Monday, March 24, 2014

Test Pilot (1938)

Director: Victor Fleming

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 dangerous situations.

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.

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