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Boom Town

Ring a Ding Ding

Boom Town (1940)

     One could potentially maintain a blog focused solely on movies employing the hackneyed plot element that ties financial success with romantic promiscuity. Thankfully this approach is usually a minor aspect of a greater story as is the case of the two very different movies I’ve reviewed so far this week: Monday’s No Other Woman and now Boom Town.

     Where No Other Woman was dull, however, Boom Town was highly entertaining. This two-hour movie crams in a massive storyline that takes its characters around the country and through phases of love and hate. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are John McMasters and John Sand, respectively, who meet on the muddy streets of a Texas town ravaged by oil prospectors. The two become fast friends and steal/borrow some equipment from Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan) to get their first well started. That one is a dud but after working in other oil fields, the duo return to drill another section of the land they own. The same day this prospect starts shooting oil, Betsy Bartlett (Claudette Colbert) comes to town looking for Sand, who is keen on marrying the gal. McMasters gets to her first, however, and the two are married that first night before Betsy has a chance to tell her new spouse that she knows his partner.

     Sand can get over losing Betsy, who he knew never really loved him, but he cannot abide McMasters hitting the town and having a drunken dance with another woman. This is how Betsy and Sand find the man as they bring news that the oil field is on fire. After putting out the flames, the two Johns flip a coin for ownership of the land and McMasters and Betsy give up their mansion and hit the road. McMasters travels around the country working at various oil fields and ends up at a secondary plot Sand operates. He refuses to take a job from the ex-friend.

     Sand’s luck will run out at that field and McMasters will make it big again. This time he takes his riches to New York where he gets into the refinery business. There he meets Hedy Lamarr‘s Karen Vanmeer who will work for him as a sort of eavesdropper, picking up tips about what others in the business are up to. She also keeps the businessman away from his home, wife and son. Sand will end up in New York and use his money and influence to try to destroy McMasters company only to save Betsy from the unhappy marriage.

     Stories that introduce the vixen character seem to always end with the man being unable to deny his everlasting feelings for his original love, at least in Hollywood. These plots usually paint us a dutiful wife who either refuses to give up/leave her spouse because of her undying love or releases him only because she wants the man to be happy. Adding a child to the equation works to push the audience toward the wife over the lover even if we might think the protagonist would be happier in those arms. What perhaps is kept off screen in these set-ups is that the man theoretically wants to leave the wife only because the mistress demands marriage or will cut him off sexually. This underlying motivation usually comes across as the man truly not being sure which woman he loves more, even if that might be obvious to us.

     Boom Town was a very entertaining movie. What starts out as a buddy story of struggling to find success becomes a rivalry tale, an adventure for a young married couple, and finally a bitter battle marked by threats and a suicide attempt. One would not have expected the story he is viewing at the start of the picture would progress to the conflict the characters face at the end. The picture is also crafted in a way that keeps us entertained without making it seem as though we are watching a very long movie. It crams a lot of action and drama into a short time span.

  • Boom Town is set for 4:30 a.m. ET Feb. 9 on TCM.
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Palm Beach Story

Gasser

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

     So ends the three-part incidental series on movies about married life. Couples in No More Ladies, Love Crazy and The Palm Beach Story consider divorce but none follow through, which is the happy ending we expect in a romantic movie. The latter, however, might offer the most illogical reason for seeking separation, one the wife claims is based on, what else, logic.

     Claudette Colbert, queen of the screwball comedy, and Joel McCrea, who has a special place in my heart for Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, are shown rushing to the altar at break-neck speed while some woman who looks like Colbert is tied up in a closet and a maid repeatedly faints. That all occurs in the opening credits, and with no explanation of what happened with those side characters, the story line begins five years down the road.

     Tom and Gerry Jeffers (wait, I’m picturing a cat and mouse all of a sudden) are about to be evicted from their Park Avenue flat because Tom cannot seem to make an income as an inventor. Luckily, an old bean magnate who is considering renting the unit decides to give Gerry a bit of his giant wad of cash to cover the rent and other odds and ends. Now that the couple is financially on the level, Gerry feels it is the proper time to mention splitting up. She thinks Tom will be better able to live the life of a penniless engineer or something without having to care for her. Plus she has grand plans to settle down with some wealthy chap she has yet to designate. Gerry flees Tom’s refusal and heads toward Palm Beach where an easy divorce can be processed. She makes her way by train, despite being broke, on the good graces of an Ale and Hound Club.

