In a Nutshell: Saratoga (1937)

clark gable jean harlow saratoga

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.

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It’s on DVD.

Read more here.

It was Movie of the Month in March 2011.

In a Nutshell: Test Pilot (1938)

clark gable myrna loy spencer tracy test pilot

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.

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Read more here.

It was Movie of the Month in January 2013.

 

In a Nutshell: Too Hot to Handle (1938)

too hot to handle myrna loy clark gable

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.

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Read more here.

 

In a Nutshell: Idiot’s Delight (1939)

clark gable idiot's delight

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.

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It’s on DVD.

Read more here.

It was Movie of the Month in May 2011.

Ratings

clark gable too hot to handle

From April 1939:

…take the [Clark] Gable burial and its ramifications. This was in Too Hot to Handle. The scene had been shot a half a dozen times, but still it wasn’t right, in the opinion of Director Jack Conway. “We’ll shoot it again,” he decreed.

Clark looked pained. “Hey, what is this?” he protested. “I suppose you think I LIKE being buried alive!” Myrna Loy, cool and comfortable in her easy chair, soothed him from the sidelines. “It’s for the sake of your art,” she said. At six o’clock, they were still at it and still Conway wasn’t satisfied. Clark was dirty, dishevelled, cranky. Walter Pidgeon remonstrated with him. “Why, Mister Gable, surely you’re not getting temperamental! A Boy Scout like you!” Clark gave him a dirty look. Then, “Okay,” he told Conway, “shoot it once more, but that better be ALL!” It was. With Mr. Gable entombed for the ‘steenth time that day, a vast silence fell upon the vicinity, broken only by muffled noises from the depths of the chaos.

“For the blankety-blank-blank, let me out of here! Whadye think this IS?” Gable demanded. Well, no one thought it was anything for the reason that no one was around there. As soon as the last avalanche had descended all present had gathered up their belongings and had gone home for the day. They had left a message though–a neat little sign stuck up where it would be visible the minute he dug himself out: “HERE LIES THE FORGOTTEN MAN. R.I.P.” What Clark said to the deserters the next time he saw them is not to be recorded. Even now, to ask him how it feels to be buried alive is to elicit dark mutterings quite uncomplimentary to both cast and cre of Too Hot to Handle.

Clark Gable Myrna Loy Walter Pidgeon Too Hot to Handle

Following on the heels of the very successful Test Pilot, Clark and Myrna Loy were teamed again in 1938 for another romantic adventure drama.

This film is an interesting look behind the scenes at the now-extinct-thanks-to-television newsreel business. 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 (Walter 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 (Myrna 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.

Clark Gable

Clark and Myrna have great chemistry, as usual, although I kind of feel like Myrna is wasted in this plot; she doesn’t have much to do but look worried.

Clark Gable Myrna Loy

And Clark and Walter make good sparring partners.

Clark Gable Myrna Loy Walter Pidgeon

Being a classic film fan as I am, I hate to use this sentence, but it’s true: this film feels dated. Mainly because nowadays news is instant–on the television, on the computer, on the phone in the palm of your hand. Reporters are live on the scene in every country and video is available instantly in many formats. So it’s a little funny to see Clark’s boss saying he’s waited two weeks for news footage from Shanghai, and to see how the newsreels are flown over in big planes and then processed strand by strand. Although I suppose the idea of newsmen trying to out-scoop each other will never be dated!

Clark Gable

Speaking of dated, how about the enormous X-ray machine used in one scene….Walter and Clark stand on either side of Myrna (not to mention many others in the room milling around as well) while she sits on a stool as she is X-rayed and Clark even uses the X-ray very haphazardly to blacken some film. Ah, the days before anyone worried about cancer…

clark gable myrna loy walter pidgeon

Myrna Loy had this to say about the film:

“[Too Hot to Handle] wasn’t really much of a part, rather routine. It really was mostly Gable. He’s wonderful, very comical, as the newsreel reporter who fakes stories. The whole thing was fun though, and a bit hazardous. Clark supposedly saved my life on that picture. The script called for him to resuce me from a burning plane wreck after causing it. They turned on controlled fire from a valve behind the cameras, and Clark ran over to pull me out. He yells, “Come on, those gas tanks will blow any minute!” I counter, “What did you expect ’em to do, you clumsy jackass?” Supposedly, the controlled fire went wrong at this point, but Clark kept coming and yanked me out as the plane burst into flames. Ten seconds later, according to news reports, I might have burned to death. That incident received enormous coverage, but it could have been pure publicity. You do a lot of crazy things in pictures, but it all happens so fast and you’re usually well protected. I don’t recall feeling extreme heat or anything; I can’t honestly say if Clark really saved me or not. Such was the power of Howard Strickling and the MGM publicity department.

