The Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film HistoryAnyone who has ever been on a set during the filming of a movie knows that things are never what they appear to be. The hectic activity, bordering on hysteria, can give way to hours of inertia. "Hurry up and wait" is the rule of the day. A lot of times the actors are waiting in their trailers, or in the case of GUNGA DIN, what we call our "Hallmark Film," the actors were living in tents, set up in a giant tent city in the rocks.A second saying, "An idle mind is the Devil's playground," also can be applied to behind the scenes at a movie location; Lone Pine's Alabama Hills was no different. So what was going on up there in those hot months of 1938?Luckily, movie actors practice show and tell, or at least write about it in their autobiographies.Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his first part of his autobiography, The Salad Days, talks freely about the drinking. He writes "George (Stevens), Bob Coote, Cary (Grant), Joel Sayre, and I would sit up after dinner telling stories, discussing politics, and arguing about/or rewriting scenes to be done the next day." The temperatures would reach 110 by two during shooting, but as anyone here knows, the temperature could plunge after the sun set. "These sessions were usually enlivened by a few drinks to warm up the chatteringly chill desert night air that followed the blistering hot days."Drinking was against the rules during filming except for the watered-down beer (Stevens, the director, would have several cans a day) for sale at the Commissary. Fairbanks admits, "However, we kept our smuggled booze well hidden, and I've little doubt that many of our several hundred-strong company were doing the same and being extra careful about it.
"The conditions could turn brutal. "We had many miserable daytime hours when the hot winds would blow such volumes of sand and dust as to make filming temporarily impossible and cause Joanie (Joan Fontaine) to suffer recurrences of severe sinus headaches and flooding eyes." Mr. Fairbanks asserts that Cary, Bob, Vic and he tried to be careful with their language manners when Joan Fontaine was near.But Joan Fontaine was not everything she appeared to be on the set. "…Joan's general manner was so shy and maidenly that we all became models of chivalrous behavior in her presence." But as Joan confessed years later, she was madly in love with George Stevens, and when planning for the next day was over, the last drink tipped and the men had crawled into their beds, she would be scrambling over the rocks and sage to get to George's tent, or George, ever the gentleman, to hers.Joan Fontaine in her autobiography No Bed of Roses, explained the situation this way: "There on location my days were lonely. Cary Grant was involved with Phyllis Brooks, who was with him on location, while in Hollywood Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was squiring Marlene Dietrich I spent my time daydreaming about George Stevens, too infatuated to do anything but quake as he directed me on set."She stated that George Stevens was part Indian and had a "stoic mien," often keeping the cast and crew waiting for hours and even days while he sat in reverie or paced back and forth behind the set.
CARRY GRANT BETWEEN TAKES"I was in love with George for many years….But I learned little or nothing from him as a director. His direction to me was simply 'I don't know what's wrong. Let's shoot it again.'"GUNGA DIN took 104 days of shooting. That was twice what most pictures took at the time, and Cary Grant was bored and restless, particularly towards the end. Just as he was about to be released, Stevens asked him to stay another day. Victor McLaglen had gotten drunk and gotten into a fight, getting a large black eye. Grant was desperate to be gone and got creative. "So what's the problem? We do over the shot with the horses, put Vic on foot to the camera's left, eliminate him from the crowd scene and he doesn't have to show the bruised face until tomorrow when the swelling should have gone down." And that's what Steven's did, saving $10,000 because the day wasn't cancelled.Grant mentioned that one of the strangest things he ever saw on a set was the make-up men spray painting the extras on turning wheels for the day's shoot. They needed dark skins and most of the locals and imports were simply too fairskinned.
SAM JAFFE, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS JR., GEORGE STEVENS, CARY GRANTIn one of the final scenes, the three soldiers were holding off the attack of hundreds of maddened thugs, while waiting for rescue. It was hotter than usual and McLaglen, Fairbanks and Grant were waiting the hours it took to position all the extras, and being kept supplied with beer by the prop man.Fairbanks writes, "Finally, Stevens announced over his mike that all was set and the scene must be shot then or the right degree of light would be gone for the day. Vic, by now tight as a tick with all inhibitions melted away, decided that as the beer had gone through him too quickly and none of us could leave our positions high up in the tower, there was no alternative to lessen his tense discomfort but to unbutton his uniform and relieve himself during the scene! Cary and I didn't know whether to laugh or be furious. Stevens not knowing of our "martyrdom," later congratulated us on a spirit of furious defiance we had shown in the scene-which he could discern even from a distance."Apparently it was not hard for Cary, Doug and Vic to find the motivation for that scene! Much remains to say about this classic movie in future columns here.
By Chris Langley