This month, it’s Clark Gable conning and scamming a small town as a ruthless gambler in Honky Tonk.
Clark is fugitive con artist Candy Johnson, who stumbles upon the small town of Yellow Creek while on the run. He quickly takes advantage of the town’s lack of law and order. He also steals the heart of Elizabeth (Lana Turner), a Boston-bred girl with a crooked father (Frank Morgan). Although he insists he can’t be tied down, she manipulates him into marrying her and he becomes the most respected man in Yellow Creek. Her father doesn’t trust him, however, and sets out to destroy his reputation in town.
The beginning of the film tell us: “This is the story of a confidence man–that often unsung but seldom unhung aristocrat of the old west.”
Clark is at the top of his game here. This was the golden period of his career: fresh off of Gone with the Wind and its success, married to Carole, churning out hit after hit at MGM. Candy Johnson echoes Rhett Butler in many ways, actually–the ruthless, rebellious, charming outsider who turns out to have a real heart. Candy even busts through his wife’s bedroom door when he is denied, um, access to his own wife, just as Rhett Butler. And both in Gone with the Wind and Honky Tonk, the wives fall victim to a common classic movie cliche of falling and miscarrying. Candy’s pacing outside the door, waiting to hear if his wife is ok, is just like Rhett’s in GWTW. Also, maybe it’s just me but the music played while he’s waiting sounds just like the music in GWTW when Scarlett approaches her dead mother’s body.
Lana Turner was then only twenty years old and fresh off of filming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy. She had only recently proved herself to be a bankable leading lady and her salary was bumped up to $1,500 a week before she began Honky Tonk–not a bad sum, even today! Lana knew she had finally “made it” when she was cast opposite Clark. In her autobiography, she recalled she wasn’t chasing after him–quite the opposite:
I revered Gable, who by then could almost write his own ticket at the studio.He could even choose his directors. Luckily we developed a close working relationship, though not a close friendship. He had married Carole Lombard not many months before, after a long love affair and a divorce from his previous wife. I doubt that Carole believed the rampant press speculations about “fireworks” on the set between the two “powerful sex symbols” Gable and I were supposed to be. But one day I was playing a scene with Clark, and when I turned to look toward Jack Conway, the director, what I saw instead was the beautiful face of Mrs. Gable. Why, I’m not sure, but my knees went watery and I became so flustered that I excused myself and fled to my dressing trailer. I stayed there, trying to collect myself, until a knock came on the door.
“They’re ready to shoot, Miss Turner,” a voice said. When I peeked out, there was no sign of Carole Lombard. I assume that Gable must have asked her to leave, saying that the kid was nervous. When I apologized to him, pretending that I’d forgotten something and had to run to the trailer for it, that famous smile lit up his face. He said simply,”I understand.”
I have firmly never believed the rumors of a Turner/Gable affair, which I detailed in this post earlier in the year. It is my belief that MGM’s insistence to overhype the two as this “team that makes steam” resulted in these rumors, which are not at all based on fact. But isn’t that how these things always get started!
Behind the scenes whispers aside, Honky Tonk is one of the films I recommend to people who are new to his films. It’s pretty much what you would expect, but it sums up the kind of movies he was making at the time quite nicely. Candy is charming, witty and quick with a wink. Seemingly a born salesman, he knows just what to say to everyone to get them wrapped around his finger.
And yes, Clark and Lana do have great chemistry, although I find her prim-and-proper smugness a bit to much to handle. Lana’s Elizabeth is surely no Scarlett. She is prim, proper and oh-so-shocked at everything Candy does. When she isn’t smirking smugly, she’s whining.
The supporting cast is excellent. Marjorie Main adds her usual gruff dead pan. Frank Morgan is perfectly cast as Lana’s befuddled but well-meaning crook of a father. Claire Trevor is perfect as the saloon hussy in love with Candy.