' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Test Pilot (1938)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Test Pilot (1938)

Jim Lane (Clark Gable), the test pilot of the title, a more effusive Chuck Yeager, is flying a brand new spankin’ Drake Bullet coast to coast when the motor sputters and he is forced to make an emergency landing in a Kansas cornfield. He is greeted by vixenish sunflower Ann Barton (Myrna Loy), The Farmer’s Daughter, who immediately initiates romantic rapid-fire repartee. Jim phones his crew back home, including his loyal, skilled and generally silent mechanic Gunner (Spencer Tracy), to fly and meet him and repair the plane so he can re-achieve liftoff, but in the few hours it take that to happen he finds time to change into a spiffy suit, take Ann out on the town and fall in love with her despite her pesky fiancé.

But never mind the pesky fiancé. Once the plane is back up and running, Jim lights back out for NYC, doubles back, re-lands, Ann hops aboard, and off they go to scenic Indianapolis to be married. Woo hoo! Corny as, well, Kansas, brilliantly old fashioned, the first half hour of Victor Fleming’s “Test Pilot” evokes an old Peanuts comic strip with Snoopy making as the World War I flying ace and meeting cute with a French mademoiselle behind enemy lines. Ah, but “Test Pilot” turns out to be a bit tougher than this set-up suggests. It’s still rousing, it’s still sentimental, as a film from MGM in 1938 would be, but there is solemn substance in the mixing bowl and, while Gable is good, Loy and especially Tracy are flat-out spectacular.

It feels as if Tracy is in every scene with Gable, even though that clearly isn’t true, and he spends most of his time off to the side or in the background, chewing gum, always chewing gum, quiet, often disbelieving, always observing. Not that he needs to observe because what Tracy, magnificently, subtly, with few lines, with few facial expressions, conveys a man who has been down and each and every road with Jim Lane before. He knows every decision, every declaration of bravado, every bit of irresponsibility to come and could probably pinpoint it to the second on a stopwatch if he had the inclination. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he got married in Indianapolis and divorced in Toledo.” He reminded me a bit of Jack Haley. No, no, no, not that Jack Haley. The other Jack Haley, the unknown soldier NBA teams always signed ALONG with Dennis Rodman, specifically because he was Dennis Rodman’s personal protector and negotiator, the one who got The Worm to games on time after staying out all night and acted as liaison to the coach and the suits when they had understandable issues with their star.

But that is not the only analogy to be made. Have you ever wondered what Chewbacca was always saying to Han Solo in the (real) “Star Wars” trilogy? Like, say, in “Empire Strikes Back” when Han decides to leave to pay off the bounty to Jabba the Hut? Do you think Chewie was chewing out Han? “You’ve got a Princess here – a Princess! – who is, like, ALL over you, dude. And you want to go to pay off Jabba because you’ve got a death mark? You’re IN the rebel alliance now! You HAVE a death mark! That’s TWO death marks! You want to pay off one and then come back and deal with the other one when instead you could be gettin’ all cozy with a PRINCESS?!”

This is to say that as “Test Pilot” goes along the more fed up Gunner becomes with Jim’s idiocy. It's not that he isn't fed up with his idiocy from the get-go, because he certainly is, but that through the course of the film he gradually shifts from wordless indifference to wordless disbelief to wordless disgust. So too do his feelings for Ann take a different shape. At first, she's nothing more than another kinda floozy - wedding ring or not - but then he finds himself warming up to her and to the possibility she brings to Jim's life. He simply cannot fathom why his pal would be so focused on death-daring derring-do when he has the chance to make a life with this once in a life lady.

Ann, meanwhile, easily could have been reduced to caricature, the woman whose sole role is to stand beside her man, but Loy injects her with a vigor that matches Jim's and is what Jim sees in her that sets her apart. (Also, let's be honest, Ann is more displaced Manhattanite than Kansas farm girl but no worries. Nothing to see here. Please disperse.) And it is Loy who most ably gets across the movie's main moral - she respects Jim's love of flying so much that she does not attempt to change who he is to better comfort her nerves. Yet, at the same time, despite wanting to leave him for the agony he puts her through every time he enters a plane, she loves him so much she is willing to endure.

It goes to show that once upon a time Hollywood could make a movie with a big budget and star power and stunts and special effects and not just infuse it with heart but with depth. Sure, "Test Pilot" goes on a bit too long and certain scenes are a bit too lengthy and the conclusion is wrapped up nicely in a ribbon and a bow but with all that has come before this conclusion is genuinely earned.

That makes all the difference.


Anonymous said...

I really need to see Clark Gable in a role besides Rhett Butler! This one looks like a winner, but I still haven't got around to even seeing It Happened One Night :(

Nick Prigge said...

It Happened One Night was pretty good, even though I'm not a huge Claudette Colbert fan. Though, I have to say, I enjoyed Test Pilot more. Which might be blasphemy, but so be it.