen for gold turns into a matter of life or death  when the riches they find turns out to be the Thuggees in the their rumpus room -- YIKES!     

Can Din and Cutter and the rest save the day? Sam Jaffe, always a brilliant character actor (The Asphalt Jungle), touches my heart the best; he’s a little fella, but he turns out to have a heart of a lion.  I defy you to watch the end without tears in your eyes, even if you think your're the biggest rough-neck in town! 

Fun fact: - Reginald Sheffield  played: Rudyard Kipling in Gunga Din!

Watch that first step, Annie - it's a Loo-Loo!!
As The New York Times said in 1939 (a great year for movies in any event) said: “All movies…should be like the five the first-twenty-five and the last thirty minutes…"
I get such a kick out of friendships among Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks.  I also enjoyed Robert Coote (Merry Andrew; TV’s The Rogues) as Higgenbotham, a cadet who majors in bumbling.

Want to know for about the Thuggee cult? Watch The Deceivers (1988), starring Pierce Brosnan (1988), one of my dear late Mom's favorite films! (It didn't hurt that Brosnan was and still is a hottie -- but that's a blog post for another time!)

Vinnie plays a few notes -- It's somewhat ironic that Sam Jaffe gets fourth billing in the film, even though he plays the title character. Not to mention that he was forty-seven when he played the role, thought Din was usually described as a "boy." Nonetheless, he unsurprisingly crushes the role.
The film is another example of an "of the time" movie - the Indians were treated as almost sub-human, and no issue was found with that. Heck, I'm amazed the original poem hasn't been the target of a call for erasure from history for its treatment of the people. It's probably saved by the fact that so few people have actually read it.

Likely the main reason Din gets such short shrift is the film takes the tale of the epic poem and demotes it to the "B" plot.  The main story is clearly that of the three Lancers, who are following a Rom-Com plot best seen in The Front Page, summarized as "Friends don't want to see one of their crew get married, and proceed to sabotage the nuptials."  It's so standard a plot it's been getting done for decades -- the most recent example of it I can recall off the top of my head was Saving Silverman, but I'll bet y'all can think of others.

Possibly the first example of the famous title credit
"Suggested by a true story"
Kali, the goddess of Death and her bully boys the Thuggee have made appearances in a number of films - in addition to The Wife's recommendation of The Deceivers, they also showed up in a slightly more disguised form in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and in a far funnier form in The Beatles' second filmic sortie Help! Phileas Fogg (David Niven) saved an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine, a more sore-thumb example of what's now known as "whitewashing" than I can think of) in Around the World in 80 Days, and even Hammer Studios got in on the fun with the -grisly Stranglers of Bombay.

Like Nazis and Republicans, they make a great, easily hateable villain for a story. Even the master criminal Fu Manchu employed Thuggee as assassins.

There's been some controversy as to how much of the news of the Kali worshipers (where the modern word "thug" comes from, dontchaknow) that made it to Europe was real, and how much was a mix of xenophobic hyperbole. The Thuggee certainly existed, and killed many, though there's an argument that the motive was more Earthly that the religious aspect - Thuggee were certainly predominantly thieves, and the robbery was often more a goal than the ritual killing.


  1. "Gunga Din" is the very epitome of an adventure flick. So fun and likeable that it is easy to overlook the work and talent that went into the movie's creation.

    And speaking of "The Front Page" I get a kick out of watching Grant and Abner Biberman (young Toadface) in this movie and fast-forwarding a couple of years to "His Girl Friday" where Biberman was Grant's go-to guy Louis. Those sort of connections are an added bit of fun to enjoying classic film.

    1. Paddy, I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed the HIS GIRL FRIDAY/THE FRONT PAGE/ Biberman connection! It's always fun when my family and I catch these things; as you said, is adds even more to the fun! Thanks for dropping by and joining the fun, and have a wonderful weekend, my friend! :-D

  2. That poster is missing a disco ball and multi-colored spotlights.

    1. Rich, I got a kick out of your quip about the missing disco ball! Wonder what Rudyard Kipling would have said? Thanks for the laugh, and have a great weekend! :-D

  3. Oh boy - did you pick an awesome movie to review - and you did it justice. Naturally, I am gaga for it because of Cary, but it is a swell adventure all around.

    1. Marsha, I'm pleased as punch -- and perhaps even some Oolong and Earl Grey tea! :-D Seriously, I knew you'd be delighted that the ever-awesome Cary Grant would be in the cast, too there in all his glory -- so glad you loved it as much as we of Team B. Thanks your kind kudos, and have a wonderful weekend!

  4. Loved your take on one of my personal favorite films, Team Bartilucci! The whole cast is great, but I especially enjoy how brash and boyish Cary Grant is in this. With all the rousing action, this must have played like the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK of its day. Some of the "ethnic" casting might seem spurious today, and the treatment of the locals by the occupying British forces unduly harsh (though likely realistic), but the sheer sense of fun and friendship in the movie overcome this slight sour note for me.

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

    1. Jeff, we're delighted that you and us here at Team Bartilucci were able to enjoy the British Empire Blogathon fun, and thanks for including us in the fun! You're right, Gunga Din really did feel like the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK of its time, making it even more fun for us -- thanks, and have a great weekend! :-D

  5. Question: How to outshine Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in a movie?

    Answer: Stick Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe and an elephant in the cast.

    And seriously, I do like Doug Jr. His turn as the title character in Wallace's "Sinbad, The Sailor", for example, just about makes me forget his dear ol' Dad. But I'm willing to bet more people remember the elephant in "Gunga Din" than they do his performance.

    But it's not just him. I mean, yes Joan Fontaine stands out nicely as Emmy in the movie (hey! Maybe Emmy should've gotten an Oscar! HAW!). But seriously, Joan's role in "Gunga Din" could've pretty much been phoned in, and by practically any other actress (or female, or whatever) who was on the lot at the time.

