directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy
(Note: This is my entry in the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe.)
Jim Lane (Clark Gable) was born to ride the skies. He's a test pilot, which is just another way of saying he's rough, reckless, and foolish enough to try anything. His best friend, mechanic Gunner Morse (Spencer Tracy) has had his back for as long as he cares to remember. Gunner knows that Jim is destined to die young, but he still sticks by him, always watching out for danger. But as it turns out, one day, Jim crash-lands and there, sitting in a Kansas wheat field, is the one danger Gunner never expected. Said danger goes by the name Ann Barton (Myrna Loy) and it doesn't take long for sparks to fly between her and Jim. The attraction is so intense, the pair impulsively marry. Gunner disapproves, but before long, he finds that Ann is a warm, wonderful, self-sacrificing woman who worries about Jim just as much as he does. The two form a strange but fierce friendship as they watch over Jim, hoping and praying that this crazy guy they both love will come out okay. But it'll take more than love and luck. It'll take everything they have to give.
Test Pilot is such a textbook example of old-school MGM filmmaking, from the polished heads of its mega-watt stars to the foot-tapping thrills of its action sequences, that I have to think of it as Louis B. Mayer's extended apology for the reviled Parnell. I can just imagine Mayer's directives to the creative team. "Okay, so Parnell was boring. Quick, what's the opposite of Irish politics? High-speed plane racing? Got it, it's gold. And none of that hero of the people jazz, from now on, Gable's back to the boozing and the women. If there's any heavy stuff, let Spencer take care of it. But don't give him too much, it's got to be all about Gable and Loy. Maybe just make it Gable and Loy for the first hour, until we've hooked 'em. Make sure it all ends with marriage and a baby though, we want good, clean fun here."
I kid, but it all adds up to something deliciously enjoyable; Test Pilot is a perfect example of the studio formula firing on all four cylinders. It's essentially two different movies held together by one central conflict. The first half is a pure Clark Gable and Myrna Loy romantic comedy, complete with banter and wrenches and awkward trips to the lingerie department. The second half is a drama about a loyal wife (Loy) and a best buddy (Spencer Tracy) trying their best to stick by a guy who'll probably break both their hearts. While often tagged as a melodrama, the only real plot of Test Pilot is the inevitable tension of being, well, a test pilot, and the toll it takes on those around you.
In so many ways, despite its glossy MGM pedigree, Test Pilot feels like a long-lost Howard Hawks film. It's really more of a hang-out film than a melodrama, closer kin to something like To Have and Have Not or Rio Bravo than it looks on the surface. It's mainly about the chance to hang out with Loy, Gable, and Tracy for two hours and to watch them banter, bicker, and take care of each other. Scenes that a more plot-driven movie would use as a simple gag get drawn out for the sheer pleasure of it.
For example, there's a sly joke after Loy and Gable are married that Loy, who eloped in a hurry, needs a nightgown. Tracy reminds his buddy of the problem and Gable brings it up distractedly to Loy, who responds with a perfectly timed eyebrow raise, as if to say, "Do I really?" The movie could have stopped there, but instead we get to dawdle over a charming scene of Loy daring Gable into the lingerie department and snickering into her sleeve as he makes a total botch of it. The gag just keeps going and building and you're just so grateful that Test Pilot took the time for it.
Of course, the Howard Hawks film that Test Pilot most closely resembles is the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings and after seeing both films, I'm firmly convinced that Hawks took Victor Fleming's film as a personal challenge. There's a definite resemblance in both films' central theme of how tough you have to be for aviation and how women who love aviators are forced to be even tougher if they want to hold onto their men. However, the Hawks film takes the position that these men are doing what they love and only the people who can keep up with them are allowed to stay. The Fleming film, on the other hand, is pretty explicit that Clark Gable's choices are wreaking havoc on the nerves of his wife and friend. His recklessness is played up more as immaturity than bravery. While it's not too surprising that an MGM film would ultimately come down in favor of domesticity over macho bravado, it's fascinating to see how both films spin such different morals from the same kind of material.
Incredibly, Myrna Loy ranked the loving, loyal Ann Barton in Test Pilot as her favorite role, ahead of her indelible character Nora Charles and her brilliant performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. However, her choice doesn't seem quite so odd after you've seen the film. The role of Ann gives Loy the chance to play an entire emotional spectrum, taking her from light and flirtatious in her early courtship scenes with Gable to wry and witty during the early part of their marriage and finally to a sadder, more desperate woman in the end, one who's fully realized what kind of bargain she's made.
It's really a perfect role for Loy because she gets to play so many different moods but is never forced to take center stage by herself. She's always playing off the boys and nobody could do that better than Loy. She was never happier as an actress than when she could be the perfect foil for her leading man, matching her moves to his like an expert dance partner. She made six movies with Clark Gable and her style with him is always a little slower and more openly sensual than her rapport with William Powell or Cary Grant. No doubt, Loy knew that the rat-a-tat patter of her screwball roles would tear holes through Gable's more macho delivery and she adjusts accordingly.
