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Although primarily remembered today as the biggest box office bomb that Clark Gable would 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 heartfelt and nearly-realized ambitions to obtain home rule for his country foundered on his scandalous relationship with a married woman, became the basis for a popular Broadway play in the '30s. MGM was only too happy to option the property as worthy of their leading 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 the efforts of his National Land League. His return to Ireland's shores finds him immediately jailed by the British government for seditious speech; it does little to break his stride, as the parliamentarian and his cronies (including Donald Crisp and Edmund Gwenn) very efficiently run the party's affairs from his cell. It's here that Parnell receives the unwelcome solicitations of Capt. Willie O'Shea (Alan Marshal), an oily and 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 charms of his estranged wife Katie (Myrna Loy), hoping that her delivery of a dinner invitation would 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 for the first time. "It's a beautiful scene," Loy would recall in her autobiography Being And Becoming. "You can feel the beginning of the love that would rock the British Empire." Their relationship intensifies when Parnell is indicted for complicity in the notorious political assassinations known as 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 level in 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 sensitive side 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. He would read poetry to me sometimes during breaks, but he didn't want anyone to know it." 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 persuaded to change his mind later when he was offered the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Loy recalled in her autobiography that Joan Crawford had been slated for the role of Katie O'Shea, and that she herself had been originally tapped for The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). MGM flipped the assignments, Loy opined, because of adverse public reaction to Crawford's efforts in the historical drama The Gorgeous Hussy (1936). Years later, Loy still bristled at the public hostility that dictated the studio's decision and the casting of Parnell. "Disgruntled fans wrote to the studio by the thousands--they did that in those days," she recalled. "Some of the critics complained that we played against type. We were actors, 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), Edna May 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