Judge Jesse Ataide finds large ears strangely attractive.
Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romance, published March 24th, 2010, is also available.
"Hollywood's king still reigns"
As long as people watch movies, the name "Clark Gable" will be remembered, if only for one single role: Rhett Butler, the irresistible womanizer who woos, weds and subsequently ditches Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. So the question is, outside of uttering the immortal "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," did Clark Gable star in anything else of note?
The answer, of course, is yes. Which brings up another question: are any of the films contained within The Clark Gable Collection worth watching? Well… that's a much more difficult question to answer.
Facts of the Case
The Clark Gable Collection includes five films that span Gable's entire career, from the early years as an eager, charismatic young matinee idol-in-training (Dancing Lady) to an aging screen legend in the twilight of his career (Mogambo). As is to be expected, quality varies.
First, the merit of the individual films, in chronological order:
A tired, B-movie plot keeps Dancing Lady (1933) from even catching a side glance at greatness, but there's still something spare and sleek and sexual about it that I found massively appealing. As a big Broadway producer and aspiring showgirl respectively, Gable and Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) are neither very believable nor very good, but they're both sexy as hell and generate some real onscreen heat. The biggest misstep arrives near the end when the film abruptly transitions from a breezy backstage romance to an obvious attempt to outdo Busby Berkeley; not only do the massive musical numbers seem out of place, but the streamlined quality of the rest of the film make them seem all the more kitschy, and even downright tacky. Not helping is the screech-to-an-unexpected-halt resolution of the film's convoluted love triangle with Franchot Tone (the original Mutiny on the Bounty). But it's impossible to deny there's something to it—it's a lot of fun, with attitude to spare.
Watching a film like China Seas (1935), I catch a brief glimmer of what makes studio era-nostalgists so rabid—this is the type of film which doesn't, and can't, have an equivalent in contemporary filmmaking. A film that was made possible only because the studio system could support a formula like this (unless your name happens to be Steven Soderbergh), which is basically taking a number of huge stars and throwing them into a beside-the-point plot, allowing their larger-than-life personalities to spark and snap when they come into contact with each other. And spark and snap they do, particularly that great blonde fire-cracker Jean Harlow (Dinner at Eight), who never throttles back her overpowering sexuality, instead swathing herself in it like a fur coat or brandishing it like a weapon (the normally larger-than-life Rosalind Russell, on the other hand, is forced into a role that is lamentably dishwater dull). I winced more than once during a scene where we're supposed to find the crushing of Asian natives by large objects during a furious storm exhilarating movie magic, but overall China Seas is mindless entertainment. It's certainly not art, but certainly great, great fun.
A friend commented that Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) is the type of film you wouldn't buy by itself, but which is fine when thrown into a box set. Except for sheer star wattage (Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy and a young Jimmy Stewart) it's a lightweight film in every way, but it's rather innocuous, and all the more likable because it doesn't try to be anything else. The plot is terribly boring, revolving around a charismatic magazine publisher (Gable) who adores his wife (Myra Loy, The Thin Man) but refuses to part with his beautiful secretary (Harlow), and the inevitable, completely expected complications that arise from the situation. It's always amazing to me how filmmakers in the studio era were able to construct entire films dealing with adultery by using mere innuendo, but at the same time it renders a film that should be all about sex entirely sexless, deflating any potential sexual suspense the film might—and should—have. As compensation, there are some beautifully realized scenes that appear out of nowhere (the big "showdown" between Harlow and Loy, and a subsequent wordless exchange between the two), which make it seem all the more important to treasure such unexpected moments. Overall, Wife Vs. Secretary is not that good, but not particularly bad either, it's just forgettable—and would have been completely forgotten long ago without major stars to keep it on the fringes of the general cinematic consciousness.
It has to be said: San Francisco (1936), most likely the most well-known film in this collection, is pretty dreadful stuff. And I'll be the first to admit that my first introduction to this film was Judy Garland's parody of Jeanette MacDonald during her legendary Carnegie Hall performance, and I was never quite able to quite shake of that initial impression that this film is more focused on MacDonald's (endless) musical performances than the actual 1906 tragedy that killed several thousand people. Of course it's common to frame a historical story disaster with fictional characters (think James Cameron's Titanic), but it seems pretty essential to this formula to make the characters compelling, and draw us into the tragedy to help understand pain and suffering inflicted on those involved. That never happens here—one just keeps waiting for the earthquake to finally hit, if only to silence MacDonald's warble or to force the priest Spencer Tracy plays to admit his sexual attraction to her (because it seems pretty obvious there's more going on than Christian charity), or God…something. The parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah are slathered on pretty thickly, so that by the end of the film one gets the impression that the city's great tragedy actually ended up becoming its ultimate salvation—certainly a troubling message. By the time the Christian hymn "The Truth is Marching On" crescendos into the main theme of "San Francisco" I was pretty convinced this was one of the more bizarre films I've come across in quite a while, and not necessary in a good way.
