It was eighty-one years ago…
Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy made three movies together. The first was 1936’s San Francisco. The last was 1940’s Boom Town. Sandwiched in the middle was Test Pilot, a story of bros, planes, and what happens when a lady gets thrown into the mix.
Jim Lane is a hotshot test pilot. Gunner Morse is his co-pilot and best buddy. Jim gets the women. Gunner gets…not much, except for a lot of headaches, because he’s the one who has to rein Jim in.
Jim and Gunner’s boss, Howard (Lionel Barrymore), has a Seversky SEV-S2 plane for Jim to test, and Howard and Gunner are both sure Jim will break speed records. Gunner goes to their apartment to check on Jim, who’s supposed to be resting up, only to find a woman, Sarah (Virginia Grey) asleep on the couch. She had a date with Jim at ten. “You can’t take your eyes off him for a second,” Gunner warns. Just then, Jim walks in with another woman, Mabel (Priscilla Lawson), and lays on the charm while the women eye each other suspiciously.
As for that record Jim’s supposed to break, a blocked oil pump forces him to land at a Kansas farm. There, inevitably, he meets Ann (Myrna Loy). The attraction is immediate, and they banter right off the bat. Jim calls Gunner and asks him to bring a new oil pump, and while they’re waiting, he and Ann go to a baseball game and a movie in Wichita. Ann does have a fiancee, though, a nice guy named Joe (Ted Pearson). Jim is jealous, and while Ann and Joe are at a dance, sits and stews. Ann tells him she and Joe are engaged because that’s what she thinks she should do.
Jim and Gunner take off the next day, but Jim can’t get Ann out of his head, and he turns the plane around. Long story short, he marries Ann, and to Gunner and Howard’s shock, show up at Howard’s office with his new wife in tow. He wants a honeymoon. Howard wants him to fly a new plane. Okeydokey, then. Howard fires Jim, who laughs it off, because he knows how much Howard needs his expertise.
Since she left in such a hurry, Ann needs a few necessities, starting with a nightgown. Jim and Gunner go with her to the lingerie department, where they pick out a pink nightgown for her as if it’s a present. While the two men squirm, Ann stands off to the side enjoying the show. Then it’s off to buy a toothbrush, and they almost forget the nightgown in the taxi. Jim runs after the driver and saves it, waving to Ann, who waves and beams while Gunner glowers.
Thus the dynamic of Jim, Gunner’s and Ann’s relationship is set. When Jim and Ann get an apartment, they give Jim the second bedroom. They always go out as a threesome, often strolling arm and arm down the street. Ann seems good with this arrangement, as do Jim and Gunner, because they seem to have each other’s backs.
Ann really doesn’t know what she’s signed up for. When Jim is at work, she’s worried sick. When Frank (Arthur Aylesworth), a pilot with a wife and family crashes after an air race, Jim, the winner, gives his widow half the prize money. After that, things kind of sink in on Ann, and she’s worried sick every time Jim goes up. “What’s fun about waiting for someone to die?” she asks.
Jim’s not so cool and collected himself. He now has a wife that he needs to consider, and after his sweet gesture to Frank’s widow, goes on a four-day bender. If not for the faithful Gunner, Jim might still be out there. Unfortunately, Gunner’s number is almost up. Spoiler alert: he gets a death scene.
I’ve only seen Test Pilot once before. The first time, my attitude was, “Meh, OK, it’s good.” The second time it was, “What the heck am I seeing?” Something about it rankled me enough that I dragged my feet about reviewing it, and I had to leave it alone for a couple of days.
Basically, what bugged me about this movie was that there were angles set up that were undeveloped and couldn’t be. Some of it was due to Hays Office restrictions, and the other part was slightly undeveloped writing.
Gunner fares the worst of the three principals. Gunner’s attitude toward Ann is very gentle and brotherly until she and Jim get married. Then he’s stern and, shall I say, jealous? It reminded me of what I’ve heard can happen when dog owners get married or bring home a live-in. It’s not uncommon for the dog to get possessive and hostile. Gunner does soften towards Ann on occasion, but he’s happiest when his warnings about Jim come true. When Ann and Jim’s relationship is going well, more often than not, Gunner’s like a grumpy kid.
The script is never overt about why Gunner acts the way he does, so it’s unclear if Gunner’s supposed to be gay or just protective of Jim and Ann as individuals. Since it was the Production Code Era, the gay angle naturally couldn’t be developed, and so this weird relationship question mark is just there. Quite rightly, Tracy felt he was wasted in the role and was tired of being a third wheel, even if he did get to play a death scene.
Ann is almost as ambiguous. Loy brings her trademark feistiness, but even she can’t help fumbling. Jim gives Gunner a bedroom in their apartment and Ann doesn’t bat an eye. Gunner is a constant presence in her life and her marriage, and she doesn’t ask too many questions. Ann knows Gunner’s not happy. She tries to make Gunner feel welcome because she knows how much his friendship means to Jim, but anyone else would likely feel uneasy. Newlyweds generally do like time on their own, and having a constant third wheel along seems a little off. It would help if there was more meaningful conversation between these two, but there isn’t, really.
Jim makes out like a bandit. Of course he does. He’s Clark Gable. He’s the king onscreen and off. He’s got the toothy grin and the star closeups. The women in the movie want him and fight over him. He’s the hotshot test pilot who gets the girl and the accolades. Yes, Clark was cast to type in Test Pilot, and MGM played it to the hilt. Again, though, there’s not much that defines what makes his and Gunner’s relationship special, even from a bromance angle–no backstory, no inside jokes, nothing. It felt like MGM was trying to get by on star power instead of developing these characters more fully.
It must have worked, though, because Test Pilot was a huge success for the studio. The public loved it. The critics loved it. And no, the movie isn’t all bad. There are a lot of funny moments, such as when Jim and Gunner buy Ann’s nightgown. It’s an interesting presentation of pre-World War Two aircraft, such as a very early B-17. Plenty of airplane aficionados love this movie. It’s like Top Gun before Top Gun…sorta.
For more movies made in 1938, please see Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Robin at Pop Culture Reverie. Thanks for hosting, Crystal and Robin–this was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Monday for the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon…
This film is available on DVD from Amazon.