In a Nutshell: Saratoga (1937)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Co-stars: Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Frank Morgan, Walter Pidgeon, Una Merkel
Synopsis: Gable is Duke Bradley, a bookie who acquires the deed to the Brookdale horse ranch because the owner, Mr. Clayton (Jonathan Hale) owes him a lot of money. When Clayton dies, his daughter Carol (Harlow), who dislikes Bradley, is determined to get the horse ranch back in the family by winning horse races to pay Bradley back. Meanwhile, Bradley tries to bait Carol’s rich fiancée (Pidgeon) to place bets with him.
Best Gable Quote: “This is more work than I’ve done for a woman since my mother.”
Not-So-Fun Fact: Harlow collapsed into Gable’s arms during the filming of one scene and was rushed to the hospital. Diagnosed with uremic poisoning, she died of a cerebral edema brought on by kidney failure just days later, at the age of 26. 90% of the film had been completed and MGM executives considered shelving the film altogether or reshooting it with Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur. Harlow fans were outraged and sent thousands of letters demanding to see her last film. They decided to finish it with a stand-in for Harlow’s part. Mary Dees was cast as Harlow’s stand-in, being viewed only from behind or beneath big hats and binoculars. Radio actress Paula Winslowe provided Harlow’s voice. Scenes that couldn’t be faked were scrapped altogether or re-written to feature one of the supporting players instead. Because the public flocked to see Harlow’s last film, Saratoga was one of the highest grossing films of 1937. Released just six weeks after Harlow’s death, it earned over $3 million at the box office
My Verdict: This film is infamous for being Jean’s last role and for the game of “Spot the Fake Harlow!” I think it probably would have been a better film if Jean had lived to finish it. As it is, the film is thrown together in the end and does feel that well. It is one of the weakest of Clark and Jean’s pairings; their sizzle is on simmer rather than boil. Might be just me, but I just don’t find the horse-betting storyline intriguing. Take out the interest in seeing it for it being Jean’s last role and it is a rather mediocre film.
In a Nutshell: Test Pilot (1938)
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Co-stars: Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore
Synopsis: Gable 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.
Best Gable Quote: “The sky looks sweet and wears a pretty blue dress, doesn’t she? Yeah well don’t kid yourself. She lives up there, she invites you up there and when she gets you up there, she knocks you down!”
Fun Fact: Loy recalled that Gable was intimidated by the drunken “sky wears a pretty blue dress” speech and had her rehearse with him over and over; he was afraid of appearing too sensitive. In the end he did it perfect in one take.
My Verdict: This film is the first one comes to mind when people say they have seen the Clark Gable basics: It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, The Misfits, etc. Now what should they see? TEST PILOT. Why? Because this film is Clark Gable in his 30’s prime, all wrapped up in a pretty bow and presented to you on a platter. The witty script gives Clark plenty of wisecracks, he’s got a fair share of white-knuckles action scenes in the air, buddy brother-love scenes sparring with Spencer Tracy, and romantic scenes with the fabulous Myrna Loy. I consider it an essential.
In a Nutshell: Too Hot to Handle (1938)
Directed by: Sam Wood
Co-stars: Myrna Loy, Walter Pidgeon, Walter Connolly
Synopsis: Gable is Chris Hunter, a newsreel cameraman who is always where the action is. Walter Pidgeon is Bill Dennis, a rival newsreel cameraman who is constantly trying to out-scoop Chris. Both of them are bored in Shanghai since they can’t get anywhere near the action of the Chinese-Japanese war. His boss (Connolly) demanding action shots of the war, Chris starts making up fake shots using toy airplanes and sending them in. This angers Bill who decides to get even by sending his girlfriend, Alma (Loy) to fly in and he tricks Chris into thinking she is delivering vaccines so he’ll get an action shot. Chris’ driver ends up accidently causing Alma’s plane to crash while trying to get the shot and Chris rescues her from the blaze. Chris and Alma soon fall for each other, much to Bill’s chagrin. The two men constantly try to outdo each other, until binding together (somewhat) to help Alma find her brother, who is held captive by voodoo bushmen in the South American jungle.
Best Gable Quote: “I didn’t distort the truth. I merely heightened the composition.”
Fun Fact: While filming the plane crash, it was reported that the fire got out of control and the director wanted to cut the shot so they could get Loy out of there in time. Gable rushed in and pulled Loy out of the plane, saving her life before the flames engulfed her. The press quickly got wind of the story and it was front page news. Loy recalled she never thought she was in any danger and speculates it was the studio just trying to get some publicity for the film.
My Verdict: Another reteam of Clark and Myrna in an action packed romance! This one includes foreign adventure and Clark gets to be the rogue reporter yet again. It’s an enjoyable romp, with Clark and Myrna showing their usual spark and Clark ruffling Walter Pidgeon’s feathers. The film loses steam for me once they set out in the jungle to rescue Myrna’s brother.
In a Nutshell: Idiot’s Delight (1939)
Directed by: Clarence Brown
Co-stars: Norma Shearer, Burgess Meredith
Synopsis: Gable is Harry Van, a World War I vet and struggling vaudeville performer when he meets Irene (Shearer), an acrobat, while performing in Omaha, Nebraska. They have a brief romance before going their separate ways. Many years pass as Harry tries different acts and odd jobs in between. Fast forward to 1939 and Harry is on a train in Europe with his current act, Les Blondes. They get stopped from getting into Geneva due to the impending war. Stranded at a mountaintop hotel, Harry notices a Russian countess who looks just a tad too familiar–could it be Irene from Omaha?
Best Gable Quote: “What’s more, it cost seventy-five cents! You know, that’s the most expensive present I ever bought for any dame!” (I had to pick that one because Carole Lombard thought it particularly hilarious and telling of Clark’s penny-pinching ways and would retort it back to him often!)
Fun Fact: Gable was very nervous about the singing and dancing required for the role. He spent over six weeks rehearsing, often at home with Lombard as his coach. On the day they shot the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number, the set was closed to outsiders. Lombard came by to watch and gave him a bouquet of roses afterward.
My Verdict: Every Gable fan should see it. Not because it’s a spectacularly great film, but because it’s your lone chance to see Clark dance and sing and make a bit of a fool of himself. And in that aspect it’s enjoyable. It’s the whole Norma Shearer-doing-a-bad-Garbo-impression part that is lost on me. The plot of is-she-or-isn’t-she-Irene-from-Omaha thing is stale and really quite silly. Overall, it’s not a disappointing film, it’s rather enjoyable, just with a dull romance amongst the singing, dancing and war drama.