Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Test Pilot (1938)

Clark Gable. Myrna Loy. Spencer Tracy. And below the credits, Lionel Barrymore. Could this be one of the main MGM productions for 1938?! (yeah, I know, sarcasm doesn't translate very well into writing). Pity is that on occasion they went for the cheap solution and had back-projection instead of outdoor scenes. Which makes even less sense when considering that the shots before and after were outdoor ones. Little things like that bug me a lot - I mean, either do everything in a studio, or do it outside. Mix and match is not really the best option.

However, this is not the only problem in this story of a dare-devil pilot and the ones around him that love him. Clark Gable was not a great actor. He was very much a "personality" as they used to say. And in the previous year, in another film with Myrna Loy, his attempt to be serious bombed at the box-office (the film is called "Parnell" and I have yet to see it). So MGM did what MGM did so well and reverted back to type, and in 1938 two Gable films, with Gable parts opened. One was "Too Hot to Handle" and the other "Test Pilot". Both have Myrna Loy as the love interest. Neither excited me particularly. Gable's screen persona was the cad who reformed. On occasion he excelled ("Gone with the wind") but more often than not he was too unpleasant. And this belongs to the latter, to the point where I can't understand why anyone would stick around him.

Myrna Loy doesn't fare much better here. Except in her scenes with Tracy I failed to empathise with her - and you should, as she is supposed to be one of the emotional cores of the film. She looks pretty, oh so pretty, but inconsequential for most of the time. Perhaps is Gable, but with exception of "Manhattan Melodrama", all five pairings out of seven I have seen with the two of them left me cold. The exception is probably because of William Powell, with whom Loy had indeed great chemistry.

Then there's Spencer Tracy, who is the best thing in the whole film. His performance is subtle, discreet and more interestingly to a modern audience, somewhat of an oddity. You see, the film is built in such way that Tracy's character is in love with Gable's. The devotion, the looks, the tears (!). I never imagined Tracy playing gay, but he does it, and in a believable way. And by the way, this is past "male friendship" - just look at his last few lines in the film, his devotion, his jealousy of Myrna Loy, his scene in the fairground, his looks at Gable, and most of all, the way certain scenes are framed, with Tracy next to Loy when she's opening her heart to Gable. He's doing the same, except silently. Pity that Gable's character is so undeserving of the love the other two shower on him. I am wondering if this was Victor Fleming's intention. If it was, then my hat is off to him.

It is hard to tell if the script is at fault, or if it just fell flat in shooting and post-production. It doesn't seem to be any better or any worst than many others of the period. However, classic Hollywood was very similar at times to the modern one. It was a factory of films that believed that if you added all ingredients together you would make a great film. Then, as now, they forgot that a good film is more than the sum of its parts and its stars. And that's why "Test Pilot" fails. It has too many personalities and no personality.


Galileo Smith said...

I'm guessing you'll never see this, but I'll write it anyway. It might improve my keyboard skills.

I watched Test Pilot on TCM a few days ago. I'd seen it when I was a teenager, but never as a full adult. I was surprised at the Tracy gayness in the film. I can't imagine back in that day that such a thing was done knowingly, but it definitely looked like it. It's hard to explain the behavior of Tracy's character any other way, including the lack of his own girl. I decided to click on the Net to see iff anyone else made similar observations.

Aside from that, I got a kick out of the antique aircraft, including the early version of the B-17 in the film's climax. As for the acting, it was pretty typical 30s acting style where the characters speak their dialogue in an unnaturally rapid manner, and usually a bit too loud too.

Miguel said...

Thanks for the comment. I get sent notifications whenever I get a new one. :)

I disagree with that no one would do it knowingly. There were plenty of gay men and women around Hollywood then as well as now, and the subject was used in the theatre - Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" is 1934 if I remember correctly. Of course in film it's usually just the sissy, but it was there.