Idiot’s Delight (1939)
Release Date: January 27,1939
Directed by: Clarence Brown
Available on DVD through The Warner Brothers Archive Collection
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?
Hollywood magazine, April 1939:
Outstanding among the films of the month, and of the year, for that matter, is Idiot’s Delight. It has a touch of everything that 1939 audiences want, is brilliantly produced and adpated from the stage play, and, in addition, has a performance which tops anything Clark Gable has done before.
He plays Harry Van, who quit the vaudeville circuits only long enough to win the war, and then went back to hoofing for a living. There was nothing glamorous about show business to Van. It was a pretty grim affair for the next few years, and his jobs as chorus boy, pitch-man, straight man, single, book agent and medicine show barker were punctuated by “At Liberty” notices that appeared with depressing frequency in theatrical trade-papers.
It was when he was front-man for a mind reading act that he met Irene (Norma Shearer), an ambitious trapeze performer.
Irene fell hard for the dashing stooge. She put on her very best act for him, and told him how she had escaped from the Soviets with only a handful of jewels, how those had disappeared along with her noble family, how she longed to make a real place in the world for herself by becoming part of a mind-reading act. Irene had told the story so many times that she almost believed it herself. But no one else did, because she had not thought to learn the proper pronunciation of all of the foreign words she scattered with such careless ease through her confidences.
But she was a different experience for cynical hard-boiled Harry, and he said “Good-bye” to her the next morning with a tenderness that surprised him.
Years later, when they met agin in Europe, he did not know whether to say “Hello” to her or not. Van was traveling with six blonde speciality dancers, playing the nightclubs, when a threat of war closed a border, and detained them in a mountain resort hotel. To the same hotel came a great research doctor (Charles Coburn), a passionate pacifist (Burgess Meredith), a pair of young honeymooners (Pat Paterson and Peter Willes), a powerful armament maker (Edward Arnold) and his companion, a spectacular blonde who spoke at great length in a elaborate Russian accent about her escape from the Soviets.
The story was a little more elaborate than when Harry Van had heard it first in an all-night sandwich stand in Omaha, but he recognized it. However, it took an air raid and many other happenings to make Irene admit that she ever had been in the Middle West.
Besides being a great play, the picture has some of the most hilariously comic scenes you’ll see in a long while, and anyone who is your true friend will urge you to catch Clark Gable’s dance routines, because they alone are worth the price of admission.
Photoplay magazine, May 1939:
Letter to the editor
The title may be “Idiot’s Delight”, but I guarantee the film will be the delight of everyone! May I salute Norma Shearer for her audacious portrayal of the Russian countess and applaud the years jauntiest “hoofer”, Clark Gable! Nor can I soon forget the poignant quality of Burgess Meredith’s pacifist role.
Thank you, Hollywood, for taking this sparkling stage success and, in the medium of films, preserving all the original dramatic punch and, yes, in this instance, making it even better. May such splendid casts appear more often–and may they always have as shining a vehicle to which to ride before the public as “Idiot’s Delight”!
~Marjorie Brouillette, Seattle, Washington.
Photoplay magazine, April 1939:
Robert Sherwood was allowed to adapt his own play in his own manner and the result is gorgeous. Clark Gable, never more vital, plays the hoofer who survives the World War and tries in multitudinous ways to keep body and soul together in the following years. In a European Hotel he meets Norma Shearer, whom he had last seen as a trapeze artist in a small American town. Now she’s a phony Russian countess, traveling with Edward Arnold, a munitions manufacturer. Also at the hotel are Burgess Meredith, a fanatical radical who is ready to die for his pacifism, a young English couple on their honeymoon and a German scientist.
Take these people against the electric background of the next war–which is just beginning–and you have drama in fantastic proportions. Add to this the magnificent characterizations of Gable and Miss Shearer and you have the best in entertainment.
Photoplay magazine, July 1939:
An effective screen treatment of the Lunt-Fontanne play. Clark Gable is a vaudeville ham; Norma Shearer, a phony Russian countess traveling with Edward Arnold, a munitions maker. Add assorted characters, put them in an Alpine hotel when the next war breaks out and you have drama in fantastic proportions. Salute! Hollywood grows up.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz”
“Ok, pal.” first line
“Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t have let the war last so long!”
“Oh, you like my electrical personality, huh?”
“We got a very warm reception tonight–in fact I’m still burning!”
“What’s more, it cost seventy-five cents! You know, that’s the most expensive present I ever bought for any dame!”
“You know, Irene, I’ve met a lot of dames in my time and most of them are so dumb you have to talk to them in sign language. You’re the only one I ever met that I couldn’t answer.”
“That’s the trouble with Europe–too many frontiers, they keep waking you up!”
“You know this place looks to me like it’s laying an egg!”
“Those gams of yours are my bread and butter!”
“Get me a scotch and put ice in it. If you haven’t got any ice, go out and scoop up some of that beautiful white snow.”
“I’ve been rude to lots of people and never regretted it.”
“All my life I’ve been selling phony goods to people of meager intelligence and great faith.”
“Seems to me everybody would be must happier in Europe if they only knew how to make decent coffee.”
“Oh, I’m not very interesting–I’m just what I seem to be.”
“She occupies a unique shrine in the temple of my memory.”
“I leave the girls to their own resources–of which they have plenty!”
“Quit pawin’ me, will ya? If you’re hooking up with me it’s for professional reasons only, see?”
“I loved you all the time, Irene.” last line (while signing hymn)–international version
“Over here, boys, over here! See the big show!” last line–domestic version
Behind the Scenes
The film has two endings. In the international version, Gable and Shearer are seen solemnly singing a hymn while the hotel is being bombed. In the domestic version, the hotel is still being bombed but Gable and Shearer start carrying on about their new act and Gable begins playing an uplifting tune on the piano. Since the United States had not yet joined the war, they thought it was best to film two endings: a more poetic one for international audiences to show their sympathy for the war, and an uplifting carefree ending for American audiences.
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.
The end of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene, where the Blondes carry Gable off stage, was the last scene filmed as the director was worried Gable would get hurt. They did do it in one take and no one was injured.
In the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number, the second dancer from the left’s dress strap breaks halfway through the number and she gets out of step while she holds her strap up.
Lombard had quite a laugh at Gable’s line “What’s more, it cost seventy-five cents! You know, that’s the most expensive present I ever bought for any dame!” and chided him with it often. She said it was true to his frugal nature.
Lana Turner was cast as one of the “Les Blondes” and dyed her auburn hair for the role. Before she could start filming, she came down with appendicitis and had to withdraw from the film. She kept the blonde hair and it became her signature look.
Greta Garbo was originally offered the role of Irene. Shearer later admitted that the mannerisms and accent of “Russian Irene” were an imitation of Garbo.