This blog is a study of major motion pictures from its humble beginning forward. Studying and viewing many of the most influencial feature films in chronological order that journey attempts to study each subject with a sense of historical perspective on the medium, its creators, major players, and the audiences it has impacted, understanding that with time each work evolves in the minds of the general public and history as a whole.
It had been a just about a decade since Hollywood had
experienced the aviation motion picture spectacles of Wings (1927, the 1st Oscar winner for Best Picture) and
Howard Hughes' epic Hell’s Angels
(1930). MGM in 1938 produces a film that can ride along in similar quality of
filmmaking as Clark Gable flies to new heights in the aviation drama Test Pilot, co-starring Spencer Tracy
and Myrna Loy. Known for their large productions, MGM brings in the United
States Army Air Corp. to help in bringing the authentic tragedy that goes into
the still young aviation industry. In this picture director Victor Fleming
brings all the excitement and disaster that goes into the world of being the men
that have to the first at a very dangerous occupation.
Test Pilot is
romantic drama of a brash and cocky test aviator whose ever-present willingness
to throw himself into his dangerous profession causes grief for both his wife
and best friend. Jim Lane (Clark Gable) is one of the industry’s finest and
most reckless test pilots meets and falls in love with Ann “Thursday” Barton
(Myrna Loy) after a forced landing in Kansas on an attempted record making
bi-coastal flight. The two marry and she begins to understand more the industry
can do to people surrounding it. Jim’s best friend and mechanic Gunner (Spencer
Tracy) has already been jaded by Jim’s thoughtlessness towards the emotional
stress he puts others close to him through every time he puts himself in these
Ann slowly learns the same feelings Gunner has. Jim copes
with his emotions with lengthy, expensive benders that can span many cities and
states, while Gunner keeps his emotions in quiet check. Ann tries to be a good
wife by supporting her husband despite hating that anguish she experiences
every time Jim takes to the air knowing it could be his last. Jim attempts to
become a good husband, but is brought in for one final test mission with a
large bomber. Attempting to reach a target altitude the bomber with Gunner as
his co-pilot, the craft begins to fail and crashes, claiming the life of
Gunner. It is this moment that makes Jim realize that he cannot put this stress
on Ann and quits the test piloting.
In the 1930s aviation was still very young and going through
major growing pains. Hero pilots such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart
were very popular figures performing greater and greater feats seemingly every
day as aviation technology improved which each new aircraft built. Test Pilot attempts to grasp this
fascination that captured a part of the population’s imaginations. Starring
three of the studio’s best known names in Gable, Loy, and Tracy this picture
was a attempt to produce a lavish production that would be as big as the sky
allowed them. Army Air Force personnel were brought in to consult and fly many
of the air sequences, which the film opens up thanking, adding to the mystique
of the industry.
Apart from the technicalities of the capturing actual plane flights
for the sequences in the air the film is a fine drama that mixes in some humor
and romance while turning its best focus on the emotional stress of the loved
ones attempting to support Jim while they fear every moment he is in the air.
Directed by perhaps the best filmmaker for MGM at the time, Victor Fleming,
this picture performs a very fine job of balancing the action with the drama
sure to appease both male and female audiences, when such a film could favor
one over the other.
Gable, Loy, and Spencer. Three of MGM's finest.
The film’s cast was would be small, but well known. Clark
Gable is one of, if not the, top leading man of the studio. His name was
synonymous with masculinity in the world of motion pictures at this time. He
was an Oscar winner and a name that graced many of the biggest pictures of the
last few years. Myrna Loy had been a well known leading lady since her rise in
the Thin Man pictures. Her beauty and charm helped to make her a
great female star. Spencer Tracy, a fellow Oscar award winner, would be in the
middle of his finest year to date in his career. In this supporting role his
quiet rage, emotion, and strength help make him a memorable character, which
aided in his rises to becoming a great leading man himself. Supporting these
three stars in the prodigious Lionel Barrymore as a aircraft designer of many
of the planes Jim flies. Here we can observe the unspoken failing health of
Barrymore who is clearly in need of a cane to aid him while moving around, but
is mostly confined to not roaming much at all. His sharp mind and grandfatherly
execution still makes him a fine actor for his role.
The picture was a rather modern film. Unlike most aviation
sequences, in their sporadic usage in other movie, here the planes and pilots
where hired and used just for the sake of this picture. Up to this point most
of the time stock footage might have been used when planes were needed, or
sequences were prepared on the fly (pardon the pun) as cinematography was
rather poor and stagnate. Rather here Paul Mantz, a test pilot by trade and
stunt pilot for films, was used to choreography and film the flying sequences
for the picture. Using a pilot’s mind and vision aided in the higher quality of
the feature’s action.
The picture would be successful feature in overall
enjoyment. It was a modest financial success and received generally positive
reviews from critics and audiences alike, but did not attract the big movie
sock that the big studio MGM would have liked. Nevertheless the film made a
promising profit of about $1 million. The Academy Awards had the film up for
three award, most notably best editing and best picture, but would not come
home with any awards.
Test Pilot is an
enjoyable film for most movie fans and can be held as a wonderful capsule for
capturing an era of aviation in the days leading towards World War II, when airplanes
and their records were exciting for the public. It was another notch for MGM as
one of the better made pictures of the time as they were clearly the finest
studio in town. The drama of the film can surely be understood by any that have
loved ones in a very dangerous occupation, making this a rather fine picture
emotionally and cinematically.