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An MGM offering with the delightful talents of Clark Gable and Norma Shearer under the direction of Clarence Brown, Idiot's Delight was a unique film for 1939. Made under the specter of fascism in Europe, the film is essentially a plea for pacifism. Still, Robert Sherwood altered the screenplay from his own stage play quite a bit by adding an extensive prologue, toning down the anti-war dialogue, eliminating any mention of Germany, stressing the romance, and adding a happy ending. Producer Hunt Stromberg figured that audiences wouldn't be too happy with the play's ending which left it unclear whether or not the two lead characters survive a climactic bombing sequence. MGM filmed two endings for the film, one for American audiences and another that was more spiritual and optimistic for international audiences who might be disturbed by the war clouds forming over European skies.
One casualty of the pre-war setting is the munitions manufacturer, played by veteran character actor Edward Arnold. The villain of the story is a business mogul without ethics, determined to make as much money as possible. Of course, the Arnold character wasn't meant to represent all munitions manufacturers, many of whom were close personal friends of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer. But the timing of the film's release is particularly interesting, because audiences saw Idiot's Delight on the eve of America's entry into World War II. When it came time for war machine manufacturers to prepare the Allied warriors for battle, it would have been unusual, not to mention unpatriotic, to cast a munitions manufacturer as a villain. But in this pre-war film, it is the greedy businessmen who are blamed for the war, not fascist nations. Granted, the story takes place during World War I, but audiences understood that the real-life impending war was roughly analogous to that Great War.
Even though he was initially reluctant, Clark Gable agreed to dance and sing in the "Puttin' on the Ritz" musical sequence. He rehearsed the number for six weeks with choreographer George King and studied the early movies of Broadway musical legend George M. Cohan. Still, Gable worried about appearing clumsy, dancing around in his size 11-C shoes. So, at Gable's insistence, MGM studio cops stood guard outside the gate of the soundstage to prevent unwanted visitors from witnessing any potentially embarrassing moments. This was the first and last time he would dance in front of a movie camera. Gable's fiancee, the beautiful Carole Lombard, practiced with him off the set. Later on in 1939, Clark Gable starred in a little movie with Vivien Leigh that was set during the Civil War. Fortunately for Gable, the role of Rhett Butler did not require much fancy footwork, other than what was needed in winning over Scarlett O'Hara.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Clarence Brown, Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood
Cinematography: William Daniels
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Norma Shearer (Irene Fellara), Clark Gable (Harry Van), Edward Arnold (Achille Weber), Charles Coburn (Dr. Hugo Waldersee), Joseph Schildkraut (Capt. Kirvline).
BW-111m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee