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Clark Gable felt right at home while filming Boom Town (1940). As ateenager he had worked as a rigger in the Oklahoma oil fields with hiswildcatter father, William Gable. In fact, he used his father as a model for therole of Big John McMasters, the energetic and unforgettable AmericanDreamer of Boom Town. McMasters and his pal, "Square John" Sand (Spencer Tracy), are two down-on-their-luck oil wildcatters who get lucky and strike a gusher, making them both rich. However, wealth and power bring their own problems to these two men whose friendship is constantly tested over the next several years through their marital and business relationships.
Boom Town recreates in the purest sense an early twentieth century vision of the American Dream. The idea that two rough and tumble Texas men can recycle poverty and wealth again and again reinforced the prevailing spirit of that dream; one of the film's promotional tag lines was "Men born of the lasting miracle that is America." Whether true or not, the concept that anyone with enough gumption, desire and hard work could break through any form of class structure and eventually reach the top of society, had a strong appeal for a public that was just starting to come out of the Great Depression. When you add the additional subplotof Spencer Tracy's unrequited love for Claudette Colbert who's stolenaway by Gable, you have the formula for a giant, box office smash. Throwninto the mix is the alluring Hedy Lamarr as a potential threat to Gable's marriage and an excellent supporting cast including Frank Morgan, Chill Wills and Lionel Atwill. All this,combined with fast paced action sequences, crisp dialogue and the unadulteratedthemes of life long friendships and lasting romantic love, make BoomTown an enormously entertaining example of MGM's prestige productions of the forties.
In real life Gable and Tracy enjoyed working with one another. With the movies SanFrancisco (1936) and Test Pilot (1938) they already had twosuccessful projects under their belts. And even though Boom Town wasjust as profitable as their previous hits, it would be their last filmtogether - and arguably their best. The duo generates a believable dramatic tension when together on-screen and their fight scenes are particularly effective. When filming one of the latter sequences, Gable insisted on doing his own stunt work. Tracy, however, used a double who accidentally landed a blow to Gable's face, cutting the actor's lip and breaking his dentures which required a break in shooting for a week. After the movie was completed Tracy decided he was tired of playing the best friend who watched while his pal Gable won the girl. He wanted to be a star in his own right.
Tracy had already been brooding about this during the making of Boom Town and was irritable and withdrawn throughout the production. The native Parisian, ClaudetteColbert, didn't like the fact that Tracy called her either "Frenchie" or "Froggie" and distancedhimself from everyone on the set. Moreover, his relationship with Hedy Lamarr, acombative one in the film, was also an outright hostile pairing in reallife. For example, in one scene the self-sacrificing Tracy istrying to drive Lamarr off to protect Gable and Colbert's marriage forColbert's sake and he aggressively pokes Lamarr in the chest repeatedly. Ifyou look closely, you'll see that she pushes his hand away at the end ofthe scene with a great deal of disdain, each of them giving each other astone-cold stare at the scene's fade-out.
For the press and the public, there was a great deal of excitement over the Gable/Colbert reunion, their first in six years after their legendary performances in the seminal romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934). That film was the first to win allfive major Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Actress for Gable andColbert. At the same time there was an equal amount of anticipation surrounding Hedy Lamarr's appearance in Boom Town. Though probably the least known of the four MGM stars today, she was being groomed for superstardom by her studio in the late thirties/early forties. Having jet-black hair and brilliant green eyes in an age of platinum blondes, she stood out as one of the most beautiful women of her era. Even before she portrayed the memorable fourth wheel in Boom Town, she had already gained a certain degree of international fame. In fact, her life was the stuff from which myths are made.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, in Vienna, the daughter of a banker, she gained worldwidenotoriety when she appeared nude in the Czech film, Ecstasy (1932). Shortly afterwards she would marry Fritz Mandel, an Austrian munitionsmagnate, who would introduce her to such world figures as Mahler, Hitlerand Mussolini. He would also treat her as just another beautifulpossession of his, causing Lamarr to disguise herself as one of herservants, eventually escaping to Paris. Guided by Louis B. Mayer, sheemigrated to the United States with every intention of becoming a star. Primarily because the prudish Mayer was embarrassed by Lamarr's nudeappearance in Ecstasy, he changed her name from Kiesler to Lamarr toavoid any connection with what he considered her risque former life. After her eye-catching performance in the film, Algiers (1938), Mayer declared that she would become the studio's "most important star." To illustrate how popular Hedy Lamarr was during the war years, a kiss from her at fund raising efforts cost the price of a $25,000 bond. However, in a relatively short space of time, she suffered several box office failures, including whatmost film aficionados feel is one of the worst movies MGM ever made, I Take This Woman (1939). Part of the problem was that Mayer forced Lamarr to accept roles she didn't want like Lady of the Tropics (1939) plus she wasn't always the best judge of scripts herself. For example, she turned down Laura (1944), as well as two of Ingrid Bergman's biggest hits,Gaslight (1944) and Saratoga Trunk (1945), among other wellknown classics. In her own defense, Lamarr recounted in her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, how she lobbied hard for the secondary role in Boom Town which she saw as "not big, but gutsy. A perfect vehicle for me to prove my ability." Mayer finally relented and let her take the second female lead. Lamarr wrote, "I was deadly serious all during the making of it. I needed this one and it had to be good. Clark was kind to me all during the film. Spencer was aloof but worked hard. When a picture is going good everyone feels it. We felt all during the filming we had a good one. And it was. The reviews were a smash." Unfortunately, Lamarr's screen successes were few and by the late '50s her career was over.
Interestingly, a piece of information would surface late in Hedy Lamarr'slife that would go against the image of her as just another pretty face on the screen. In 1997 authorities revealed that in 1940 after her emigration to the United States and subsequent stardom, Lamarr used her knowledge of weaponry learned under the auspices of her former husband, Mandel, in a way that would serve as the foundation for today's securemilitary communications. Together with the help of composer GeorgeAntheil, she created an anti-jamming device for the Allies in World WarTwo. Using paper rolls with perforations that exactly matched thesplit-second hops of radio frequencies, the device was an importantcontribution to the Allied war effort. That's something to think aboutwhen we watch Lamarr as that slinky woman in gorgeous black and white inBoom Town. With this film, she proved she could create a fully rounded character who depended on other qualities besides her stunning beauty. It's a character much like herself: sexy, smart and a more substantial person than appearances would have youbelieve.
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin
Cinematography: Woody Bredell, Harold Rosson
Costume Design: Adrian, Gile Steele
Film Editing: Paul Landres, Blanche Sewell
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof, Franz Waxman
Cast: Clark Gable (Big John McMasters), Spencer Tracy (Square John Sand), Claudette Colbert (Betsy Bartlett), Hedy Lamarr (Karen Vanmeer).
BW-119m. Closed captioning.
by Joseph D'Onofrio