Time to pay homage to the King…
Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable made three movies together, always playing close friends, or what some today might term “bromance.” However, instead of simply being best friends, the dynamic was usually Tracy’s character shepherding Gable’s, at times sacrificing his own happiness in order to allow Gable to prosper, such as in the 1940 film, Boom Town.
Kicking off in Burkburnett, Texas in 1918, Boom Town shows a place that seems a lot like a Gold Rush settlement. People aren’t there to raise families and settle down, but to get an egg or two from the local golden goose. In Burkeburnett’s case, the golden goose is oil. Like any get-rich town, Burkeburnett is rough, and sometimes muddy, so much so that narrow drawbridge boardwalks have been placed across streets so that pedestrians don’t sink. Naturally, things bottleneck now and then, and Tracy and Gable meet rather inauspiciously when they try to pass each other on one of these walkways.
“Shorty, would you mind backing up?”
“Yeah, I do mind. Suppose you back up, and don’t call me Shorty.”
Thus meet John McMasters (Clark Gable) and Jonathan Sands (Spencer Tracy), two guys who are destined to be thrown together. They can’t help it. They both have to face plant in the mud when dodging bullets and then find themselves cleaning up in the same room. Fortunately, they become instant friends. The local saloon owner, Spanish Eva (Minna Gombell), nicknames McMasters “Big John” and Sands “Square Jon” just to keep everything straight.
John and Jonathan decide to go wildcatting, which, in English, means they follow their instincts to where the oil is. After hustling the local oil well supply man, Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan), they’re on their way to Jon’s plot thirty miles outside of town. The tricky thing about wildcatting, though, is sometimes instincts pay off, and sometimes they don’t. In this case, the guys hit salt water. To get a little money in their pockets, they go to work in other oil fields, and then it’s back to Burkburnett to try again.
This time they set up a camp with the town sheriff and frustrated chef Harmony (Chill Wills), and things look promising. Jon is so sure this time that he names the well, “Beautiful Darling Betsy,” after his girl in his home state of Ohio. While they wait, though, John gets the idea to go into town and blow off a little steam.
While he’s there, John sees a beautiful woman (Claudette Colbert) getting off the stagecoach. He also sees a couple of con artists trying to lure her into a place that’s…not so nice. Long story short, the two of them have dinner and take in a rodeo. She tells John her name is Elaine and teasingly nicknames him “Sir Mordred” for trying to pick her up right after saving her.
Meanwhile, Jon and Harmony are at the well and in the morning the thing starts gushing, except that it’s oil this time and not salt water. They zip into town and find John sticking his head out of a hotel window, so Jon rushes up to tell him the good news. He’s flabbergasted when he sees Elaine standing there, because Elaine is really Betsy. She and John got married the night before.
Yep, that escalated quickly.
Betsy now has lots of ‘splaining to do. She came into town to see Jon, but they were never engaged and she doesn’t love him in that way. When she saw John, she knew she couldn’t stay because…I hesitate to say falling in love because these two only knew each other for a few hours, but love is Betsy’s story, and she’s sticking to it. A devastated Jon controls himself at this new turn of events.
A year goes by, and the oil wells are prospering. John and Betsy’s marriage is prospering, too, and they have a big, gorgeous house into the bargain. John and Betsy have Jon and Luther over for their anniversary dinner. Jon’s happy that his two friends are happy, and smiles as they banter.
After the dinner, Frank and Jon go out to the oil plant while John goes into town to meet some buddies. Jon finds that the well has caught fire, and then he and Betsy find John carousing with Whitey (Marion Martin), the singer at Spanish Eva’s. The oil fire is narrowly put out, but Jon is so angry at John, that they flip for the plant and Big John loses. He almost loses his marriage as well, but at the last minute Betsy changes her mind and the two of them decide to go work in the oil fields.
Jon doesn’t hold on to the plant very long, but sells it off, and then things are a whirlwind as we see John and Betsy work their way down to South America. They’re obviously very happy and doing well, saving their money to start over in Oklahoma, and they’ve had a little boy in the meantime. While in South America, they meet up with Jon, who runs the oil plant where John’s been working, and they all reconcile.
Once in Oklahoma, McMasters Oil takes off like a rocket. He’s making money hand over fist, as are his employees, and when there’s an oil producers’ convention in Tulsa, barons from the East want a look at the upstart John McMasters. One of them, Harry Compton (Lionel Atwell) invites John into his private train, which has a stable car, to try and talk him into merging and going to New York. There’s also a woman there, Karen van Meers (Hedy Lamarr), who’s basically an industry spy, and she’s got barracuda written all over her. She warns John about how cutthroat the New York oilmen are, and John just laughs it off.
John does decide to go to New York, but he goes as Compton’s competition, even poaching Karen away from him. Wonder of wonders, Jon turns up in New York as well, and when he sees Betsy again he quickly realizes she’s afraid of losing her husband to Karen. How it resolves is painful for everyone except for Karen, who seems to have no feelings or scruples whatsoever.
Incidentally, Gable had worked in the oil fields when he was around nineteen and twenty or so. He did it to help his dad, who was desperately trying to strike it rich, and ended up staying in the industry for a couple of years. Boom Town must have felt like coming full circle in a way.
Anyway, the bottom line in Boom Town is Jon Sands. He wants John and Betsy to have a good marriage and to see them do well, with everyone’s integrity intact. It’s a noble position, and makes Jon one of my favorite characters in the movie. A guy like Jon Sands is not to be messed with.
The only thing that bugs me, though, is the way John and Betsy’s marriage is presented. Sure, they love each other, but something just doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s because of this one scene, which I’m not going to spoil by giving context. It seems to be set up as the defining moment of John and Betsy’s relationship:
“You’re my girl, see? Even if I have to lick you to prove it.”
“I’m your girl. You can lick me if it’ll help.”
“I’ll save it for when you need it.”
Does anyone else find those lines disturbing? Even if John and Betsy weren’t being serious, they’re still creepy. Despite that, it’s nice to see Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert together again–Boom Town was their only other pairing besides It Happened One Night. While the repartee is far less crackly in Boom Town, it still works, the above exchange notwithstanding.
Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were effective matches for each other in Boom Town, which was the last of three movies they would make together. The two of them had a slightly contentious relationship in real life–they liked to get together for drinks, but Gable was jealous of Tracy because he considered him the far superior actor. Meanwhile, Tracy was jealous of Gable because the women went for him. Still, Tracy was the first to call Gable “The King,” a nickname that has obviously stuck long after both men have gone. Whatever difficulties they had offscreen, they made them work when bringing their characters to life.
For more of the Clark Gable Blogathon, see Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. As always, thanks for reading, everyone, and check back here tomorrow when we look at Clark’s love life. Well, one part in particular, anyway. See you soon!
Harris, Warren G. Clark Gable: A Biography. New York: Harmony Books. 2002.