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In these days of digitized summer blockbusters, it's nice to watch an action film that unfolds at a sensible pace and features several fully drawn characters. If you're looking to take a break from this year’s big screen onslaught, you should try Victor Fleming’s Test Pilot (1938), a rough-and-tumble slice of 1930s entertainment starring three of the most popular actors of the studio era. Miniature tin planes zooming through cotton ball clouds may not meet modern special effects standards, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more convincing group of performers than Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy. This trio throws off sparks through good old-fashioned charisma. They don’t need digital enhancement and high-speed editing.
Gable plays Jim Lane, a binge-drinking test pilot who lives for the thrill of risking his own hide. Jim works for Howard Drake (Lionel Barrymore), a rich airplane manufacturer. Tracy - whose rare supporting role was beefed up during shooting - plays Gunner, a loyal mechanic who idolizes Jim. One day, while testing a hot new plane called The Bullet, Jim crash lands in a Kansas cornfield. There, he meets a dazzling farm girl named Ann Barton (Loy), whom he later marries. (Plane crash or not, you’re doing pretty well when you find Myrna Loy twiddling her thumbs in the middle of Kansas.)
Jim, as you might imagine, is too much for an innocent farm girl like Ann to handle. Her nerves get jangled when she thinks about him crashing, and she soon develops second thoughts about their marriage. But that’s all put on the back burner when the military comes knocking, and Gunner winds up playing the hero while Jim test flies a new Air Force bomber (actually a newfangled B-17, the plane that would soon be blasting Germany to pieces in World War II.)
Test Pilot isn’t likely to be confused with a documentary, but it’s so well done it snagged a 1938 Best Picture Oscar nomination (Frank Wead was also nominated for Best Screenplay, and Tom Held for Best Editing.) Loy always cited this as her favorite role. She discusses the picture at some length in her autobiography, Being and Becoming, during which she details her close, platonic relationship with lady’s man Gable.
“We always used to celebrate together at the end of a picture,” she wrote. “Clark insisted on it. It was just a kind of ritual 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 with great sensitivity, but he wouldn’t dare let anybody know it. He was afraid people would think him weak or effeminate and not the tough guy who liked to fish and hunt.”
Tracy and Gable weren’t very close – at one point, Tracy refused to hop a B-17 to Catalina with Gable and his buddies because he knew there would be drinking, and he was on the wagon - but they had a healthy rivalry on the set. Gable, who never considered himself a great actor, was in awe of Tracy...and Tracy basically thought he should be. Though he was happy to work with Victor Fleming (they had previously worked together on Captains Courageous, 1937), Tracy was less than thrilled to appear in Test Pilot. He knew that the film was designed as a “Gable picture,” and it ate at him. He was tired of being cast as the laid-back guy who never got the girl.
(SPOILER ALERT) He did, however, attempt to even the score while playing his death scene. Gable claimed Tracy died the “slowest, most lingering death in history.” He had to cradle Tracy in his arms during the scene, and was hard-pressed to react accordingly throughout the extended exit. During one remarkably lengthy take, Gable dropped Tracy’s head with a thud and shouted “Die, goddamn it, Spence! I wish to Christ you would!” For some reason, that particular anecdote didn’t make it into Test Pilot's press releases.
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Producer: Louis D. Lighton Screenplay by: Vincent Lawrence, Frank Wead, Howard Hawks, Waldemar Young, John Lee Mahin
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Tom Held
Music: Franz Waxman
Set Design: Edwin B. Willis
Costumes: Dolly Tree
Principal Cast: Clark Gable (Jim Lane), Myrna Loy (Ann Barton), Spencer Tracy (Gunner Morris), Lionel Barrymore (Howard B. Drake), Samuel S. Hinds (Gen. Ross), Arthur Aylesworth (Frank Barton), Claudia Coleman (Mrs. Barton).
by Paul Tatara