Indeed a big deal was made out of Clark “saving Myrna Loy’s life” on the set. All over the newspapers and fan magazines was the account of Clark’s heroism, each more overblown than the last. Myrna’s probably right, it was more than likely pure publicity.

clark gable myrna loy

Not a publicity stunt, however, was Clark’s injury when he dove into a mud puddle during a scene. Mud got into his eyes and started burning. A nurse was called and production was halted for the rest of the day while Clark’s eyes were flushed out with saline. He was given a sedative and told to go home and rest his eyes for at least 10 hours. He was back at the set the next day; those beautiful gray orbs back in working fashion!

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For me, this film starts to lag when they head down to South America. It’s much more interesting to see Clark and Walter battling it out for Myrna and out-scooping each other than the racism-tinged jungle scenes. It starts to feel like two movies in one.

Clark Gable Leo Carrillo

Fourteen years later, Clark was again in the jungle for Mogambo; main difference being that that film was actually filmed in Africa, while Too Hot to Handle was filmed entirely on the MGM backlot. In fact, the jungle is the very same one used six years earlier in Red Dust.

The publicity stills from this film are some of my very favorites. Playful, cute and gorgeous! You can see over 130 photos from the film in the gallery.

clark gable myrna loy

clark gable myrna loy

You can read more about the film here and it is available on DVD through the Warner Brothers Archive Collection.

Clark Gable

Myrna Loy and Clark Gable

Myrna Loy and Clark Gable

I have a crush on Myrna Loy. That wasn’t hard to admit. Miss Loy (nee Williams) was one of the biggest stars of the studio era, largely due to the hugely successful Thin Man series, in which she was Nora to William Powell’s Nick. In 1938, she was elected the Queen of Hollywood along with the King–Clark, of course. After their crowning, from then on he affectionately called Myrna “Queenie.” Sadly, as Clark carried the King title to the end of his life (and beyond!), the Queen title slipped off Myrna quickly and unfortunately most non-classic movie lovers have no idea who she is. She has over 100 films in her filmography and played opposite pretty much every male star you can think of:  Gable, Powell, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Melvyn Douglas, Frederic March, Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Tyrone Power, even Paul Newman. She was overlooked for Oscars several times, for The Thin Man and, most notably, for The Best Years of Our Lives, arguably one the greatest movies ever made. In fact, she was never nominated for an Oscar. She was awarded the “booby prize” Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1993. Her acceptance via satellite was her last public appearance before her death on December 14, 1993.

Myrna and Clark were very close friends.  And nope, there was no romance. They starred in six films together: Men in White, Manhattan Melodrama, Wife vs. Secretary, Parnell,  Too Hot to Handle and Test Pilot. (They also both appeared in the ensemble piece Night Flight but have no scenes together.) Surprisingly, Myrna was quoted late in her life saying her favorite film of her own was Test Pilot, not one of “The Thin Mens” as one would suspect.

Clark & Myrna square off in Test Pilot

Clark & Myrna square off in Test Pilot

Although they became close friends, Clark and Myrna’s initial meeting was anything but friendly. They were introduced by Clark’s agent Minna Wallis at the annual Mayfair Ball in 1933. Myrna recalled:

Whenever I hear “Dancing in the Dark” I think of him, because we danced to it that night and he was vibrant and warm, a marvelous dancer. It was divine

Coming home, we dropped Minna off first, leaving the three of us, the Gables and me, in the backseat of the limousine. Clark’s second wife, Rhea, who had been charming all evening, was much older than he and somewhat matronly. As we drove toward my mother’s house, I could see that Clark was beginning to feel a bit amorous. He started edging toward me–with his wife sitting right there beside him. Of course, he was probably loaded by that time. We all were, to a certain extent.

