top of page

What’s New in Old Movies: June 2024

by Don Stradley


Summer is here and with it comes news about books, Blu-rays, bulldogs, and more. Let’s get started with a new offering from the Warner Archive.


Idiot’s Delight (1939), which starred Clark Gable and one of M-G-M’s top leading ladies, Norma Shearer, came at a time when the fortunes of each was changing. Shearer was on the downhill side of things, while Gable was moving up the Hollywood ranks like a rocket. He was not yet signed to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, but the word in tinsel town was that he was a shoe-in.


There are many legends around Idiot’s Delight. The tales include everything from Shearer begging Louis B. Mayer to be in it with Gable, to her appearing onset sans panties, her clinging gowns leaving nil to the imagination. Then there was the supersized snit thrown by man-eater Joan Crawford, outraged that she didn’t get Shearer’s role. Gable, meanwhile, was forced to endure two weeks of dance lessons – in the film he performs a surprisingly peppy “Puttin’ On The Ritz”– which made him uncomfortable, particularly when his wife, the feisty Carole Lombard, gifted him on the first day of rehearsals with a ballet dancer’s tutu and a sequined jockstrap. Lombard also had a hand in having young Lana Turner booted from the production. Not far removed from being discovered sucking sodas at the Top Hat Café, Turner was merely an 18-year-old extra in the film. Still, Lombard sensed the youngster had big eyes for Gable. 


The film was adapted by Robert Sherwood from his Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play, all about a wisecracking vaudeville hoofer and the phony Russian countess with whom he’d had a one-night fling. On the eve of a big blast that sounds suspiciously like WWII, they find themselves stranded together in a Swiss hotel. The play was loaded with references to Mussolini and the unrest in Europe, all of which was scrubbed for the movie version. Still, M-G-M put out a considerable amount of publicity for Idiot’s Delight. It marked the third pairing of Shearer and Gable, and there was a lot of fuss over Gable’s debut as a song and dance man. News from the set included an enthusiastic bulldog biting Gable on the ass (no doubt coached by Lombard), and a line of chorines dubbed “Gable’s Glamour Girls,” hailed as “the pick of the nation’s most attractive blondes.”


Bulldogs and blondes aside, the studio pushed the film as “the most important motion picture production in a decade,” hyping its Broadway pedigree to the hilt.  There was also much attention paid to war scenes involving bomber planes, with director Clarence Brown proclaiming the scenes were constructed from “official records of the terror and devastation caused by modern aerial warfare.” If the mix of a romantic comedy with realistic war scenes sounds uneven, you’re right. The movie stalled at the box office, despite Gable’s star wattage.


Maybe it was doomed to fail. Not only was the script changed considerably from the stage version, but Gable and Shearer couldn’t compare to Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine, who had starred in Idiot’s Delight on Broadway. The San Francisco Examiner called Gable and Shearer “strutting amateurs,” with most of the bile directed at Shearer, “a stilted mannequin with two gestures and a blonde wig.” Poor Norma. She really was on the way out. The Los Angeles Times described the movie as “entertaining,” but warned that lovers of the Broadway play would be disappointed. Critics were kinder in New York, hailing Gable’s comic talent. Time magazine called Idiot’s Delight “first rate,” which was no consolation as M-G-M lost a bundle on the project.


For my money, anything with Gable is gold. You can decide for yourself if Idiot’s Delight was a misfire or not, thanks to the new Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray disc. (107 minutes. Available July 30)


 

For those wanting a little more edge in their old movies, I’ll recommend Obsession (1949, AKA The Hidden Room) a British potboiler from director Edward Dmytryk. This one is about a psychiatrist (Robert Newton) who discovers his saucy wife (Sally Gray) is having an affair. He reacts by kidnapping and murdering his wife’s lover and then dissolving the body in acid. Unfortunately for the shrink, it takes longer to dissolve a body than he’d imagined…Gruesome, I know, but that’s what I’m pitching this month: Gable dancing as the bombs drop, or a dude in an acid bath. Take your pick. 


Released in America by Eagle-Lion, Obsession was one of those quirky suspense features that played on double bills, but it was generally well received. The New York Daily News called it “a thriller of the first class,” and praised Newton for his “fascinating portrait of the temporarily crazed psychiatrist.” Based on a novel by Alec Coppel, it’s good jolly fun about a so-called “perfect crime” that goes awry.


The Obsession Blu-ray from Powerhouse Films includes the original mono audio; some yap-yap from “film historians” and various scholarly types explaining the themes of the film (that I’m sure you would recognize without their input); and a 1972 lecture featuring Dmytryk recorded at London's National Film Theatre. Dmytryk, by the way, directed a lot of fine films, including The Caine Mutiny, Crossfire, and The Carpetbaggers; he might be worth listening to, folks. There’s also an image gallery, some promotional materials, improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, plus a souvenir booklet and essay.  (96 mins. Available in the UK June 17, and in the US and Canada June 18. Limited Edition.)


 

From the reading room: Dean Street Press of England has done a remarkable job of rediscovering and reprinting some long-lost movie star memoirs. Though their catalog includes everything from crime fiction to long forgotten literary works, the jewel in DPS’ crown might be their Classic Hollywood Collection.


Biographies of Robert Shaw and James Mason are tempting, as is a history of Ealing Studio, but I was really struck by a group of vintage memoirs from golden age female stars, including Myrna Loy, Lana Turner, and Veronica Lake. If you found them in a used book shop, or online, these books could cost you a small fortune. Thanks to Dean Street, you can buy them as tastefully packaged, no-frills reprints for a reasonable paperback price. (Or Kindle, if that’s your thing, but since I’m all about the physical media, I’m pounding the drum for the print versions.)


I had a chance to read Veronica recently, which DSP put out in 2020. It was originally published in 1968, just a few years before Veronica Lake’s death at 50, but it had been out of print for many years and was only available from rare book dealers for a rather high price (high enough to make me uncomfortable, but not high enough to consider it an investment). I was pleased that DSP offered an affordable copy of a book I’d long wanted to read. As it turns out, Veronica is a strange memoir. Anyone expecting insights into Lake’s film career will be disappointed. She writes a bit about her first few movies, especially Sullivan’s Travels and I Married a Witch (particularly her dislike of co-star Frederick March) but beyond that she says little about her films. She writes more about her arguments with studio people, or her stint in some touring production of Peter Pan. She hints at the sleazy behavior that went on in Hollywood, but doesn’t share many details. She also spends lots of time discussing her backlog of injuries. It seems the poor lady was constantly falling off stages, or crippling herself in car accidents, or simply being crushed by loutish dance partners falling on her. It is a wonder Lake could walk after so many of these bruising setbacks.


She says that everything in the book is true but admits there was a temptation to fill her autobiography with lies. Ironically, I felt a portion of the book was untrue, particularly the final section where Lake recalls a romance with a merchant seaman who, wouldn’t you know, doesn’t know who she is. He gives her the most satisfying love of her life, far better than what she had with three previous husbands including Hungarian filmmaker Andre De Toth who was a bit of a jerk. Many aspects of this section sound like moments lifted from an old movie plot. I wasn’t entirely convinced it was all true. Yet Lake does produce an interesting self-portrait – she comes off as a careworn, weary soul, damaged by her unpleasant mother, the insecurities of men, and the cruelty of the Hollywood system. I don’t think of her as tragic, though lots of people do. I only wish she could’ve enjoyed herself a little, without so many accidents.

Comments


bottom of page