A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939)

It's imperialist and racist, and its title character is an example of the Magical Negro trope, the person of color who saves the white folks' asses. It's embarrassing to see actors like Sam Jaffe (in the title role), Eduardo Ciannelli, and Abner Biberman in brownface. So I have to swallow a lot that I object to when I admit that I still enjoy Gunga Din. We typically evade the issue of a film's content and message by emphasizing style and technique, and Gunga Din is loaded with style and technique, from the comic performances of Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to the crisp cinematography of Joseph H. August, convincingly turning the Sierra Nevada into the Khyber Pass. The movie was originally supposed to be directed by Howard Hawks, who brought on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to develop a story out of Rudyard Kipling's poem, which they did by plagiarizing their own play The Front Page, which hinges on a man (in this case two men) trying to prevent his friend and co-worker from going off and getting married. Hawks might have made a better movie: He would almost certainly have given Joan Fontaine more to do in her role as the woman who is trying to take Fairbanks away from Grant and McLaglen. But he was fired from the film and replaced with Stevens. The real star of the movie is Grant, playing at peak clown and loving it, while still pulling off the dashing hero. It's interesting to compare Grant's performance in this movie with the one he gave for Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings, which was released the same year, in which Grant is more serious as the troubled boss of a group of pilots flying the mail across the Andes -- people who think Grant was only a movie star and not a "real" actor should make the effort.