Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Warner Archive Grab Bag: TEST PILOT ""

Monday, June 2, 2014

Warner Archive Grab Bag: TEST PILOT

TEST PILOT (1938; Victor Fleming)
When a hot shot test pilot Jim Lane (Clark Gable) is forced to set down in a field on a farm in Kansas (20 miles from Wichita) he ends up falling for an educated farm girl that lives there. When his stalwart sidekick/mechanic (Spencer Tracy) shows up, he's determined to get Jim's head out of the flowery flirtation space and back up in the clouds. There's a lot more to this story but that gives you a general setup.
Victor Fleming is one of those director's that I used to underrate (or more to the point, practically ignore). I mean I of course knew him by reputation from THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND, but had never delved deeply into his films for whatever reason. I remember a series called American Cinema that was done for PBS in the 1990s I believe and there was one episode on the "Movie Brats". I watched it countless times and always loved the part where the directors wen through some of their favorite directors. Scorsese, De Palma, Schrader, Milius, Lucas and Spielberg all had interesting answers to that question. Spielberg's picks leaned heavily towards the classic Hollywood era and it always stood out to me that he mentioned both Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming. I figured he just included them for their iconic works, but once I began to explore both of their filmographies, more evidence of their respective greatness began to emerge. In the case of Fleming, two films in particular caught my attention in a big way: TEST PILOT and CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS. Interestingly enough, both movies starred Spencer Tracy who was an actor I had never been the world's biggest fan of. Don't get me wrong, I love him as an actor, but I found that I wasn't always drawn to the type of material he chose. He really won me over with CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS because he plays a guy with what could be seen as an annoying stereotypical accent (which he totally makes his own by the the end). TEST PILOT was another story but certainly a great performance by Tracy. He and Clark Gabel were a total dynamic duo and Myrna Loy was vibrant as ever. I think one of the things I love about TEST PILOT is that it kinda reminds me of a Howard Hawks movie that Hawks didn't make. Hawks did several films about daring pilots (DAWN PATROL, CEILING ZERO and the quintessential ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS to name a few) and this film seems laced with his own sense of "professionalism" and other qualities. There's even a "Who's Joe?" kind of moment that is very much like that same scene in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (and is preceded by a group of pilots singing a song about having "the wings of an angel"). I'm pretty sure that some of my affection for this film is tied to ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS for sure as it is one of my all-time favorite films. TEST PILOT is different though. It has many lighter moments and comedic scenes that give it a most endearing bottom line. Not that Hawks' films weren't littered with lighter moments themselves, but these are a little different tonally and I can't quite my finer on how to describe it. Also present here is the familiar Hawk's trope of men caring for each other in a deep and meaningful way.  At first glance it's easy to say that Spencer Tracy and Gable's character's have something of a "bromance" kind of relationship. That's kind of what I saw the first time I watched this movie. This go-round I recognized the dynamic as much more maternal from Tracy's point of view. He really is more of a mother (albeit a gruff and tough mom) to Gable here and that is a shift from what I've come to often see in films like this. Its Tracy doing what Tracy does in bringing some nuance to a performance I totally missed upon first glance. What an actor. And Gable is right in his wheelhouse playing this brash, charismatic playboy type. You can see that "star quality" coming off of him like steam in some scenes. And as for Myrna Loy, this is one of her best roles and (if rumors be truthful) her absolute favorite.

Back in 2012, I did a series here called "VHS Gems" wherein I and my contributors highlighted some of our favorite films that had yet to get a release on DVD. The first Warner Archive title from my list to arrive on DVD was RED DUST which pleased me greatly. TEST PILOT is another from that list and I couldn't be happier that it is finally out.

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