Friday, August 30, 2013


Half screwball comedy, half pulp fiction, Jack Conway's film for M-G-M is a work of swaggering cynicism featuring Clark Gable in prime romantic-rogue mode. Advertising touted it as a reunion of Gable and Myrna Loy, the stars of the smash hit Test Pilot from earlier that year, a kind of comeback vehicle for Gable after the legendary failure of the Irish biopic Parnell. This time he's a globetrotting newsreel cameraman who isn't above faking footage to score a scoop over his rivals, the most prominent of those being Walter Pidgeon. The show starts in China, where the rivals hope in vain for a Japanese bombing raid and Gable films some artificial atrocity footage in the meantime. Pidgeon tries to top this by having his aviatrix pal (Loy) fly a plane into the airport pretending to carry emergency medical supplies. Gable meets cute with Loy when he blunders into the scene and forces her to crash land. The resulting film is a sensation and the newsreel company turns Loy into a flying correspondent.

Loy's movie name is Alma Harding, slightly evocative of Amelia Earhart as is her later mission to rescue her brother, an aviator lost in the Amazon jungle. Loy is glib and courageous but ultimately soft-hearted, as the role and the film require. She breaks down narrating the footage she shot of sailors evacuating a damaged navy vessel before it explodes. The sequence when she and Gable shoot that footage is a technical triumph, one of the best uses of old-fashioned process photography I've seen from the classic era. Too often such scenes are dead on arrival, static side shots of immobile cockpits designed only to show us the stars' faces as they fake flying. For Too Hot to Handle Conway and his effects team film on a much larger scale, placing Gable and Loy in a full-scale model plane and filming it at the distance necessary 9and from multiple angles) to establish its realism. The camera zooms in and out as it needs to and, better still, the plane moves, banking left or right as Loy angles in toward the crippled ship or Gable climbs out onto a wing to get a better shot. The extra effort makes the illusion more effective, and if it still isn't convincing by modern standards, movie buffs should certainly appreciate the effort and craftsmanship.

Eventually the counterfeit origin of the Chinese crash footage comes out and Gable, Loy and Pidgeon are all disgraced. Loy seeks redemption by finding her lost brother, financed without her knowledge by the two men, who've sold their movie gear for her sake. Lest you think Gable's gone selfless, he's playing the game several steps ahead of Pidgeon, with the help of his able lackey Leo Carrillo, using his knowledge of Loy's plans to get his job back and constantly scheming to get scoops out of her trek. Gable and Carrillo manage to find the lost Harding ahead of Alma, among black skinned, voodoo-worshiping natives who worship the injured man as a bird god. The film's final act is hilariously politically incorrect as Gable must first prove his magic stronger than that of the tribe's witch doctor, and then take over as witch doctor, spending much of the last reel in an outlandish, all-concealing birdman costume to stage-manage and surreptitiously film the arrival of Loy and Pidgeon and the official rescue of hapless Brother Harding. Carrillo knows a little of the native lingo but for Gable the power-word ungaawa suffices. Gable somehow beats Pidgeon back to America despite being left to paddle for his life as Loy's plane departs, and the film ends with Gable utterly unrepentant, still up to his old tricks, and Loy unable to resist. "Ain't I a stinker?" Gable might say, but it's the kind of stink the people loved.

Keeping with the theme, here's a mock-newsreel trailer from

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