Clark escorted me to the door. As I turned to unlock it, he bent down and gave me a “monkey bite.”(It left a scar on my neck for days.)  I turned around and gave him a shove, sending him backward two or three steps off the porch and into the hedge. As he stumbled back, I remember, he laughed a little, which infuriated me all the more. It was just the idea of his wife sitting out in the car. I’d had quite a few beaus, but this was different, you see, this was not right. I wanted no part of it.

Soon afterwards she was informed Clark would be her costar in Men in White. He ignored her on set, only paying attention to her when the cameras were rolling. (He was, after all, more interested in another costar, a certain Miss Elizabeth Allan).

Clark and Myrna in Men in White

Clark and Myrna in Men in White

By the time that they started filming Manhattan Melodrama in 1934, his chill toward her had melted and a friendship began. Manhattan Melodrama is best remembered as being the first time Myrna was paired with William Powell, and their excellent chemistry led to them being cast in The Thin Man.

Not a bad place to be: Myrna sandwiched between Clark and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama

Not a bad place to be: Myrna sandwiched between Clark and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama

Myrna recalled that Wife vs. Secretary was a fun set, as she, Clark and Jeah Harlow were all friends (not to mention, Jean was dating William Powell at the time). Myrna was also Clark’s leading lady in his biggest flop (and hers, too): the much maligned Parnell. It was Clark’s least favorite film of his own and he would have just as soon forgotten it. Myrna recalled that despite it’s failure, she didn’t dislike the film and she pointed out this sad truth:

Clark never again challenged his public after Parnell, even Rhett Butler was an extension of the kind of character everybody expected from him.  He finally believed that was all he could do, and maintaining that macho image plagued him to the end. It finally killed him, roping and being dragged by all those horses in The Misfits when he was way past the age to be doing such things. You know the only thing that bothered us about Clark playing Parnell? The fact that nobody would believe he could die of a heart attack in the role. Ironically, that’s just what happened in real life.

Clark and Myrna flopping in Parnell

Clark and Myrna flopping in Parnell

Clark and Myrna’s next two ventures, Too Hot to Handle and Test Pilot, were very successful.I have always found it surprising that MGM didn’t think to re-cast them in the late 40’s/early ‘50’s. They would have been superb in a Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House-type vehicle. But unfortuantely, the last time they were cast together was 1938. I suppose Myrna grew “too old” for Clark, as his co-stars in the 50’s were the likes of Jane Russell, Carroll Baker, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day…Myrna could have been their mother.

Clark and Myrna get steamy in Too Hot to Handle

Clark and Myrna get steamy in Too Hot to Handle

In her autobiography, “Being and Becoming”, she was quite nostalgic about Clark:

[Clark] happened to be an actor, a damned good one, and nobody knew it–least of all Clark. Oh, he wanted to be an actor, but he always deprecated his ability, pretended it didn’t matter. He was a really shy man with a terrible inferiority in there somewhere. Something was missing that kept him from doing the things he could have done.

 When I think about [my relationship with Clark Gable] now, considering the way it started it was curious. We became devoted to each other. We weren’t lovers–he was in love with Carole Lombard by that time. In fact, after I repelled his initial attack, we eventually became more like siblings. Nobody believes that…but our relationship was unique. Oh, he sometimes gave me the macho routine when people were watching, but he changed when we were alone.

We always used to celebrate together at the end of a picture. Clark insisted on it. Maybe we’d include the director, maybe not. It was just a kind of ritual that the two of us had. We would share a bottle of champagne while he read poetry to me, usually the sonnets of Shakespeare. He loved poetry, and read beautifully, with great sensitivity, but he wouldn’t dare let anyone else know it. He was afraid people would think him weak or effeminite and not the tough guy who liked to fish and hunt. I was the only one he trusted. He never wanted me to tell about this, and here I am giving him away, but I never mentioned it while he was alive.

Around the time her biography was released though, she was the subject of a People magazine article in which she changed her tune:

Today she likes to recall romancing Gable on a farmhouse porch in Test Pilot—an especially charged love scene, she says, because they never touch. Still, Loy doesn’t mind admitting the king’s shortcomings.

