' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Boom Town

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: Boom Town

Featuring several of the most acclaimed stars of the era, "Boom Town" (1940) re-proves that not all films of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age live up to that moniker. No, in fact it might suggest that Hollywood's ongoing trend of combining star power with a throw all the paint from all the cans against the wall and see how it looks theory of moviemaking was very much alive and not so well long ago.

Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are, respectively, "Big" John McMasters and "Square" John Sand (i.e. Shorty) two oil wildcatters who initially bump heads but quickly join forces, pilfer drilling equipment from local businessman Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan) and set up a well that only yields saltwater. Busted. Rather than high-tail out of town, they convince Aldrich to loan them more equipment by agreeing to cut him in on a percentage of their next well, a well which just so happens to go boom. At this point, the film, directed by Jack Conway, has got some game. Gable and Tracy have a solid chemistry and the two men looking like, well, Gable and Tracy brought to mind the classic Prairie Home Companion sketch Lives of the Cowboys with the two guys out on the range, arguing, dreaming, eating steak and drinking whiskey, and one of them - Square John - dreaming of the girl he loves back home.

Soon that girl will enter the picture because, of course, Hollywood law stipulates that the female must appear. And the movie begins to slip and slide. She's Elizabeth Bartlett (Claudette Colbert), though Square John calls her "Betsy" because he has to because otherwise Big John will know straight away who she is and if he does then he can't fall in love with her and they can't get married the night they meet to put into place the requisite love triangle and because of the requisite love triangle Big John and Square John flip a coin to see who gets possession of the oil field. Square John wins. But don't presume this the end of the story. God, no.

Each man will go from top to bottom and then back so neither one of the two main stars can ever appear to be too much brighter than the other one. It fulfills the necessary rock 'em, sock 'em quotient with 1.) Fire 2.) Gunfire and 3.) Fisticuffs. A second love triangle appears when Big John and Betsy wind up living posh in New York except Big John finds himself maybe, kinda, sorta getting involved on the sly with the vixen Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr), the former adviser of Big John's rival whom he's hired away, and which becomes problematic when Square John turns back up to find work with Big John and suspects the two are having an affair and, thus, to attempt to re-win Betsy suggests marriage to Karen who turns it down because she sees what he's up to which leads to the two men getting into the aforementioned fisticuffs which happens directly before it turns out Big John is being taken to court for having violated the Sherman Antitrust Act which leads to - you guessed it! - The Big Courtroom Speech.

Don't get me wrong, if anyone could ably deliver The Big Courtroom Speech it's Spencer Tracy, but it's enlightening in a very disturbing way to see that even in 1940 those same devices screenwriters fall back on nowadays without shame were in use. Not unlike most big budget, star driven spectaculars of today it goes overboard with the gravy but skimps on the mashed potatoes, going a whole lot of places and, eventually, ending up nowhere.

Well, nowhere might be the wrong word, because in the end the film winds up right where it started, with the two Johns returning to their roots as go-for-broke wildcatters and you can't help but wish the film had never departed these confines.

Call me crazy but the whole second half of the film I was yearning for Big John to ditch Besty and run away with Karen. It seemed as if Hedy Lamarr was privy to a world were drama might just know how to be dramatic and romance might just know how to be romantic and where character and charisma might trump lame plot twists. I suppose cheering for a husband to ditch his wife makes me a bad person. But I guarantee it would have made for a better movie.


Andrew K. said...

I've never seen this one. I don't think I've even heard of it, but I find the pairing amusing because if I recall correctly Katharine Hepburn had wanted Spence and Clark for the leading roles in The Philadelphia Story when she'd bought the rights...well, when Howard Hughes bought them for her.

Incidentally, I find Clark really annoying...like a less smarmy version of George Clooney, who I loathe. I guess I can just never forgive him for not giving a damn.

Nick Prigge said...

Clark Gable, from the movies I've seen him in, has the exact same persona at all times. Happy, sad, angry, indifferent, whatever, he never really changes.