     The group of hunters manages to get drunk and shoot up the club car, which is when the train conductor opts to disconnect the unit, with Gerry’s things inside. Enter: Rudy Vallee‘s John. The gentleman offers to buy the ticket-less woman “the few things” she needs and take her by boat the remainder of the trip. She soon learns he is one of the wealthiest men alive after he buys her several thousand dollars worth of clothing, handbags and jewelry. John wants to marry Gerry, and John’s sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), want to marry Tom once he arrives in Palm Beach (also by the generosity of the bean magnate).

     As one can plainly see, this plot is already severely complex, similar to Love Crazy. It works to convey unrealistically the emotional result of one half of a relationship fighting for love’s sake and one who does not care. Gerry thinks she is doing the practical thing for both of them, and even works her boyfriend for cash to cover Tom’s bizarre airport construction plan, but the word “love” never crosses her lips to my recall. Her affection for her husband is only ever conveyed in physical intimacy, which of course is a lousy basis for a marriage. These movies perhaps act as sequels to the endless number of films that follow the typical romance between couples that end in quick, and perhaps ill-advised, jaunts down the aisle.

     In The Palm Beach Story Astor is her most funny in the role of a princess who can ramble for hours. McCrea plays a superb serious straight man for whom one’s heart breaks while watching him pretend to be Gerry’s brother and stand idly by while another man woos her. As in Love Crazy, a snappy, easy ending allows for a happy conclusion for all parties and explains to a point what the hell happened in that opening sequence.



     The Palm Beach Story is possibly most enjoyable for its wardrobe by designer Irene, who also provided Joan Crawford’s gowns in No More Ladies. Irene masterfully supplied most of the fabulous female attire during this era and was a preference of Crawford’s. Colbert’s character most memorably fashions an outfit from a blanket and men’s pajamas, but all of her ensembles herein are not to be missed.

It’s a Wonderful World

Gasser

It's a Wonderful World (1939)

     I must say it is nice to finally have a comedy to post about, and a good one too, although I don’t think I had ever heard of it before. It’s a Wonderful World from 1939 is a slapstick adventure between Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert. Although the title might have you wondering if I have in fact confused this with Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the plot line is also similar to another Colbert film involving the gal, with a guy, trying to reach a destination and evade the authorities. You might know that one as 1934’s Best Picture winner: It Happened One Night.

     The best term to describe this film is “fun.” We have Stewart as a private eye who ends up an accomplice to a murder because of ties to a wrongly accused man. He escapes police custody on his way to jail after he discovers the clue he needs to find the actual killers. While on the lamb he bumps into Colbert’s poet and ends up taking her along. Of course hilarity ensues and they gradually fall for each other.

     My feelings for Stewart have transformed over the years but have not wavered much from a sentiment that he is perhaps a mediocre actor. Too many exposures to It’s a Wonderful Life in my youth have led me to loathe that film and for a long time Stewart himself. I maintained until recent years that he could only play one character, the one we see in George Bailey. Perhaps things turned around for Stewart in my eyes when I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Regardless, I still maintain that Stewart’s inability to alter his voice from distinctly Jimmy Stewart limits his acting skills. Now, I am not one to claim that an actor’s worth lies in his ability to speak with a southern twinge or a cockney bravado. Take, for instance, Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. She plays a Spanish mountain girl and despite her Swedish accent, makes it work. I did not even question her vocal inflections in this role (perhaps I was too distracted by her hair). Contrariwise, consider Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven. That one-of-a-kind (nice try, Jennifer Love Hewitt) French/English/Belgian accent of hers destroys the perception of her as a half American Indian, half white girl. Mind you it probably was not the accent that killed that picture (or her baby, but I won’t go there).

     Returning to Stewart, It’s a Wonderful World, is the first picture I’ve seen of his (that I recall) that allows him to have a little fun with accents and to prove my point. As he attempt to elude the police, he dons a Boy Scout troop leader get-up and claims to be an English actor. He offers up one line in that brogue that could not fool anyone. Later he masquerades as a southern gent and even more poorly performs that talking task. I realize these ramblings are strictly opinion and would be open to argument, if you can find one. Until then, It’s a Wonderful World gets the middle rating of Gasser because it is cute and funny but not a whole lot more.

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