Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oil Boom

No, it's not another review of There Will Be Blood, I promise. But after being submerged in that film's crude oil depths, I had a hankering for a different era's take on the oil business that causes such trouble today. Here's a glimpse at a 1940 old-time Hollywood spectacular.

Boom Town (d. Jack Conway)

A little historical perspective first.

In 1940, no one was bigger in the movies than Clark Gable. He was the King, a scant year removed from starring in the biggest blockbuster of all time (to this day, if you adjust for inflation), Gone With the Wind and only a few years out from his Oscar winning performance in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. He was all but untouchable.

If there was any actor who commanded more respect than Gable, it was Spencer Tracy who, in 1940 was still basking in the glow of back-to-back Oscar wins in 1937 and '38 and was generally acknowledged as the best film actor of his generation. Even Gable admitted as much.

They had appeared in films together before, most notably in 1936's San Francisco, but with Tracy ascendant and Gable having hit his peak the year before, in 1940's Boom Town, they were on more or less equal footing.

That semi-equality reflects in the Boom Town script. Gable is "Big John" McMasters, a brawling wildcatter oilman in the early twentieth century, while Tracy plays "Square John" Sand, a brawling wildcatter oilman in the early twentieth century. They meet crossing in opposite directions across a narrow wooden plank suspended over a road hip deep with mud. It conjures the confrontation between Dr. Seuss's North-Going and South-Going Zax and one can only speculate that something similar happened off screen with the two actors.

After the inevitable fist-fighting encounter, the two strike up a partnership; Tracy knows a prime drilling location and Gable knows how to get the equipment needed to exploit it. After punching a few dry holes in the ground, the pair hit black gold, Texas Tea and are rolling in cash. These early scenes are the film's most engaging as Gable and Tracy, with their contrasting styles and outsized personalities, team up and butt heads with classic Old Hollywood flair.

Tracy's beloved Libby, played by Gable's costar and fellow Oscar winner from It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert, arrives on the scene and causes trouble between the two partners by falling for Gable (Women!). And it's here that the movie bogs down into a predictable series of scenes where the two men's fortunes alternately fall and rise; as Gable succeeds, Tracy finds himself in hard times. One reel later, it's vice versa.

Rounding out the cast rather curvaceously is Hedy (not Hedly!) Lamarr in one of her earliest roles. She's a conniving siren who sets her sights on whichever of the two Johns Libby isn't with at the time, usually Tracy.

This isn't a film about the oil business, but instead it's a film that uses the oil business as a backdrop for the soap-operatic goings-on between the principals. No great pronouncements about capitalism or the destruction of planetary resources here, other than to say it's all swell!

Boom Town can't help but seem a little turgid and overwrought to modern eyes, but the leads are strong and the story moves along at a rapid clip. A lesser effort for these movie titans, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

3 stars.

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