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The title card of this film reads: "Rudyard Kipling's Kim." The screen credits contain the following written acknowledgment: "To the government of India and to His Highness, the Maharajah of Jaipur, and His Highness, the Maharajah of Bundi, we express our deep appreciation for the facilities afforded us in filming this picture in India." The picture opens with an onscreen narrator, or storyteller, speaking directly to the audience about the historical period and setting of the story. The same narrator speaks offscreen intermittently throughout the film.
Kipling's novel was first published serially in McClure's magazine (Dec 1900-October 1901). According to a modern interview with director Victor Saville, M-G-M studio head Irving Thalberg purchased the screen rights to the novel in 1934, and some contemporary news items announced the studio's plan to film the story as early as 1935. An April 1937 The Washington Times article, however, reported that M-G-M had "recently" bought the screen rights from stage actress Maude Adams, and an August 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item claimed that M-G-M had acquired the property "many years ago" from Cosmopolitan Productions.
Various contemporary news items indicate that preparations to shoot Kim were begun and halted a number of times during the period between 1935 and 1949. Some of the delays and false starts were attributed to script difficulties. A February 1949 New York Times article states that a total of eight scripts were written and rejected between 1935 and 1942. According to news items in 1935, M-G-M borrowed Howard Estabrook from Twentieth Century-Fox to write the first draft of the screenplay. Louis D. Lighton was the first producer assigned to the film, and Freddie Bartholomew and Lionel Barrymore were among the first stars cast.
Preparations were suspended sometime before September 1936, when M-G-M began production on Captains Courageous, a film based on another Kipling novel. Captains Courageous was produced by Lighton, directed by Victor Fleming and starred Bartholomew, Barrymore and Spencer Tracy (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.0595). In April 1937, two months before Captains Courageous was released, M-G-M announced that Kim would be made with Lighton producing, Fleming directing, Bartholomew in the title role and Robert Taylor in the part initially announced for Barrymore. Lighton's production was subsequently shelved, however, and Hollywood Reporter did not report on any further work on Kim until January 1942, when it was announced that Victor Saville would produce the film with a script by Leon Gordon.
In April 1942, Mickey Rooney was announced for the title role, and later Akim Tamiroff, Laird Cregar, Conrad Veidt and Basil Rathbone were announced for parts. According to the modern interview with Saville, Cedric Hardwicke was set to play the "Lama" before the first screenplay had been approved. In mid-July 1942, a Hollywood Reporter news item noted that filming would begin "within three weeks," with Richard Thorpe directing. Herbert Stothart was assigned to write the musical score, Harry Stradling was set as the cinematographer, and locations were being scouted in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A mid-August 1942 Hollywood Reporter news items noted that John Carradine had been added to the cast of the production, which was to be shot in Technicolor, and that George Sanders was being sought for a role. However, one week later, on August 21, 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that Kim had been "postponed" due to script difficulties. The February 1949 New York Times article notes that the project was shelved in 1942 "at the 'suggestion' of the Office of War Information because of its imperialistic and 'white supremacy' implications."
Plans to film the novel were revived in January 1949, when M-G-M put the project back on its production schedule and announced that Dean Stockwell would play the title role. News items in New York Times relate the following information about the production: Gordon used much of the scenario he had written in 1942, though some changes were made to play down the political aspects of the novel. Filming began on December 5, 1949 at the St. Xavier school in Luckinow, India. The M-G-M unit remained in India until mid-January 1950, shooting mostly exteriors. Only a few of the cast members traveled to India. According to a January 1951 article in Hollywood Citizen-News, M-G-M did not send Stockwell to India because of his young age and the possibility that the trip would endanger his health. Instead, a young Indian boy was used as a double for Stockwell. The double appeared at a distance or with his back to the camera, and his shots were later intercut with footage of Stockwell that was filmed in Hollywood. In addition to the Luckinow location, filming also took place at Lahore, Pakistan, and on the great trunk road in Rajputana, India. After a one-month break in production, shooting resumed in Hollywood on 16 February 1950.
According to a October 20, 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item, Errol Flynn was to receive $200,000 for his performance as "Red Beard." A January 1950 news item in Daily Variety lists Yvette Duguay in the cast, but her appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Although Jeanette Nolan is credited in the CBCS with the role "Foster mother," she did not appear in the released film. In the modern interview, Saville recalled the following facts about the production: After meeting with the Indian ambassador in 1942, Saville advised M-G-M that it would be impossible to do the film in the political climate at the time. Flynn and Paul Lukas were the only stars flown to India for the shooting there. The Sierra Nevada Mountains were used for the mountain backgrounds instead of the Himalayas, which proved too large to capture on film. Saville estimated that the final cost of the exterior shooting was $130,000. Kim received mixed notices when it was released in 1950, but earned Box Office's Blue Ribbon Award. Flynn and Dean Stockwell recreated their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on February 18, 1952.