The Films of 1939 at 75 (Part I): Adventures with Gunga Din, Boyer and Dunne’s Love Affair, and John Wayne’s Stagecoach to Stardom

Fante’s Inferno commemorates the 75th anniversary of the films of 1939 (considered one of the greatest years of moviemaking) with a four-part retrospective posted in conjunction with the quarters in which they were released.

Part One: January to March of 1939:

Stagecoach 1939 Movie Poster

Stagecoach

Release Date: 2/15/39
Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft
Directed by John Ford; Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht (based on Ernest Haycox’s short story The Stage to Lordsburg)

Six passengers on a stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico, each with their own reasons for leaving town.  Along the way they pick up a fugitive and shoot their way through Apache territory to reach their destination.  John Ford’s Stagecoach revitalized the Western genre and made John Wayne a star.  The story does get a bit too heavy handed with several characters written to represent hypocrisy in society (i.e. a kind prostitute forced from town by the “decent” women; a businessman that preaches patriotism but is embezzling funds, etc.) that it tends to become a distraction.  Regardless, each character is woven into the script so perfectly the story would be unbalanced should one of them be removed, from John Wayne as the Ringo Kidd hell bent on revenge, to Dallas (Claire Trevor) forced out of town with the weight of her past and “proper society” on her shoulders, even down to the comic relief of stagecoach driver Buck (Andy Devine).  Cinematographer Bert Glennon’s photography of Monument Valley is majestic and the editing is seamless.  When you hear the title Stagecoach, how can you not think about John Wayne’s first shot in the film?

Gunga Din 1939 Movie Poster

Gunga Din

Release Date: 2/17/39
Starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe, Joan Fontaine
Directed by George Stevens; Screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol based on the story by Rudyard Kipling

Three hell-raising British soldiers (Grant, Fairbanks and McLaglen) are sent to a investigate a military outpost in Tantrapur, India after a break in the communication line.  They arrive to find the town deserted with no sign of soldiers or civilians, are quickly attacked by Thuggees, and fight their way out with the three sergeants and their detail barely making it out alive.  Back at their camp, Sergeant Cutter (Grant) befriends Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffee), a water carrier with dreams of being a bugler in the British Army.  He tells Cutter of a temple of gold, and against the orders of Sergeants MacChesney (McLaglen) and Ballantine (Fairbanks) Cutter and Din sneak out of camp.  They find the temple, which unfortunately is inhabited by the murderous Thuggees.  Cutter is captured, but Din escapes to bring reinforcements.

This was my first screening of Gunga Din, and it was a pleasant surprise.  I wasn’t expecting to be an adventure/comedy that borders on the screwball.  I’m a big fan of Cary Grant and even in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday I’ve never seen him play comedy quite this hammy.  Regardless, it’s a fun performance and Grant’s chemistry with McLaglen and Fairbanks carries the film, but at the expense of the title character.  Sam Jaffee gives the character of Gunga Din heart and pathos, but isn’t given enough screen time to present his backstory or motivations.  But overall it’s a fun, fast paced adventure.

Love Affair 1939 Movie Poster

Love Affair

Release Date: 3/16/39
Starring Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya,
Directed by Leo McCarey; Screenplay by Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart based on a story by Mildred Cram

Painter and bon vivant Michel Marnet (Boyer) and singer Terry McKay (Dunne) meet on an ocean liner bound for New York for their respective weddings.  Their “meet cute” occurs when a breeze blows a romantic telegram from Michel’s hands into Terry’s.  She’s actually amused that the telegram about a romantic night in Lake Como is from his future sister-in-law, and they strike up a conversation that leads to a somewhat innocent tour of her suite.  They take a liking to each other but decide to keep their distance during the next eight days of the voyage in order not to stir up rumors that would leak to the press and interfere with there upcoming weddings.  Try as they might, they just can’t seem to shake each other to the point where it becomes a joke among the passengers.  Along the way, the ship stops in Spain and Terry joins Michel on a day trip to meet his grandmother (played by Maria Ouspenskaya).  She confesses to Terry that she’s concerned about Michel’s lifestyle…unless the right woman can change him.  By the end of the voyage, Michel and Terry are in love and make a pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building on July 1st.  Michel eventually cancels his wedding and tries to support himself selling his paintings (while painting New York City billboards) as he counts the days to July 1st.  Terry calls her wedding off and bides the next several months as a headline act in Philadelphia.  But as they make their way to the Empire State Building, a cruel twist of fate could keep them apart.

It’s hard to watch Leo McCarey’s Love Affair without automatically comparing it to his 1957 remake An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.  Despite An Affair to Remember’s popularity and Grant and Kerr’s unforgettable performances, the 1939 original stands on its own and in my opinion is the better film of the two.  It’s no wonder Love Affair was remade twice (the third version was 1994’s Love Affair starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening): Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne are fantastic their roles, and (in my opinion) their chemistry actually surpasses Grant and Kerr’s.  Go into a screening of Love Affair without comparisons to An Affair to Remember and you’ll enjoy the film on its own merits.

Other notable films from January-March 1939:

Son of Frankenstein
The Son of Frankenstein

Release Date: 1/13/39
Directed by Rowland V. Lee; Starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi

Jesse James 1939 Movie Poster
Jesse James

Release Date: 1/27/39
Directed by Henry King; Starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda

Oklahoma Kid Movie Poster
The Oklahoma Kid

Release Date: 3/3/39
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; Starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart

Midnight
Midnight
Release Date: 3/15/39
Directed by Mitchell Leisen; Starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche

Hound of the Baskervilles
The Hound of the Baskervilles

Release Date: 3/31/39
Directed by Sidney Lansfield; Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

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