This month, Clark Gable is a fearless flyer, Myrna Loy is his worried wife and Spencer Tracy is his brooding sidekick in Test Pilot.
Clark is Jim Lane, a boozing, womanizing army test pilot who walks to the beat of his own drummer. On one trip, his plane starts leaking gas and he lands on the field of a Kansas farm, where Ann Barton (Loy) lives with her parents. Their sparring turns to mutual attraction soon after and by the time Jim’s best friend and mechanic, Gunner Morris (Tracy) arrives to help fix the plane, they are in love. When Jim brings the plane home to New York, he has Ann in tow, as his new wife. Jim has a lot of adjustments to do to get used to being a married man and Gunner is jealous as it has always just been the two of them and now he is the third wheel.
Although Ann was at first thrilled at her husband’s exciting profession, she learns quickly how dangerous it is. She hides her true feelings from Jim and puts on a happy face with each new mission he takes on. Gunner, who has grown to admire Ann, grows more and more bitter as he watches Ann suffer behind Jim’s back.
This is one of my all-time favorite Gable films. It has every element of what you would expect from a classic Gable film: action, romance, humor and drama.
The romance between Clark and Myrna here is fantastic and their chemistry has never been better. Right when he lands on her farm and she talks back to him, he instantly becomes smitten.
Their day in Kansas together–taking in a ballgame, making fun of a sappy movie–is sweet and fun.
Myrna cited this film as being her personal favorite–imagine, even over The Thin Man series or any of her other films with William Powell! The scene on the porch with Clark after he learns she is engaged to another man was her favorite in the film. I agree, it is wonderful. The two of them are playing a bit of a cat and mouse game, each baiting each other to admit their true feelings.
The film can get rather sappy, with Myrna constantly walking around with either a forced smile or a pained expression, talking constantly about the “lady in the blue dress” aka the sky, who her husband loves more than her and how with every tick of the clock she hears “still living, still living.” Myrna gives a good performance though. I especially like her confrontation with Clark at the end, where she declares. “Why won’t you just die already and leave me alone?”
Spencer Tracy is too good for his part. They really could have gotten a lesser actor to play his role and probably saved some money and Spencer the sake of being Clark’s sidekick again. Not that Spencer is bad–no,no, he is quite good. But the role demands little of him other than pacing around with an ugly look on his face, chastising Clark yet kissing his ass at the same time, all the while worried sick about Myrna and the “three roads” that their lives are all on. His character seems perfectly fine living in the extra bedroom of Clark and Myrna’s apartment, worrying about their marriage and being Clark’s sidekick. He doesn’t seem to have any life of his own.
Not to be ignored is Lionel Barrymore, who plays Clark’s boss and also, at times, his conscience. Majorie Main is her usual spunky self as the landlady, and Clark’s future paramour Virginia Grey has a brief scene as a girl he jilts at the beginning.
Test Pilot was nominated for Best Picture, Best Film Editing and Best Writing–Original Story at the 1939 Academy Awards, but walked away empty handed.