For me, Loy proves just how great an actress she is here in the way she can make her character's every action seem like the most logical next step. Myrna Loy standing around in a Kansas wheat field looking like she's waiting for cocktails to be served? Makes sense. Falling for Gable in the span of 24 hours? Perfectly natural. Getting engaged to a local and flirting with Gable all the while? Only sane thing to do. Marrying Gable, the crazy test pilot, after knowing him one day? Of course. Constantly going back and forth between leaving him forever and staying with him? She'll do it and come off like the wisest, warmest, wittiest woman you could ever hope to meet. Clark Gable finding someone like her in a wheat field is like the equivalent of someone shoving the winning lottery ticket into your hand and begging you to take it. Just watch her in the scene where she imitates Clark Gable as a bear; it's impossible not to fall for her.
For fans of Spencer Tracy, Test Pilot is essential: for my money, it makes a far better case for his acting talents than the film that actually won him the Oscar that year, Boys Town. Not only is it a more interesting performance, it's also an amazingly underwritten one; Spencer Tracy just takes the part of the loyal sidekick and runs all the way to Alaska with it. Tracy's character Gunner is not given any particular backstory or subplot to call his own. He seems to be utterly wrapped up in looking after Jim, with no thought for himself. He's also a grumpy killjoy who spends most of his scenes frowning over at his buddy. It's hard to blame Tracy for being annoyed that he'd gotten stuck with playing second fiddle to Gable again.
And yet, damn it all if Tracy doesn't draw your eye in every single scene he's in. Tracy was a canny enough actor to realize that he didn't have to resort to any silly stage business like waving a hat or flipping coins to steal attention from Gable. All he has to do is watch him. He's always watching Gable, always aware of him. The audience can't help but care about Gunner because he cares so much. He cares better than his friend can understand. And when Gunner forms a platonic bond with Ann, it's surprisingly sweet and touching. They become almost like parents to Jim themselves, both of them fretting and worrying and fervently trying to buck each other up. Tracy's performance here should be studied by character actors, to remind them that sometimes you're better off on the sidelines.
Of course, Tracy himself wasn't above hamming it up on occasion. There's an anecdote about the filming of one particular scene that demonstrates the Gable-Tracy rivalry perfectly. At the time, Gable had the box office clout but Tracy had the critical praise. Tracy had no interest in playing sidekick to Gable in another MGM film and the insecure Gable was always nervous that Tracy would blow him off the screen. So during the filming of Tracy's death scene, Tracy deliberately tweaked Gable's nose by drawing out every single gasp and dying groan and twitch and mumbled word. Gable had to cradle Tracy in his arms all while his costar died a more drawn-out death than Camille's. Finally, Gable got so frustrated, he let Tracy's head go with a loud thunk and shouted, "Die, goddamit, Spence! I wish to Christ you would!"
As the rowdy, immature Jim, Clark Gable is admittedly playing a pretty standard Gable role. He's gruff but flirtatious with Loy, devil-may-care when it comes to his job, and mortally afraid that something will reveal his hidden heart of gold. There's nothing wrong with Gable's acting here, far from it. It's just that to anyone who's seen plenty of Gable movies, it leaves very few surprises. Loy and Tracy both act rings around him in this one.
However, Gable does get one indelible moment, one that Howard Hawks would outright steal for Only Angels Have Wings. After losing a fellow aviator to a brutal crash, Gable and the other pilots retreat to a bar. One well-meaning patron starts up a toast to the winner and they drunkenly join him. But when he raises his glass and says the name of the dead man, Gable snaps to his feet, dead sober in a flash. "Who's he? Never heard of him." The other pilots also forswear the name of their fallen friend, honoring him by refusing to speak of him. It's the only code they can live by. The scene is every bit as powerful as the "Who's Joe" moment in Only Angels Have Wings and while I would normally take Howard Hawks over Victor Fleming in a heartbeat, I think it's a damn shame that Hawks' film is the only one that's remembered.
Test Pilot actually took a Best Picture nomination in 1938, one of those odd cases of a film with no big social relevance, no big acting moments, and no particular importance that manages to sneak onto the awards list solely because it's a very well-made film. For me, however, I think Test Pilot is worth watching, not because it's deep or weighty or important. It's because it's such a sterling example of old-fashioned MGM filmmaking back in the days when they really did know what the public wanted. They knew they could spin a good yarn just by taking three great actors and giving the audience the chance to spend plenty of time with them. Watching Loy, Tracy and Gable together is exhilaration enough. Whether they're up in the sky or down on the ground, they're stars.
"She's crazy, I broke all the records, too. I entered high school a sophomore and came out a freshman!"
Isn't it obvious? Myrna Loy's impression of Clark Gable as a bear. I defy anyone to watch it and not find their hearts set a-fluttering by Loy.
Final Six Words:
It bounces more than it soars
Note: The Myrna Loy gif is credited to norascharles tumblr.