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Sunday, September 21, 2014

TEST PILOT (1938)

The title & poster of this Victor Fleming production tell all: Clark Gable as cock-of-the-walk test pilot with nerves of steel; Spencer Tracy as best-bud mechanic; and Myrna Loy as the gal who gets between ‘em. But as things play out, the formulaic stuff is dross (Gable getting embarrassed at buying lingerie for his new bride), while the film finds considerable interest whenever it falls out of standard orbit. The first surprise is noting all the lifts Howard Hawks & Jules Furthman grabbed for ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39. (The iconic refusal of fellow flyers to even acknowledge the name of a just fallen comrade is just the biggest 'borrowed' shocker.) Many of the similarities surely stem from Frank Wead who wrote this original story as well as Hawks’ own earlier aviation centered CEILING ZERO/’36. But who was the source for character development that finds Gable with a hard-on for danger in the sky and Tracy nursing a (suppressed) hard-on for Gable on land? (Spence blows kisses at Clark and leaves a tag of gum on the plane for luck; Gable tussles Tracy’s hair & even gives his head a smacker.) Loy, in an enchanting perf, knows her place, masochistic to point of hoping Gable will someday slap her, just as he slaps ‘the lady of death’ in the air. (You need Gable’s star charisma to get away with the sort of self-centered shit behavior he’s defined by here.) In a Hawks pic, the sexual tension, what he called the ‘love story between two men,’ would be buried in sub-textual glowers, with actual screwing reserved for willowy gals built like adolescent boys. But Fleming was a lot more comfortable with grown up womanly women. He’s unabashedly tactile and the sexual equation is completely different. But it’s harder to spot with all that M-G-M polish adding ‘entertainment value,’ blunting the idea. But stick with it; get thru the first act for things to blossom. On the way, enjoy a fine Loy monologue where she talks herself out of marriage to a local ‘butter-and-egg’ man after she meets-cute with Gable when he pulls an emergency landing in her Kansas wheatfield. Technically, there’s more backscreen projection work in here than needed, and not only in the flying sequences. (Often a sign of re-shoots.) But a fair amount of excitement is built up with clever model work & some atypically fine editing out of M-G-M from Tom Held.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note that Fleming gets Gable to cry on screen here a year before he famously repeated the trick in GONE WITH THE WIND/’39. And check out how our French poster (see above) turns Tracy into a second Jean Gabin.

DOUBLE-BILL: No doubt ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS makes a fine pairing, but don’t overlook Douglas Sirk’s flyboy racing tale THE TARNISHED ANGELS/’57, taken from William Faulkner’s PYLON, himself a frequent Hawks collaborator.

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