    (Not that Joan was hurting any. Not with with performances in "Rebecca", "The Women", "Suspicion" and "Jane Eyre" waiting in the wings.)

    But what I'm getting at here is that "Gunga Din" provides a textbook example of how Cary Grant could just walk in, nimbly toss a movie over his shoulder and stroll back out without raising a sweat (anybody got Princess Grace's phone number? We need to catch a thief!). Especially when he's working with a director who knows the proper moments to turn him loose . . . and Very Especially when Grant has excellent co-stars to play with. In the case of "Gunga Din", Grant gets to bounce his character off the always dependable Victor McLaglen (one of the reasons I thank God for TCM is that it's introduced me to so many of McLaglen's performances). And "Gunga Din" certainly wasn't hurt by a prime performance by Sam Jaffe as the title character. With audiences doubtless still knocked over by his performance as the High Lama in "Lost Horizon", they saw Jaffe having some fun with a role, he and Grant working together like seasoned tennis pros, batting the ball back and forth*. Where could movie audiences find two better hemispheres, without sharp north, without declining west?

    (*"Gunga Din" looked like one of those films where everyone on the set was having a rollicking good time.)

    So I guess it pretty much goes without saying that I have no overall problems at all with Vinnie and Dorian's opinion of the movie.

    Except . . .

    BOO Vinnie . . . BOO Dorian. All that shmoozy commentary and not one mention of Eduardo Ciannelli as the Guru of the Thuggees? And I know I'm not alone in my fanatical appreciation of character actors, either. For me, one of the reasons for watching "Gunga Din" is to see Ciannelli's turn as a fanatical yet wholly cunning villain. I put Ciannelli's Guru up there alongside Ming the Merciless, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Ciannelli managed to be wonderfully evil without going over the top, providing an excellent contrast to Grant's sense of comedic adventure.

    On the other hand, being also a fan of Kipling's poetry, I do echo Vinnie's sentiment that the titular poem received rather short justice at the hands of the film (regrettably, not the only piece of classic literature to suffer such an indignity). I would opine that a much more faithful treatment comes courtesy of the "Gunga Din" episode of "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo" and would suggest that a search for that particular performance would definitely enrich the life of the dedicated film fan.

    IN SUMMATION: Grant, McLaglen and Fairbanks Jr. went out in search of gold. As far as I'm concerned, they brought it home with them.

    1. OOPS! Michael, we're preparing to get hot coals to make up for foolishly overlooking Eduardo Ciannelli as the evil Guru! We were so dazzled with young Cary Grant that we must have unwittingly overlooked him! Perhaps it was because we were still calming down after our recent run-in with Ciannelli after our recently watching NOTORIOUS! We'll make it up to Ciannelli somehow! Otherwise, we're glad you enjoyed everything else about this exciting adventure, my friend! :-D

  6. One of my recent regrets is that I didn't watch Gunga din when our local TCM used to show it. Now you made me want to watch the movie once and for all!
    I liked the fun facts springled here and there - and also the captions for the images!
    I remember the opening scene of Blake dwards' The Party is intended to spoof a scene of tthis film :)
    Thanks for your constant kindness!

    1. Le, we of Team Bartilucci are happy you enjoyed our Gunga Din! You're right about Peter Sellers in THE PARTY, too, a swell tip of the hat to both Gunga Din and Blake Edwards! Thanks for your kind kudos, my friend, and have a wonder weekend, and keep writing your wonderful blog posts! :-D

  7. I say, old chap! I wasn't sure what else could be said about this classic, but you've written such a good post here! Such a perfect film. Thanks for contributing to our blogathon!

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

    1. Clay, many thanks to you for your accolades for Team Bartilucci's kudos! We're glad you enjoyed our post, and we're pleased you enjoyed it as much we did! Thanks for letting us come and enjoy the British Empire fun! :-D

  8. It's been almost too long since I've seen this. Brilliant casting in all parts, especially Cary Grant's role.

    I really enjoyed this playful and thought-provoking review from Team B. You've provided lots of things to mull over the next time I see this. Thanks!

    1. Ruth, I knew a fun and playful gal like you would love Gunga Din as much as we of Team B. do! Is it chock full of fun, suspense and endearing camaraderie, or what? :-D Many thanks for your kind kudos, my friend, and have a wonderful evening!

  9. Love this movie for so many reasons, most of which you cover here. Great adventure, amazing cast doing grade A work. I have to add my vote for Ciannelli as a fine villain and also one vote for this being a great choice and post :) Cheers

  10. Kristina, you have awesome taste in classic adventure movies, but then, I knew a smart and snappy gal like you would love Gunga Din in any case! :-D Silly me, I must atone to Ciannelli for my foolish forgetting -- I only hope he won't drag me over hot coals by the Thugee; those chaps can be so touchy! All kidding aside, I'm the first to agree Ciannelli makes a fearsome villain indeed! Thanks a million for your swell comments, my friend, as always, and have a swell evening!

  11. You captured all of the reasons why I enjoyed this movie so much, mainly the three lead characters' love of fun. I don't think that Grant, Fairbanks and McLaglen ever worked together again, which is a pity, since they had such great chemistry.

    1. History on Film, we're right there with you about how we, too wish Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks Jr. could have done a sequel or at the like, what with the great rapport the stars all had. Well, at least we can still enjoy GUNGA DIN on TV or DVD or the like! :-D Thanks for joining the chat! :-D

  12. So much Britishness! Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks are surely the ULTIMATE dream team. This looks like a fun adventure caper, I can't wait to watch it. Crazy to think that it's all based on a Rudyard Kipling poem - that must've been an epic!