Idiot’s Delight, one of those classic films where one might say, “What kind of a title is that?”, was based on a hit Broadway play starring Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was revered for its strong anti-Nazi themes. When MGM bought the film rights, all anti-Nazi references were removed, leaving just the structure of the story. Pre-World War II America wouldn’t want to see such negativity, after all, and who wants to ruin the foreign receipts by risking it being banned in Europe?
Gable is Harry Van, a World War I vet and struggling vaudeville performer when he meets Irene (Norma Shearer), while performing in a traveling show in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the assistant to the hilariously inept Madame Zulieka (Laura Hope Crews), she an acrobat. 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, a group of attractive bubbly blonde back-up dancers. They get stopped from getting into Geneva due to the impending war. Stranded at a mountaintop hotel, Harry meets a Russian countess who seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain acrobat from years before. As he squints at her and rolls her eyes at her over-the-top mannerisms, he admits to still being in love with Irene, the girl from Omaha. When everyone must evacuate the hotel before it is bombed, Harry and Irene are left alone together, with her finally admitting her true identity.
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.
I am sorry to say that the first time I saw this film it was my introduction to Norma Shearer. Had I seen one of her fabulous pre-codes first, I might have warmed up to her sooner. But no, my first introduction to Norma was her overdoing a Greta Garbo impersonation in a platinum wig. I was not impressed and it took me a while to want to see another one of her films. Norma’s left-over-from-silents tendency to overexaggerate is best taken in small doses and Idiot’s Delight is a whole bowlful. Apparently, Garbo was the initial choice for the role of Irene. In contrast, I think she would have played the Russian countess role rather well, but not so much mousy Irene. Norma plays brunette Irene okay, but with some wide-eyed, overly-enthusiastic youthfullness that I think was left over from her Marie Antoinette. Later in life Norma did admit that her performance in Idiot’s Delight was indeed a Garbo impersonation.
It’s hard to find any depth in the character of Irene and I find myself wondering why Harry was bothering trying to figure out if this uppity countess was indeed his beloved Irene. The weak premise of a woman playing someone else to fool a suitor had been done before in Quality Street (1937) with Katharine Hepburn, and would be done again in Two-Faced Woman (1942) with Greta Garbo. In those two instances, the man comes off looking like quite the numbskull for believing the farce. At least Clark’s Harry shows his disbelief early and is quick to roll his eyes and make a snide comment here and there.
Burgess Meredith (yes, a very young “Mickey” from Rocky) has a noteworthy role as Quillary, a loud opposer to the warwho is sadly silenced. His role is rather diminished thanks to the paring down of the political and Nazi references in the script. One wonders why they left the character in at all if they were going to take away his cause?
All in all MGM took a what could have been a rather effective WWII anti-Nazi film and made it a platform for Clark to dance and Norma to overact. But, it’s enjoyable, and has its comedic moments. Clark’s Harry is so overcome with love for this ghost of Irene, he shows nothing but annoyance and passivity for his Blondes. Quite a departure for a character of Clark’s!
Clark was quite unsure of the role from the start, as he was not exactly light on his feet. He had taken the role to bide the time until he started filming Gone with the Wind, another role he was uneasy about (interestingly, it wasn’t long before the start of production of Idiot’s Delight that it was announced that Norma Shearer had “turned down” the role of Scarlett O’Hara). Clark spent sixweeks rehearsing his dance scenes and his girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife, Carole Lombard, helped him out at home. On the day the big “Puttin’ on the Ritz” dance sequence was shot, the set was closed to outsiders. Well, all except Carole, who cheered him on and gifted him with a bouquet of roses when it was completed–in one take! Much of the publicity before the film focused on Clark’s practice and how he couldn’t dance. It really seems like MGM was trying to say, “Come and see Gable make a fool out of himself!” In the end, he is definitely no Fred Astaire, but I wouldn’t call him an embarrassment to hoofing.
An interesting note of Hollywood history tied to the film is that a young starlet named Lana Turner was supposed to be one of “Les Blondes.” Her natural auburn tresses obviously wouldn’t do for the role, so she dyed them platinum. Before production began, Lana was struck with appendicitis and had to withdraw. She rather liked the hair though, and kept it through her career. And thus, another famous “Hollywood blonde” was born.
Learn more about Idiot’s Delight here and see more than 200 pictures from the film in the gallery.
See the amazing lineup of films from 1939 being reviewed by the CMBA here.