“Oh, Clark was a terrible actor,” she says. “He couldn’t act his way out of a bag.”

Rather contradictory, wouldn’t you say? I’ll chalk that up to old age…

Myrna is carried away by Clark in Wife vs. Secretary

Myrna is carried away by Clark in Wife vs. Secretary

 Myrna is one of the few ladies of the Golden era who kept a low profile; she was not about the limos and furs and scandulous affairs.  Her autobiography is one of my absolute favorites; it is brutally honest and very engrossing. She was plagued by the title  “The Perfect Wife” assigned to her by the media. “Some perfect wife I am,” she said. “I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”

Clark and Myrna at a Hollywood Victory Committee Meeting in December 1941

Clark and Myrna at a Hollywood Victory Committee Meeting in December 1941

She’s still perfect to me. I think Clark would agree.

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From September 1938:

Everywhere we turn something real inspires something romantic. Why, even Mussolini’s Ethipian adventure has landed Clark Gable a new thrill-packed adventure role!

“Too Hot to Handle”, our first set invasion at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, really has nothing to do with Il Duce or his Fascisti friends. It’s an adventurous saga of a daredevil newsreel cameraman.

But if Laurence Stallings, the war correspondent, and Leonard Hammond, the ace newsreeler, hadn’t sat idly for weeks sopping up Ethiopian rainfall and waiting for Mussolini to get going, Clark might very well have missed out on a dashing scenario to follow in the wake of “Test Pilot.”

As it was, Stallings and John lee Mahin cooked up a yarn based on Hammond’s adevntures behind a tripod–and, bingo, Clark has just what he needs for his new adventure-personality peg on the screen!

The way “Too Hot to Handle” finally worked out makes Clark a lone-wolf picture-shooting ace and Myrna Loy an Earhart-ish ocean flyer. Walter Pidgeon, Leo Carrillo and Walter Connolly mix up in the excitement which hops from Manilla to Shanghai to the South American jungles and back again. Along the way, Clark films everything spectacular in sight at the risk of life and limb, you can be sure, rescues Myrna’s jungle-lost aviation brother (Paul Redfern idea) and manages some very personal close-ups with Myrna to the disgust of rival Walter Pidgeon. Now, don’t get worried–Clark gets her in the end.

When we intrude on these doings on Stage 29, Clark has just passed from burning lips to burning ships. The film he has taken of a flaming liner makes Walter covet half the profits, so there’s quite a long and scrappy scene. Aviation pictures always seem to require a setful of fake oil-spray fog. We could do without that, because, in this case, it partially hides lovely Myrna Loy. “Minnie”, pert and sassy in a flying suit and goggles, climbs down out of her plane to put her two-cents worth in the argument.

“Action!” says Director Conway. “No–wait a minute. Clark, you’re too neat.”

Clark looks slightly bewildered as a couple of prop men leap to his side, muss his hair and squirt grease all over a snappy sport coat. Then he grins wickedly. “You boys all through?”

“Yep,” replied the grease-squirters. “What’s the joke?”

“Nothing,” says Clark, “except MGM just spent one hundred and ten bucks. That’s what this jacket cost me. It’s mine–not the studio’s!”

The prop men stagger.

We watch the scene, but somebody–maybe us–is a jinx. Clark repeatedly blows his lines like a amateur. What’s the matter? The assistant director tells us.

Clark is overanxious because he’s been invited by Donald Douglas, the plane-builder, to be a guest at the take-off of the DC-4, the mammoth plane that’s being launched this afternoon. Director Conway has promised to get him through in time, but now it looks like they’ll never make it. And is Clark worried! He likes planes.

Then, as we watch, we see something that has never before met our eyes on a Hollywood set. In the middle of a take a roaring noise seeps through the thick walls of the stage. In the middle of his lines, Clark yells, “There she is!” Then Clark, Myrna and the whole company scram madly through the red light and outdoors. So do we.

It’s the DC-4, the biggest land plane in the world. She soars over the studio like a great prehistoric bird, while a guy and a gal stand below and wave like excited kids. Clark and Myrna. And right beside them is–us. The red light still burns, but nobody sees it. Pictures can wait. This is the real thing.