Test Pilot (1938)
Release Date: April 22, 1938
Directed by: Victor Fleming
An action-packed drama with a touch of romance, Test Pilot was one of Gable’s biggest box office hits. Myrna Loy stated it was the favorite of all of her films…yes including The Thin Man series!
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.
Watch the trailer
Photoplay magazine, May 1938:
The shrewd combination of rough, soft-eyed Spencer Tracy and rough, glint-eyed Clark Gable with a story of dangerous thrills, makes this one of the most entertaining pictures of the month. Aside from the superb work of Gable, Tracy’s flair for sacrificial best friend parts, and Myrna Loy’s incomparable wife portrait, the story alone demands your absorbed interest in every reel. It concerns the most famous test pilot in the country, Gable, who intersperses his brillant stunts with periods in which he gets roaring drunk. On a test flight across country, he is forced down on a Kansas farm, meets Myrna there, falls terrifically in love and takes her back to Pittsburgh for the ceremony. Clark is fired then, after a flight with Lionel Barrymore, his boss. Thenceforth, it is a tel of Myrna’s staunch love battling against her nervous fear for her husband and his failing. Climax comes when he is to test a great bomber and Tracy, who is flying with him, gives all for friendship, when disaster comes at last.
Production and process on this are so well done that you will quake for the safety of your favorite actors. A rousing performance is presented by Barrymore; Gable could not be better cast. Tracy here is not a traitor to the Academy Award he got for “Captains Courageous,” but the part again leaves you feeling sorry for him. The shrieking whine of plane motors will hum in your ears for a long time, but don’t miss this.
Hollywood magazine, July 1938:
Out of the welter of interesting, exciting but fairly familiar situations in Test Pilot emerges one of the most striking characterizations of the year. It is turned in by Myrna Loy who has been considered a delightful, but not a highly emotional actress until now. She plays Ann, who could see nothing more exciting in her future than marrying a neighboring farmer until romance dropped out of the sky early one morning.
Jim (Clark Gable) was in an evil temper as he climbed out of the cockpit of his plane and examined the broken oil line which had ended his chances at setting a new record for cross-country speed. So angry was he at the mishap that he did not notice that Ann was a very pretty girl, even though he had the reputation of being an expert on pretty girls. Then he took a good look, and swung into his familiar outline of bedazzlement of just one more smitten girl. No one was more surprised than Jim when he discovered a few hours later that he did not want to leave Ann behind. No one was more surprised than his mechanic, Gunner (Spencer Tracy) when Ann climbed out of the plane.
Nothing in Ann’s upbringing on a proseprous middle-western farm prepared her for the erratic life, teh hazards and the adventures of a test pilot’s career. She realized only one thing. If she presuaded him to stay out of the air, he would no longer be the person she loved. So she waited miserably on landing fields while he spun planes in power dives, took desperate chances in air races, flung the planes through their first unpredicatble performances.
Throughout, the film is tense, exciting, filled with carefully calculated strain and suspense. But transcending the excitement of the background is the playing which makes three people come alive as something more than characters in a pretty love tale. Better see this one.
Modern Screen magazine, July 1938:
In a month full of mediocre films, Metro really startled Hollywood preview-goers with one of the year’s fastest and most exciting screen dramas–of those rare pictures which actually lives up to their advance notices. Test Pilot has everything: a swell story, a splendid cast, and powerful air stuff which furnishes some of the most breathtaking moments the screen has ever offered.
Clark Gable plays an aerial daredevil whose business is risking his neck trying out new ships. Boy meets girl when Gable is forced down in a Kansas wheat field, not more than fifty paces from Myrna Loy. They marry, much to the disgust of Spencer Tracy, Gable’s mechanic, and Lionel Barrymore, his boss. But Myrna wins them over and, with Gable and Tracy, makes Test Pilot the most virile and–potentially–the most profitable picture of the year.
Gable and Tracy are excellent in their he-man roles, and Myrna Loy is at her charming best. In the supporting cast, Lionel Barrymore deserves praise, as do Tod Pearson, Marjorie Main, Gloria Holden and Louis Jean Heydt. Best scene is the terrific moment when a plane, in a power dive, loses both wings, and the pilot calmly rips off the instrument board, for his records, before he bails out. Victor Fleming directed.
Photoplay magazine, September 1938:
Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy and Lionel Barrymore (try and top that combination!) in the most thrilling picture of the month. Gable is a pilot addicted to stunts and the bottle; Myrna is his wife; Spencer, his sacrificial pal. The shrieking whine of the motors will hum in your ears for a long time, but don’t even consider missing this.
“Hello Gunner oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Look what I rescued!” first lines
“Girls are always quarreling. Girls don’t get on good for some reason!”
“I’m licked, see, I’m licked! I couldn’t move this thing with a ferry!”
“Say, I’m just in the mood for a bull, sister. You go get him; I’m liable to pick him up and throw him right back in your lap!”
“Do all the girls around here look like you this early in the morning? Every girl I’ve ever seen this early…”
“She’s crazy, I broke all the records too! I entered high school a sophomore and came out a freshman!”
“Well if that isn’t going out of your way to get a laugh, I ask you!”
“And I rated you the best girl I ever saw! It’s rotten to be disappointed.”
“What do you want me to do–say I love you?”
“It’s fun asking you for dough–I’m enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“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!”
“What do you want to hate me for, baby?”
“I’m drinking to your mother, I’m drinking to your father and I’m drinking to the whole corn-fed state of Kansas!”
“Listen, I haven’t started yet. I’ll go back up there; I’m going back up there and paying the sky back for what she did for me today! I’ll pay her back–I’ll wring her neck!”
“A man spends his whole life getting somewhere and where does he end up? Nowhere, just where he started.” last lines
Behind the Scenes
Starlet Virginia Grey has a small part at the beginning as one of Jim’s dates. She and Gable eventually became romantically involved in the mid-1940’s.
Gable’s technical advisor, Paul Mantz, was a onetime copilot and navigator for Amelia Earhart.
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.