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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.

Saratoga

Saratoga (1937)

Gasser

     I had mentioned when reviewing Jean Harlow’s Platinum Blonde that it was odd to see the sexy, sassy gal playing a high-society dame, but in Saratoga that same sort of part fits a bit more comfortably on the star. She is like usual paired opposite Clark Gable in what would be her last picture before dying at age 26.

     Harlow had developed kidney failure, later attributed to scarlet fever in her youth, that slowly broke down the star’s health. Filming was 90% complete on Saratoga when she died much to the surprise of all around her. In order to produce a tribute and profit off the fans that wanted one last view of the blonde, MGM employed separate body and voice doubles to allow Harlow’s character, somewhat noticeably, to hide behind large hats or face away from the camera. Saratoga was top at the box office in 1937.

     The story follows Gable as Duke Bradley who is not just a horse-racing book keeper but a pal to Frank Clayton (Jonathan Hale) who owns a horse-breeding farm but is also in debt to the bookie. Frank hands over the deed to his farm as collateral just before dying. Duke naturally plans to give the deed to the daughter, Carol Clayton (Harlow) but when the snooty brat makes plans to pay him for it, he decides to take her for a ride. Carol plans to wed a Wall Street big shot Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon) whom Duke knows as a big gambler and the perfect mark. Duke continues to annoy Carol as the two travel to various horse races. Also along is Duke’s friend Fritzi, played by Una Merkel, who has married cosmetic magnate Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan). She loves horses and tricks her hubby into buying one at auction despite his being allergic. Hartley has also been duped into buying Carol’s own horse.

     Duke has offered Carol a cut of whatever he takes her husband-to-be for in horse racing bets, but the girl is offended and the feud between them begins. Once in Florida, Duke is really set to put his plan in motion, but Carol works to send Hartley away so he is not tempted to gamble. In the process, a doctor diagnoses her with nerves related to …uh… eager anticipation of their wedding night. Duke also refuses to leave her hotel room when Harley returns, and so the intruder hides under a couch while Carol smokes his cigar and insists Hartley stay in Florida. Upon leaving, Duke gives the gal a smooch and we see a change in her disposition.

     From here it is clear Carol is working to help Duke make a mighty profit on her fiancée, whose resources are essentially unending. When the blonde tells Duke she loves him and that she is breaking it off with her beau, the man objects because he has yet to get him for a much larger prize. What he does not tell Carol, however, is that he wants to get enough money to leave the book-keeping business and fix up the girl’s farm. So the two are at odds again and Carol connives to have the horse Duke is sure will win a big race –Fritzie’s horse– lose by switching jockeys.

     Harlow and Gable for the last time get their on screen happy ending together. Their characters here are much more subdued than the harsh criminal or tough-guy/slut personas they embodied in the past, but it makes them more every-man. Despite playing a socialite donned in conservative dress and pearls, Harlow’s character still manages to pack a punch with her words and attitude so we get a nice mix of class and lively sass.

Source: TCM.com

The Girl from Missouri

Dullsville

Girl From Missouri (1934)

     I was excited to come across a pairing of Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone in a romantic flick as I enjoy Harlow and find Tone quite charming, but their pairing in The Girl From Missouri produced poor results on the acting front.

     Both Harlow as Eadie and Tone as Tom gave amateurish performances in this story of a girl who wants nothing more than to marry with her virtue in tact. Eadie leaves her home in Missouri because the booze joint her mother and step-father run will eventually create a fate similar, I suspect, to that which befell Barbara Stanwyck‘s character in Baby Face. In New York with her pal Kitty (Patsy Kelly), the two work as chorus girls while Eadie plots how to land a millionaire husband. Performing at the party of one such wealthy gent, Eadie wrangles a suspiciously easy proposal from host Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone), who gives the girl ruby cufflinks to make into an engagement ring. Once she is out of the room, Cousins shoots himself over financial trouble, thus explaining his willingness to “marry” the dame. Eadie and Kitty rush into the room and are held there as police search for the missing rubies. Another millionaire, T.R. Page (Lionel Barrymore), who somehow knows the girls are innocent of the theft, sneaks the gems out of Eadie’s stocking and returns them to the girl later.

     The next day, Eadie is on the hunt for T.R.’s hand in marriage and follows him to Palm Beach after he gives her some dough on which to get by. There she runs into Tom, who happens to be T.R.’s son, but she does not know that at first, so she resist him. Despite everyone’s suspicions, Eadie is not a gold digger but merely someone who wants a proper chance in life for her children. When Tom locks her in his room one evening and tries to put the moves on her, she convinces him that she is on the level about being “clean”. They love each other but Tom has had sex on the brain more so than marriage. When he does come around to the idea, his father superficially agrees to the union but conspires with the district attorney and newspapermen to frame Eadie not only for stealing the rubies but for having an affair with a stranger.

     So the concept is Eadie is a girl who everyone thinks is a hussy but who really just wants to get married without compromising her virginity. Her forward approach with men and flashy looks suggest just what everyone thinks, but her words are the only thing insisting otherwise. She is supposed to be in love with Tom, but neither actor convinced me. Tom is first introduced as on the phone with a sweetheart whom he quickly hangs up on when he spots Eadie, so naturally we think he is a playboy. Indeed, all he really wants from the blonde is a good time until he finds out she is “pure”, which is apparently all it takes to be marriage material, never mind the social boundaries or her continually deteriorating reputation.