Another confession: approaching this set, Boom Town (1940) was the title I was least looking forward to, as I have a particular aversion to "real men taming the wilderness" type of films. But it quickly becomes apparent that this Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy vehicle is much more sudsy than gritty—a massive soap opera, when it comes down to it. Along for the ride is Claudette Colbert (Gable's costar from It Happened One Night) as the woman Tracy loves but Gable gets to marry, and like San Francisco several years before, a tangled love triangle is created, only this time around there's more than a hint of homoeroticism thrown in for good measure. About halfway through the film the spectacular and spectacularly awkward Hedy Lamarr (Samson and Delilah) floats in seemingly out of nowhere with her [I]haute couture[/I] Adrian gowns and "exotic" Germanic accent, and she appears to be acting in another film entirely, always observing her fellow actors with a detached amusement (I'd say she's the best thing in the film, quite honestly). Basically, this an early take on the type of material that would eventually spawn the massive, decadent Giant—only unlike that film, Boom Town mercifully opts not to drone on endlessly, overstaying its welcome. It's surprisingly good.
In Mogambo (1953), Clark Gable takes a second shot at a role he made famous nearly two decades before, and he still manages to be outdone by the ladies in this African safari adventure. Reprising his character from the 1932 film Red Dust (which I have not seen), Gable is paired with fiery Ava Gardner (The Killers) and icy Grace Kelly (Rear Window, and sparks fly as the two women battle for Gable's affections. This sets up the film's interesting dynamic—one wonders why exactly two of the most gorgeous women in film history are fighting over this tired if endearing old codger—but one gets the vague impression that director John Ford is somehow attempting to use the myth of "Clark Gable as romantic idol" as a substitute for the grand mythology of the American West, his usual crutch. But what makes the film enjoyable is the unabashed melodrama, and the film amiably skips along whenever it is exploring the sexual politics of the human animal, while it drags along dully whenever it shifts its focus to the searched-for big-game animals (Ford begins to rely too heavily on awkwardly edited nature footage for the film's supposedly suspenseful sequences). Still, as one who makes it a point of avoiding Ford's westerns, I was able to not only get through Mogambo, but get a kick out of it—and as a result, I'll chalk it up as a (mild) success.
Now, onto technical matters.
Dancing Lady sports a rather nice black and white image, with the expected flickering and blemishes in both the image and audio that one would expect from a film made over seven decades ago. China Seas is not quite on the same level, with scratches and other flaws constantly appearing (it's not overly noticeable, however); about the same could be said about the transfers for San Francisco and Mogambo, the only Technicolor film included in this set.
Unfortunately, the transfer for Wife Vs. Secretary is really grainy, dark and occasionally blurry, and it subsequently takes the "worst in show" prize of this set (though once again, it's not bad enough to be more than occasionally distracting). Boom Town, however, deserves special mention because the transfer is uniformly excellent, and any objections I could say about its technical qualities would be unnecessary nitpicking. It truly upholds the high reputation of most recent Warner Bros. DVD output.
For this many films, the extras are surprisingly scant. Each DVD contains a theatrical trailer for the film it contains, but San Francisco is the only disc that contains any substantial extras, including a minute-long alternate-ending sequence for the film (though the only real difference between it and the one featured in the film is several additional shots of circa 1930 San Francisco) and the documentary Clark Gable: Tall, Dark & Handsome.
With the exception of Mogambo all discs contain what the Warner Bros. has taken to calling "vintage shorts," which sometimes, but not always, have a connection to the main film. I won't beat around the bush: I find these "extras" largely superfluous, and more often than not unwatchable (a good example of this is the Cherry Blossom Time in Japan found on the China Seas disc). That said, there must be people out there that enjoy and appreciate the inclusion of these shorts that would otherwise remain impossible to get a hold of, and to them I say one thing: enjoy. The only ones that might be of interest to most other people would likely be the two shorts found on the Dancing Lady disc which contain early appearances by the trio that would later become known as "he Three Stooges" and the Oscar-winning The Public Pays found along with Wife Vs. Secretary. Otherwise, I think the colorful and luscious vintage poster art used for the covers of these discs are the most desirable, if inadvertent, "extras" found in this set.
So would money spent for The Clark Gable Collection be justified? The answer is a resounding maybe. Not one film contained in this set comes close to showcasing Gable at his best, but there are minor treasures to be found in abundance. And if anything, we can be thankful that the Gable/Norma Shearer pairing Idiot's Delight, surely one of the most abysmal films ever to be extended the title "classic," is nowhere to be seen.
Frankly my dear, I do give a damn.
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Scales of Justice, Dancing Lady
Perp Profile, Dancing Lady
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dancing Lady
• Musical Shorts: "Planet Nut" and "Roast Beef & Movies"
Scales of Justice, China Seas
Perp Profile, China Seas
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, China Seas
• Vintage short: "Cherry Blossom Time in Japan"
Scales of Justice, San Francisco
Perp Profile, San Francisco
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, San Francisco
• Alternate Ending Sequence
Scales of Justice, Wife Vs. Secretary
Perp Profile, Wife Vs. Secretary
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Wife Vs. Secretary
• Vintage musical short: "New Shoes"
Scales of Justice, Boom Town
Perp Profile, Boom Town
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Boom Town
• Vintage musical short: "Hollywood Hobbies"
Scales of Justice, Mogambo
Perp Profile, Mogambo
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Mogambo
• Theatrical Trailer
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