Thursday, August 20, 2015

Making an Escape to 'Boom Town'

"Now, how can a guy be breaking the law when he's trying to save the resources of this country? He didn't know that he was doin' anything that you might call conservation, but bein' one of the best oilmen there is, he's got the right hunch about oil. He knows it took billions of years to put it there, and takin' it out at the rate we're goin', there won't be any oil left in the good U.S.A."

Square John (Spencer Tracy)

Interesting thing about the movies — well, actually, this particular stream of consciousness began when I was watching a movie from 1939, which is often regarded as the greatest year in the history of the movies, and it re–emerges from time to time, usually when I am writing about one of the movies of the '30s or '40s.

As I am today.

It was 75 years ago today that "Boom Town" an adventure about some oil wildcatters (Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy), made its debut. It wasn't the best movie ever made, but it was enjoyable enough, and it featured four of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time — Gable, Tracy, Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr. (Frank Morgan, who may be best remembered for his part in "The Wizard of Oz," made it five names.)

And that is where my stream of consciousness comes in.

The movies of the '30s and '40s were almost entirely about escapism. In the '30s, nearly all the movies that dealt with the economic realities of the Great Depression were presented in such a way that the protagonist(s) rose above the circumstances and found success anyway. In other words, those movies encouraged hope. There were a few — like "The Grapes of Wrath" — that told it like it was and pulled few, if any, punches. But, mostly, the movies of that day were about other times, other places, other people. They were adaptations of great works of literature, Day–to–day life in the Depression was bad enough — for awhile, about a quarter of America's adult population was out of work — and money was precious enough that people would seldom pay to sit in a theater and watch other people struggling as they did.

They couldn't afford to go anywhere, so they went to the movies for a couple of hours — to escape. My grandmother once told me that the movie stars of that time were more than movie stars. They were like friends. People had their favorite stars, and they went to see every movie they made. Then as now, studios were interested in pairings that were profitable; what could be more profitable than bringing together four popular stars?

A few modern movie stars inspire that kind of loyalty — but not many. Maybe they are overruled by the prices that are charged for movie tickets these days.

"Boom Town" reunited the stars of "It Happened One Night," the unexpected hit of 1934 — Gable and Colbert. Their partnership didn't have the same sizzle that it had six years earlier, but it must have been great for fans of Gable and Colbert to see them together again — even if it was in an inferior movie. Turned out, it was their last on–screen pairing.

If one is bound and determined to find an agenda in a movie, it probably isn't too hard with "Boom Town." Its message of unfettered capitalism does seem obvious — it may have seemed just as obvious to audiences three–quarters of a century ago — and it also extols the virtues of entrepreneurship.

The story was far from perfect, but it made up for it in sheer star power. Well, unless you were a fan of Spencer Tracy. Seemed he was always getting the short end of the stick from Gable — mostly in matters of the heart.

Both named John, Gable's character was called "Big John" and Tracy's was called "Square John." For starters, Big John stole Square John's girl (Colbert). Then, when Square John discovered that Big John had been having an affair (with Lamarr), he offered to marry the mistress in order to save Big John's marriage.

But in matters of the head, my memory is that Square John always came out on top. They both had their times of booms and busts, but my impression, by the time the movie ended, was that Tracy's character had enjoyed more economic success.

Tracy, I have heard, was fond of Gable, but "Boom Town" was the third — and last — movie they made together. It was a capsule of all the things that Tracy didn't like about working with Gable. He didn't like taking second billing to Gable in movie credits, and he didn't like being Gable's "eunuch."

"Boom Town" was nominated for two Oscars — Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Special Effects.