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Sunday, May 1, 2016

GUNGA DIN (1939)

For anyone who doesn’t break out in P.C. hives over British Rah Rah Raj attitude, this lightly played colonial epic remains one terrific action/adventure pic. Scripters Charles MacArthur & Ben Hecht glanced at the famous Rudyard Kipling poem about a courageously loyal native water-bearer . . . and decided to rework their own THE FRONT PAGE, swapping out Chicago for India, then splitting the controlling Walter Burns character into Victor McLaglen & Cary Grant*, still scheming to stop Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (in the Hildy Johnson spot) from quitting them to marry lovely young Joan Fontaine. The film has a loosey-goosey feel, unusual for ‘39, maybe because director George Stevens started shooting as Joel Sayre & Fred Guiol reworked the script, adding huge set pieces of serried ranks assembled, swarming troop attacks, religious cult rituals & reckless acts of bravery, all neatly integrated, all stunningly lensed by Joseph August. (Check out those dark, interior Temple of Death scenes.) Stevens, who got his start making Laurel & Hardy shorts, could never resist tossing in comedy routines that flatlined without Stan & Ollie to play them (here, a tedious ‘spiked’ punch routine), but it’s the only misfire. Everything else is colossally entertaining, with Grant in a particular state of near bliss, whinnying like a horse as he shows how to turn physical slapstick into something elegantly natural.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *Grant did play newspaper editor Burns the next year in HIS GIRL FRIDAY/’40; and for Howard Hawks who had originally been set to direct this. OR: George Lucas & Steven Spielberg must have gone deep GUNGA DIN before making INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM/’84.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Much in the way HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE/’53 frees Marilyn Monroe for one of her least self-conscious, most delightful perfs by having Betty Grable play the ‘dumb blonde’ (Marilyn’s the vain one), so too is Cary Grant freed with Douglas Fairbanks Jr in as 'most dashingly handsome' (the role Cary turned down), opting instead for devil-may-care roughhouse.

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