Three of MGM's greatest stars shine brightly in TEST PILOT (1938), just released on DVD by the Warner Archive.
TEST PILOT is one of those movies you don't watch so much for the story -- though it's quite serviceable enough -- as for the lead actors, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. Together they define movie stardom, mesmerizing the audience from start to finish of this 119-minute film. This long-desired DVD release was worth the wait.
Gable plays Jim Lane, a test pilot who lands on Loy's farm near Wichita when his plane breaks down. Ann (Loy) punctures Jim's impatient pomposity with her goofy sense of humor, and he's immediately smitten. Before either Jim or Ann know what's hit them, they're married.
Jim's mechanic Gunner (Tracy), who's always known Jim as a ladies' man, is dubious of the marriage but he's quickly won over by Ann's loyalty and bravery in the face of Jim's dangerous profession. The marriage is constantly tested, as is Jim and Gunner's friendship, but Ann and Gunner love Jim too much to give up on him, even though they fear that at some point they will suffer through his early death in a crash.
All three actors are marvelous, with the quietly observant Tracy the perfect counterpoint to Gable's bark and bluster. Although both men's eyes shine with tears at various points in the film, their most memorable moment might be when Ann sends them to buy her a nightgown. Gable's discomfiture and Tracy's underplayed amusement provide the film with some much-needed hilarity.
As for Loy, she's simply magical. Her light touch keeps what could have been a leaden story floating along. She makes it one hundred percent believable that a man as preoccupied with flying as Gable is would marry her on 24 hours' acquaintance.
The film reunited Gable and Tracy, who had previously costarred in the classic SAN FRANCISCO (1936), which, like TEST PILOT, was nominated for Best Picture. Two years later they would appear together in one more film, BOOM TOWN (1940).
Gable and Loy had worked together even more frequently, with their joint credits including MEN IN WHITE (1934), MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934), WIFE VS. SECRETARY (1936), and PARNELL (1937). Later that year they also starred in TOO HOT TO HANDLE (1938).
Gable has a couple of very good scenes with Marjorie Main, who plays his landlady. The cast also includes Lionel Barrymore, Samuel S. Hinds, Ted Pearson, Claudia Coleman, and Arthur Aylesworth.
Virginia Grey and Priscilla Lawson appear as Gable's lady friends in an early sequence. Grey would later have a romance with Clark Gable after the death of his wife Carole Lombard, and Hollywood legend has it that Grey was heartbroken that Gable didn't propose marriage. She never married.
TEST PILOT was directed by Victor Fleming and filmed in black and white by Ray June. The musical score was by Franz Waxman. The script was based on an Oscar-nominated story by Frank "Spig" Wead.
For background on this film and additional thoughts on the star power of its trio of lead actors, visit Cliff's review at Immortal Ephemera.
The Warner Archive DVD also includes the trailer.
Anyone who loves Gable, Tracy, or Loy will also love TEST PILOT, and hopefully the new DVD release of this film will also win them many new fans. Recommended.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.