Tuesday, August 2

Good 40s Films: Boom Town

1940 Drama
From MGM
Directed by Jack Conway

Clark Gable
Spencer Tracy
Claudette Colbert
Hedy Lamarr
Frank Morgan
Chill Wills
Marion Martin

For rousing entertainment that starred the most popular male movie star of the time alongside MGMs finest actor (and some would say America's finest), it doesn't get much better than this one. I have long admired it because of its three leading stars... in the decade we're showcasing, it didn't get much better.  Boom Town is a tribute to male friendship played against the backdrop of the oil business.  It was a huge hit for MGM. They knew it would be.

The story, spanning the friendship for over 20 years, begins in 1918 Texas.  Two rather testy characters, both in search of fortune and willing to work hard to attain it, join forces as wildcatters hoping that first gusher will produce more than saltwater. They are both named John but others call them Big John (Gable) and Square John (Tracy). Big John, however, calls Square John by a name he hates, Shorty. (Interesting to note there's a mere 2" difference in the actors' heights.)

During their first venture, Square John advises he's hoping to marry a woman named Betsy who lives in the east but says it might be a tough go because Betsy doesn't want to marry him, although she likes him a great deal as a friend.

One day in town by himself, Big John runs into Betsy (Colbert), who has gone out west on a surprise visit, and neither at first knows they have a connection.  Betsy figures it out but doesn't tell Big John.  By the end of the evening the two have not only fallen in love but rather impulsively married.  Neither has the chance to tell Square John until he knocks on his pal's hotel room door and sees them together.  The event brings about the first in a series of circumstances that causes the two Johns to have a rather challenging friendship.

One of the touching elements of the story is the love Square John maintains for Betsy. He is never inappropriate but he guards her with a ferocity of a loving older brother.  Over the years, as the buddies go through fortunes and failures, they slug it out and hug it out with Betsy at the center.  Square John doesn't want to see Betsy get a raw deal and Big John wants his friend to stay out of his marriage.  When both Betsy and Square John suspect Big John is cheating with a dancehall girl (Martin) and later with a coworker (Lamarr), neither is very happy about it. Betsy is ready to end her marriage and Square John and Big John sever their relationship, business and personal.

Of course, it doesn't stay that way and for nearly two hours, we're glad it doesn't because it's fun to watch these two actors bounce off one another.  I agree with the consensus on both of them.  Tracy was a great actor and Gable was the very essence of a popular movie star.  I always thought Gable turned in a more polished performance when he was sharing the screen with Tracy. 

The two actors, both in servitude at MGM, had a history together. They often ran into each other at the studio and enjoyed taking pot shots at one another but they were not teamed in a film until 1936s San Francisco, their biggest hit together.  (We'll elaborate more on that film when we get to our tribute to the 30s.)  They got on well until they were teamed a second time two years later in Test Pilot. On that one their relationship was a bit frosty.  It seemed they may not share the screen again but their costar, Myrna Loy, wanted to do another film with the pair and Boom Town was going to be that project. Unfortunately, by the time filming began, she was tied up on another film and was replaced by Colbert, who was borrowed from Paramount.  It was rightly concluded that reuniting Colbert and Gable, the two Oscar-winning stars from 1934s It Happened One Night would guarantee high ticket sales.

On Boom Town, Tracy and Gable mended their fences.  The world's biggest movie star would stand off camera transfixed while watching America's greatest actor go through his paces.  He would, however, tease Tracy about his height or looks or surly temper. Tracy, never one to turn away from a good ribbing, would say of Gable... can't act, doesn't care and everybody loves him better than any actor that was ever born.

Gable always had top billing and that was one thing that rankled Tracy.  After Boom Town, Tracy had it written into his contract that in any future co-ventures he would have his turn at the top but they never made another film together.  They would, however, remain friends for the rest of their short lives.

It was not just old home week for Gable and Colbert also Tracy and Gable.  Tracy and Lamarr had just finished working on I Take This Woman (1940) and would be reunited again in 1942 for Tortilla Flat.  And Lamarr and Gable would immediately follow Boom Town with a delightful comedy, Comrade X (1940).

Gable would always recall Boom Town due to a fight scene (a terrific one near the end) where something went awry and he ended up in the hospital, spitting out (false) teeth and in need of stitches. MGM honchos must have been wetting themselves.

A large supporting cast featured Frank Morgan (fresh off his title role in 1939s The Wizard of Oz) and gravelly-voiced Chill Wills in amusing comedy roles and little-known Marion Martin in a sparkling turn as a saloon hostess.

Most of the filming was done at the studio, certainly all of the interior work, and the early oil field scenes were filmed near Bakersfield, California.  A highlight of those scenes involves an exciting oil fire.

The film took a serious look at the early oil business in this country and delved some into antitrust laws and wildcatters' indifference to the laws of conservation just to keep it from getting too light and fluffy.  L. B. Mayer liked his dramas to include something messagy.

When the focus was on the early friendship and their starting out as wildcatters, the film was at its best.  It was softer and less edgy when focused on Colbert and Lamarr.  Both actresses certainly gave sincere performances but their parts weren't as well-written or as interesting as their male counterparts.  If it weren't for this, Boom Town might have been a great film but it is still a good one, highly entertaining.

Have a peek:

Next posting:
Almost Famous II

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