Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Boom Town (1940)

Director: Jack Conway

The mid nineteenth century was known for its gold rushes, but with the industrial revolution at the end of that century oil became the get-rich-quick empire in various parts of America. MGM’s 1940 production Boom Town tells a story about two such wildcatters, a slang for men in search of new oil reserves to tap into, starring Clark Gable fresh off the colossal smash that defined his carrier and Spencer Tracy. It is an American adventure tale that would go on to become the highest grossing picture of 1940.

Boom Town is an adventure film of two men and their continuing pursuit of striking it rich and then losing everything in the business of oil in America. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy star as “Big John” McMasters and “Square John” Sand, two oil men determined to make the next big oil strike. Ruggedly independent individuals, the two team up and strike it rich thanks to Square John’s ideas and Big John’s savvy to get what he needs to perform a job. Their working relationship is complicated when McMaster’s happens to marry Besty (Claudette Colbert), the woman who Sand greatly admired for before the two met. The two professionally separate when Sand disagrees with McMaster’s being seen with loose women while being married to Betsy. Separately the two men both have successes and failures.

Friends yet enemies.
McMasters and Sand reconcile as Sand goes to works for the McMasters, now an oil tycoon in New York, but Sand again believes his friend of having an affair with his beautiful business informant Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr), a woman who uses her charms to gain information in the oil industry from other oil men. Betsy becomes deeply depressed from that her husband’s supposed affair, and Sand feels he has to stand up for her. Sand loses a costly battle with McMasters, but McMasters loses everything to being prosecuted by the government for a monopoly. Poor once again McMasters comes to his senses and the three realize they all need each other. The film ends with them starting over as they once again look to strike oil big as they always had.

The picture is quick paced with good acting as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy prove to be two of the more charismatic actors of the day. With its tale of multiple booms and busts the time period of the overall story is smudged a bit as what would take several years seems to happen in a rather short period of time, a seemingly annoying flaw of the picture. With all technicalities aside the movie tells a story of two men who become business partners and friends and the one woman that binds them together. The adventure of the business takes hold of the primary first two thirds of the feature and the complications with the marriage and quarreling being the third act. The relationship issues with the added seductive element of Hedy Lamarr in the third act proves to be a bit weaker than the story simply about the two men and determination of striking it rich, but that good acting and great production value helps to mask its weaker parts making the picture a very enjoyable feature.

Gable and Colbert.
This was the third teaming of Gable and Tracy after their appearances in San Francisco (1936) and Test Pilot (1938). In all three features MGM utilized Gable as the shining star and Tracy usually as the straight-laced friend; the quiet, yet unrecognized hero. Gable had reached the height of his star power with Gone with the Wind in 1939 and MGM continued to capitalize on his status, While Tracy, a big star in his own right appeared to get a lesser star in the pictures. Tracy had won two consecutive Academy Awards for his recent performances, but was still second billing to Gable as MGM knew Gable was their money maker. The studio added to Boom Town’s bankability with adding fellow Academy Award winning co-star from It Happened One Night Claudette Colbert to again play his love interest in a role originally written for the talented Myrna Loy.

Major billing would go to Hedy Lamarr despite her short time on screen.
The talent in acting did not stop with the three main stars as Frank Morgan, best known as the title character in The Wizard of Oz, plays a comedic financial partner in the McMaster/Sand business who McMaster always seems to get the best of. MGM placed Hedy Lemarr on the marquee, sharing space with Claudette Colbert even though she only appears a rather few about of times in the third act of the picture compared to Colbert’s overall presence in the feature. The Hungarian beauty was being pushed as a star for MGM and here is almost purely used as eye candy as a temptress for Gable’s character. Lamarr’s performance has very little resolve in the overall scope of the picture.

On set Gable was very excited about the production as he had spent a time as a teenager working as an oil driller with his father and shared sentimentality with the subject of oil well work. In a way he served as a technical consultant as he brought his knowledge of the work with him to the production.

Publicity photo of the film's cast
 Tracy with all his recent success as a leading man was becoming bothered that the studio would make him second billing to his co-star and friend, Clark Gable. Fellow actors noted how stern, almost angry, yet completely professional Tracy was on set and this might be because of how he felt MGM was treating him as a second rate star despite his recent critical achievements. After finishing the feature Tracey demanded a change in his contract with MGM to something similar to Gable’s where his name would receive top billing in all his pictures. This change in his contract ultimately would make the film that last pairing of these two great stars as MGM did not want disputes between its leading men.

The feature itself makes for a magnificent special effects picture in a scene where the stars battle an oil well on fire. Director Jack Conway captures a raging fire with power and force unlike any films ever have. It might even be able to rival contemporary films with its own practical effects. What makes these images breathtaking is that it is real fire, not miniature, superimposed, or double exposure special effects, but actual large unforgiving flames that engulf the frames in a scene that manifests how fragile the oil fields can be. The cinematography and special effects would gain the film two Academy Award nominations for its work.

Boon Town would become the greatest box office draw of films released in 1940, only coming in second to the overlapping run of 1939’s Gone With the Wind, Gable’s other film. Critics praised the picture with it being named one of the top films of the year. All said, the feature is a very fine Clark Gable picture with a strong core of stars that only MGM seemed to supply during this period. It is a movie that starts strong and goes into a lull near the end, but overall makes for a fine motion picture. Heightening the interest in viewing this picture is knowing that Clark Gable was engrossed in the subject matter of oil drilling and it shows in his performance in his own special way.

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