powered by AFI
Although primarily remembered today as the biggest box office bomb that Clark Gablewould experience in his storied career, the lushly mounted historical drama Parnell (1937) is far from the train wreck that most critics of its day (and since) made it out to be. While its pacing is stately to a fault, the film boasts strong performances from its distinguished cast of players, and the King of Hollywood gave a thoughtful portrayal of what would be his only attempt at a historical film biography.
The life of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), the Irish statesman whose heartfeltand nearly-realized ambitions to obtain home rule for his country foundered on hisscandalous relationship with a married woman, became the basis for a popular Broadwayplay in the '30s. MGM was only too happy to option the property as worthy of theirleading male star; the noted playwrights John Van Druten and S.N. Behrman were engaged to adapt the late Elsie T. Schauffler's stage success.
The story opens as Parnell (Gable) is winding up his 1880 visit to the United States,in which he was wildly successful in gaining popular and financial support for theefforts of his National Land League. His return to Ireland's shores finds him immediatelyjailed by the British government for seditious speech; it does little to break hisstride, as the parliamentarian and his cronies (including Donald Crisp and EdmundGwenn) very efficiently run the party's affairs from his cell. It's here that Parnellreceives the unwelcome solicitations of Capt. Willie O'Shea (Alan Marshal), an oilyand moneyed political tyro who wants to curry the "Uncrowned King of Ireland's"favor for his own ambitions.
In response to Parnell's indifference, Willie calls upon the considerable charmsof his estranged wife Katie (Myrna Loy), hoping that her delivery of a dinner invitationwould be more difficult to resist. Watching Parnell taking the floor at Parliament,she's struck by his courage in confronting Prime Minister Gladstone (Montagu Love).Upon their introduction, she's further moved by his confession of seeing her forthe first time. "It's a beautiful scene," Loy would recall in her autobiographyBeing And Becoming. "You can feel the beginning of the love that would rock the British Empire." Their relationship intensifies whenParnell is indicted for complicity in the notorious political assassinations knownas the Phoenix Park murders. Not only does Katie stand by him, she delivers the exculpatory evidence.
While Gable was earnest in his efforts, he never appeared to find a comfort levelin the role. His attempts at affecting a brogue can be charitably deemed inconsistent,and this most macho of movie stars seemed ill at ease with revealing a more sensitiveside to his character. "I learned about another side of him at that time,"Loy recalled for Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene in Long Live the King."He was a man who loved poetry and fine literature, read it, and knew it. Hewould read poetry to me sometimes during breaks, but he didn't want anyone to knowit." Gable, of course, shrugged off the critical and popular response to Parnell,and resolved never to take on any similar period project. Fortunately, he was persuadedto change his mind later when he was offered the role of Rhett Butler in GoneWith the Wind (1939).
Loy recalled in her autobiography that Joan Crawford had been slated for the roleof Katie O'Shea, and that she herself had been originally tapped for TheLast of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). MGM flipped the assignments, Loy opined, becauseof adverse public reaction to Crawford's efforts in the historical drama TheGorgeous Hussy (1936). Years later, Loy still bristled at the public hostility thatdictated the studio's decision and the casting of Parnell. "Disgruntledfans wrote to the studio by the thousands--they did that in those days," sherecalled. "Some of the critics complained that we played against type. We wereactors, for God's sake. We couldn't be Blackie Norton and Nora Charles all the time."
Producer/Director: John M. Stahl
Screenplay: John Van Druten, S.N. Behrman, based on the play by Elsie T. Schauffler
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Film Editing: Fredrick Y. Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Clark Gable (Charles Stewart Parnell), Myrna Loy (Mrs. Katie O'Shea), EdnaMay Oliver (Aunt Ben Wood), Edmund Gwenn (Campbell Parnell's Secretary), Alan Marshal (Captain William O'Shea), Donald Crisp (Michael Davitt).
BW-119m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg