Sunday, October 27, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Idiot's Delight (1939) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer star in IDIOT'S DELIGHT (1939), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

This filming of Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 play was the third and last of three movies in which Gable and Shearer costarred. Their first film together was A FREE SOUL (1931), with Gable in a supporting role, followed by STRANGE INTERLUDE (1932).

In IDIOT'S DELIGHT Gable plays Harry Van, a song-and-dance man who after service in World War I spends many years earning a hardscrabble living in the lower rungs of the entertainment business. Harry's current gig is a little more plush, touring Europe and performing with half a dozen lovely chorines (who include Virginia Grey, Paula Stone, and Virginia Dale).

Harry and the girls are forced to leave their train and head for a hotel when borders are closed due to the pending war. Among the other hotel guests is an obviously phony "Russian countess" (Shearer) Harry believes he recognizes from a short-lived fling during a Midwest engagement many years before...

I was prepared to like this film, given the lead actors, and was surprised to find the movie is an endless gabfest. It was the rare film where coincidentally I looked at the clock exactly 47 minutes in and was amazed to realize the movie still had an entire hour to go. Robert Sherwood's script, based on his play, is way too dull and talky. If actors like Gable, Shearer, Edward Arnold, and Charles Coburn can't breathe life into a film there's a problem.

The highlight, amidst the talk-talk-talking in the hotel, is Gable and his chorus performing "Puttin' on the Ritz" for their fellow hotel guests. I first saw an excerpt from this number in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974) as a child and consequently have seen that one sequence many times since. It's the liveliest moment in the movie, and Gable acquits himself surprisingly well as a good-natured song-and-dance man.

Otherwise, much of the movie consists of Gable staring at Shearer while his character tries to figure out if she's actually the American woman he remembers from his past. She frankly becomes tiresome in short order, prancing about with her phony accent and wig.

There's considerable talk about war, with a munitions manufacturer (Arnold) and a pacifist (the always-annoying Burgess Meredith) both staying at the hotel and military planes stationed next door. The movie was such a yawner that the more profound implications of their discussions scarcely registered, but I did find it interesting that Arnold's munitions maker was cast as a villain, rather than, say...Hitler.

In fact, it was also interesting that the film seemed to have a more isolationist "We don't want to relive WWI" attitude than other films made in the year or two before the U.S. entrance into the war, such as (among others) CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939) or THE MAN I MARRIED (1940). The movie skates around discussions of actual countries and current issues addressed by those films, in favor of a "War is bad" message, without recognizing that sometimes it's also necessary.

The movie comes to an end as bombs fall while Gable and Shearer gather 'round the piano, one of two endings shot; there was a different ending for European markets. Although meant to be profound, this concluding scene lacks the weight of the "bombs falling" ending of the following year's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940). To the contrary, the ending of IDIOT'S DELIGHT comes off as a very strange moment.

IDIOT'S DELIGHT was directed by Clarence Brown and filmed in black and white by William Daniels. The movie was made with the usual MGM gloss, including gowns by Adrian.

The cast also includes Joseph Schildkraut, Pat Paterson (who was Mrs. Charles Boyer), Fritz Feld, Peter Willes, and Laura Hope Crews.

A side note: A bright spot for me was discovering Paula Stone among the chorines. She was the leading lady of the very first Hopalong Cassidy movie, HOP-A-LONG CASSIDY (1935), which I recently saw at the Lone Pine Film Festival. I'll have an article on that film featured at Classic Movie Hub in the near future. Stone was also in a couple Dick Foran Westerns, including TRAILIN' WEST (1936). Stone is seen in this photo just to the right of Gable, with Gable's longtime '40s flame Virginia Grey at the far right.

The Warner Archive DVD is an older print with the Turner logo at the beginning, but I thought it was fine, without major flaws and with good sound. The disc includes the trailer.

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 from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger barrylane said...

Just keep glued to Gable and it becomes a religious experience.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Gable was definitely the best thing about the movie. He is so good, even in a film I found unusually odd. Such a charismatic performer!

This may be one I'll return to in a few years and see if it hits me any differently!

Best wishes,

7:10 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I watched it a while ago and had the same reaction as you. And that wig! Many people have complained about Stanwyck's wig in Double Indemnity. I never had a problem with it. But Shearer's wig is positively awful. Completely distracting.

7:28 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

It is aa cinematic miscalculation . Shearer played the part, wig included, as Lynn Fontanne had done in New York on stage. On the other hand, we have seen her in the Omaha sequence. So...the point is clear, she is a phony, and the emissary from beyond has some trouble working it out. But, he does.

8:47 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Oh, and this piece of film is fantasy, whereas the Stanwyck performance is centered on the grittiest and lowest class of reality. She is not tempting. I would not swat a fly for her.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I know she's phony. They could still have used a wig on her that is not so awfully weird.

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Glen said...

Many thanks again, Laura, for saving me some of my hard earned dough by skipping this one. I have to admit that MGM is my least favorite studio of the Golden Age, so stuff like this Mayer spoon fed pablum is usually an easy pass, but both Gable and Shearer are draws at times, even for me. Your honest assessments are so welcome and useful, I can only encourage you to keep on sharing them. In reading some of your other writing I can kinda sorta conclude that we have very different perspectives on the world, but when it comes to film, your ideas and ideals are very synced with mine. What else matters? Hahaha. You've also saved me quite a bit from what would have turned out to be some seriously misguided blind buys, which pre-screenings on TCM have further bore out. In Laura we trust! ---Glen

10:07 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Glen, thank you so much for the uplifting feedback, it made my day. (And isn't it great that movies are such a unifying force in these difficult times?) I love sharing my thoughts here and am delighted to know they have been of real benefit to you as you make decisions on expanding your film library.

Best wishes,

2:08 PM  

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