Presenting another Shamedown. And another Clark Gable movie. He’s getting a lot of exposure this year on Taking Up Room. And in case you missed it before, the whole story of how this got started can be found at Cinema Shame.
I don’t know about other countries, but in America we hear a lot about women breaking the glass ceiling, and according to some, that ceiling hasn’t even started to crack. The truth is, however, the glass ceiling shattered a long time ago, and much sooner than it’s been given credit for. American women were becoming doctors, ministers, scientists, lawyers, and so on even before they could vote, and after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, they were becoming pilots, too. 1938’s Too Hot To Handle is the story of one such pilot and two newsreel cameramen as they try to scoop each other for the best footage and the love of one woman.
It’s the late nineteen-thirties, and war is raging in Asia. The papers are emblazoned with headlines about the bombing of Shanghai, and the newsreel companies are frothing at the mouth to get footage of the battles. Union Newsreels in particular has their best cameraman, Christ Hunter (Clark Gable) on the ground, and the president, Mr. McArthur (Walter Connoly) is impatient to see what he’s captured. Footage comes back, all right, and the marker reads, “Bombshell,” but it turns out to be Shanghai nightclub goers doing the Big Apple. Mr. McArthur is ticked off, and demands to see the real bombing.
Chris would be glad to oblige, but there’s not much to film. He and his assistant, José, are bored stiff. Even Chris’s competitor from Atlas Newsreels, Bill Dennis (Walter Pigeon) is sitting around twiddling his thumbs. So Chris decides to improvise, staging a scene of bombing, complete with a toy biplane, artificial shade, and smoke from lit fireworks. A little girl hugging a dog completes the picture.
Bill knows it’s fake, and calls Chris on the carpet. “I didn’t distort the truth, ” Chris replies. “I just heightened the composition, or something.”
Heh. Nice save, Gretzky.
Bill attempts to cook up his own movie magic, and devises a scheme in which Shanghai is short of cholera serum and a mercy flyer has to swoop in with replacement medicine. His crew’s not too keen on the idea, but Bill says they need to do it for the good of the industry, or else all newsreel men are going to look bad.
Chris doesn’t know it’s a fake, though, and thinks Bill is trying to outfox him. He has a Chinese soldier set up some flares to force the plane to land a certain way, and then has José drive right in front of the plane so he can film and spoil Bill’s shot at the same time. Unfortunately, the pilot gets distracted by José and crashes, so Chris goes in and pulls her out. He also saves what he thinks is the cholera serum, when the pilot tells him it’s all for show.
The pilot’s name is Alma (Myrna Loy), and she’s Bill’s longtime girlfriend. This woman is gutsy, and Chris is taken with her, thinking he’s going to be the one to show her how to be a woman. He films a message for José, telling him to edit the footage and cut out Alma’s confession about it being staged. He also pretends he’s been fired.
Except he’s not, but Alma doesn’t know that. She flies all the way to New York with Chris to talk to Mr. McKay, who not only has sympathy for her, but at Chris’s insistence, hires her as a pilot for two hundred dollars a week, and promises to fund an expedition to help Alma find her brother, who’s missing in the Amazon jungle.
Chris is visiting Alma when he gets a call from Mr. McKay telling him Atlas has run the footage Chris thought was destroyed. He says Chris needs to bring in Alma or there will be trouble.
Just when Chris is trying to talk his way out of things, a report comes over the radio that a tanker full of ammunition is due to explode in New York Harbor. He and Alma zoom out there and get some terrific aerial shots of the tanker, including the explosion. They land in the airport, where they’re met by reporters who give them kudos in droves. It would have been more fun if Bill hadn’t shown up and threatened to expose Chris’s charade.
Well, long story short, Chris, Alma, and Bill are all fired for real because the powers that be figure out they’ve been had. Alma is despondent because her expedition has suddenly been grounded, and people now believe she made up her brother being missing. They were all set to paint her as being a heroine on the order of Amelia Earhart, but that all goes away.
Adversity makes for strange bedfellows, and Chris and Bill pawn their cameras to help Alma to go look for Harry. They send the money to her by José, under the pretext of being a grant from the Associate Aeronautics of the Amazon, and Alma is gobsmacked. Then they watch on the sly from the dock as Alma and her new airplane leave on the boat for South America.
Bill thinks he’s squared himself, but Chris knows better, and they both end up going to South America to help Alma. From then on, it gets…interesting. I’m not going to ruin anything, but my face looked kinda like this by the time the ending credits rolled.
You’re just going to have to trust me. It was weird.
For the first hour or so, everyone’s trying to expose someone in this movie, or get something over on someone, and it’s a job trying to keep up with who’s getting snookered and when. It goes from trade intrigue and competition and Chris being full of himself, to he and his chief rival sorta teaming up to help the woman they both love. All in the last half-hour. I kinda wish they could have stuck to the newsreel thing, or started in on the derring-do sooner, because it was like watching two different movies. On the plus side, we do get to see a native fire dance of Dutch Guiana. And Clark Gable behaving in an unusual fashion, shall we say. Myrna Loy makes a game effort, but I could have sworn she looked bored in some scenes. The critics must have noticed, because Loy’s performance was called “insincere.”
Too Hot To Handle was the third of seven movies Clark Gable and Myrna Loy made together, and they were a dynamic duo. Usually. Only in this case, it felt like a misfire.
Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow for Maddy’s Ida Lupino Blogathon!
This film is available on DVD from Amazon.