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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Gunga Din

I have another centenary to celebrate. It was 100 years ago that Joan Fontaine was born. I have written about her in a couple of movies: Rebecca and Jane Eyre, but she made many more, mostly dramas throughout the 1940s. She won the Academy Award for Suspicion (which I will write about shortly), and it was when she won the award that a feud allegedly developed between her and her older sister, Olivia de Havilland (they were both nominated in the same category). There's a lot of she said, she said in the reporting on their feud, but it is known that they did not speak after 1975, when their mother died and Joan was not invited.

One of her early roles was a small one in George Stevens' Gunga Din, a rousing adventure-comedy from that great Hollywood year of 1939, that is one of those films people can cite when they say they don't make 'em like that anymore. Based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, it is set in India in the 1880s, when British troops were all over it.\

An outpost is wiped out, and signs point to the revival of the Thuggee, a murderous cult (actually, it was more like an organized crime syndicate). This is where we get the word "thug" from. Anyhoo, three sergeants, who like to rabble rouse but are nonetheless competent, are sent to investigate. They are played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Victor McLaglen, who is their senior (he would play many more roles like this in John Ford westerns). Their bhisti, or water bearer, is the title character, who wants nothing more than to be a soldier.

Eventually Grant's interest in treasure leads he and Din (played by Sam Jaffee) to a temple made of gold, but it happens to be the Thuggee hideout. Fairbanks, who is set to leave the service and marry Fontaine, reluctantly comes along with McLaglen to rescue them. Eventually Jaffee will risk his life to save the entire British army.

The film is full of action and comedy. Grant is most comedic, as he is constantly getting into scrapes and is obsessed with getting rich.Once he and McLaglen find out Fairbanks is getting married, they try several pranks to get him to stop, such as spiking the punch at an engagement party.

There are regrettable cases of political incorrectness--the Indian actors are all played by white people wearing dark makeup (Jaffee was a Russian Jew born in New York), but the script is fair, letting the Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli, who was an Italian) inform everyone that India had a civilization while the British were still living in caves and painting themselves blue.

I watched this for the second time last night I was never bored. The chemistry between the three leads is great (much better than the chemistry between Fairbanks and Fontaine) the action terrific, and the setting historically interesting. A certified classic.

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