     There is a cute scene when Tom throws a drunk Eadie in the shower and gets in himself, hat suit and all, and tells her they are going to get married immediately. The moment seems romantic and sexy, but it is cut short before anything profound can be said. This might have been the result of Production Code restrictions. The Girl from Missouri was the subject of many re-shoots and re-editing because of the decency code that was now in full enforcement. The title too underwent many changes before landing on the bland Girl from Missouri. At first it was “Eadie is a Lady” based on a popular song at the time, the lyrics of which suggested the opposite of the title. The Hayes Office also felt the option of “100% Pure” suggested otherwise, and also nixed “Born to be Kissed” as too suggestive.

     Despite the code restrictions that perhaps dampened the quality of the story, the actors have no excuse for their performances. Harlow is a poor crier and both she and Tone had moments of lousy acting that is not present in most of their work. It just goes to show you cannot pair two good-looking people together and expect magic.

Source: Robert Osborne

Honky Tonk

Gasser

Honky Tonk (1941)

     Why in the world someone would name a love story of sorts Honky Tonk, I will never understand, but with its leading actors, I can surely assume why the title would fail to turn audiences away. The 1941 flick was the first pairing of Clark Gable and Lana Turner, and despite their 20-year age difference (Turner was 20, Gable 40 when making this film) the duo would appear together three additional times. Fresh off her fame from Ziegfeld Girl, Turner was a hot item, but her character in Honky Tonk belies the seductress roles she would come to be known for. Her young face and the conservative attire of 1880s western America highlight her youth, and despite the innocent character she embodies, Turner still manages to let her powerful personality sneak through.

     The story for Honky Tonk, unfortunately, is a bit messy. “Confidence man” (which I assume is the basis for the term “con man”) Candy Johnson decides to settle in Yellow Creek, NV, where the former swindler sets up the Square Deal saloon and gambling establishment, angering the self-appointed sheriff who runs the crooked version in the town. The smooth talking Candy easily has the town eating out of his hand in addition to Turner’s Elizabeth Cotton, newly arrived from Boston. Elizabeth clearly wants a kind man and a permanent sort of relationship and is blind to Candy’s taking a cut of all city action. She gets the on-the-wagon businessman drunk and marries him one night. Although he is not “the marrying kind”, Candy is fine with the arrangement because it means he gets to bed the young woman.

     The story becomes increasingly complicated as Candy amasses ever-increasing mounds of money and a fabulous home, which angers the crooked public officials that essentially work for him. He’s moving up to swindling the governor and a couple senators, and Elizabeth is content to play party hostess and wear diamonds in her hair. Candy eventually decides to do “the right thing” and leave Elizabeth before she becomes further corrupted, but that does not last long, and we have a rather mediocre ending.

     With all the trouble Candy stirs up and all his corruption, the romance between the dark man and the innocent young woman makes little sense. It does not follow that a man of Candy’s sort would be content to be married or that Elizabeth would be either unaware or uncaring about her husband’s means of procuring wealth. The typical moral one would expect would have something to do with money cannot buy happiness, so the woman just wishes to be poor and alone with her man. Coming from New England, I would expect Elizabeth to be unaccustomed to the shoot-em-up ways of the west and appalled when watching Candy shoot a man dead, albeit in self defense. Her only response is that she was glad her husband failed to heed her request not to carry a gun that day.

     Honky Tonk‘s story certainly is a unique one, but it fails to leave me with any sort of warm romantic feeling about the relationship of the couple. Besides looking handsome together, there is not much else to draw me into their partnership.

Source: Robert Osborne

Love Crazy

Gasser

Love Crazy (1941)

     Welcome to part two of the accidental trilogy of marriage movie reviews. I managed to watch three movies over two days that all portrayed life after marriage. The first, No More Ladies, was a drama that makes lover-boys rethink their extramarital affairs. Today’s Love Crazy review and tomorrow’s The Palm Beach Story, were made a year apart and take a comedic, albeit sloppy, approach to legalized romance. Coincidentally, all three films get the same mediocre review.

     I always love a William Powell-Myrna Loy movie because the pair have such great comedic chemistry that I do not think I have seen in any other on-screen recurring couple. Unfortunately for Love Crazy, the plot is as harebrained as Powell’s character becomes. After a number of mishaps interrupt Steve and Susan Ireland’s fourth anniversary plans, Powell’s Steve decides to hit the town with neighbor and former girlfriend Isobel (played by Gail Patrick, who also played a mistress in No More Ladies). Loy’s Susan finds out and in a case of mistaken identity lands in the arms of neighbor Ward Willoughby (Jack Carson). Thinking Steve’s interaction with Isobel was confined to the woman’s apartment, Susan leaves and plans a divorce. Steve hatches a plan to behave insane, which will prevent Susan from ending their marriage, but a series of moves by both parties lands Powell in an asylum.

     The movie is marked by plenty of fun Powell moments, such as his hanging by the head from an elevator door and his “freeing” of top hats into a fountain, but the nonsense escalates to the point that one’s head goes spinning. If I were to describe the entire plot it would consume twice as much space as I have already. Love Crazy is more a showcase of Powell and Loy’s comedic genius than of any coherent story line. Ultimately all misunderstandings and Susan’s adamant divorce plans are easily cleared up with a single line from Susan’s mother, which allows for the duration of the flick to spin out of control but being brought back to balance for a quick, easy ending.

     Of the three marriage movies I am reviewing, this one paints the most pleasant picture of wedlock, at least before things get out of control. Susan and Steve clearly love each other even if Susan’s feelings can be easily reversed over unclear circumstances. Love Crazy also serves to illustrate that once a person is declared insane, it is very difficult to prove that one’s actions, even those made in jest, are not more evidence of an ill state of mind. The movie is an entertaining one for its gags but not one that conveys any strong romantic feeling.

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