|'Boom Town': Bet Your Bottom Dollar You'll Lose the Blues|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
02:04PM / Friday, April 10, 2020
I wish that I were reviewing one of the half dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
"Boom Town" (1940), a romantic adventure yarn about oil wildcatters starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr, passes with flying colors the GTWMOVF. In case you're unfamiliar with the designation, that's the Goldberger Test for Whether a Movie is One of your Very Favorites. It's foolproof. Just replace Goldberger with
your own name. Here's how it works:
It's late, just past your bedtime, big day tomorrow. But, whilst you tend to your nightly ablutions, being sure to floss and brush for two minutes like the ADA, says, you flip on the TV to keep you company during that final approach to Sleepy Land. And there it is, just beginning — one of your favorite movies. You have that important meeting in the morning, and
heck, you not only have the movie on disc, but have saved it on your DVR. You could watch it anytime. But there they are, the characters you've become enamored of, old friends beckoning to join them. What's more important? Gloriously delving into the dreamscape once again or being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enough to land the stupid Larrabee account?
If you either have, had or someday hope to have that blessed relationship known as a best friend, you'll find the perceptive gist of the lucky circumstance rolled out in spades in director Jack Conway's "Boom Town," a virtual, iconic template for the buddy film. A notable precursor to the male bonding celebrated by the likes of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), "The Sting" (1973), "Silver Streak" (1976), and excuse me if I've left out your favorite one, the ironic commonality of the genre is that, ultimately, these manly men share their vulnerability.
I won't go so far as to say they explore their feminine side, lest I incur the antagonism of the homophobic contingent, which does, however, bring to mind a hilariously telling scene in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987), another great example I might lionize at a later date.
Naturally, depending on your specific worldview, or what the Germans call the weltanschauung, male viewers will identify with either Clark Gable's Big John McMasters or Spencer Tracy's Square John Sands, their sobriquets appropriately bestowed by favorite bar matron, Spanish Eva.
Whereas women, especially those who've been in the anguishing position of having to choose between two very worthy but vastly different suitors, will relate to Claudette Colbert's Betsy Bartlett, a damsel who, discontented with teaching in Boston, goes west at Sands' entreaty.
Perhaps borrowing from the famous bridge confrontation between Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and Alan Hale's Little John in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), the friendship between the two Johns germinates when they take their measure of each other in combat. But be aware, the key here is not who is tougher, stronger or more artful, as is the case among bullies and gang leaders, but rather, it is the qualities of fair play and integrity they recognize in each other that prompt their bond.
So, it's settled. Through a bit of chicanery to wrest the necessary oil drilling tools from Luther Aldrich, played by Frank Morgan in a delightful supporting performance that'll serve as a running gag throughout the film, the newly minted buddies set out to seek their fortunes. All is well, for the moment. But fate, being the relentlessly upstaging plot motivator that it is, decrees that Big John just happens to be on hand to save the just recently disembarked Miss Bartlett from the ill-intentioned grasp of the pernicious Deacon (Frank McGlynn Sr.), the local white slaver.
Of course, the big fella, as he'll come to be referred to by Chill Wills' Harmony Jones, part shotgun-toting enforcer and part backwoods chef who extolls his rabbit a la mode (pronounced modey), doesn't know that she's the gal his new partner has been talking about. As Great-Grandma Goldberger might exclaim following the development of the inevitable love triangle, "Oh, boy."
So that's the romantic angle. It'll intertwine with the boom and bust, entrepreneurial hijinks that test and example the mettle of the two pals, which is further complicated when, venturing into the NYC distribution end, Big John falls under the spell of corporate go-between/vamp, Karen Vanmeer, enticingly played by Hedy Lamarr. Among the numerous perplexions of love, friendship, honor and duty set in motion by the penthouse Mata Hari, is Square John's resultant indignation. Permanent case of unrequited love be damned, Betsy's happiness is his No. 1 priority.
Amidst these seemingly irresolvable challenges, whimsical interjection by Morgan's forever confounded capitalist and Wills' portrait in wacky contradiction adds just the comic note to keep matters jauntily hopeful. Add a great big, majestic sky, albeit courtesy of MGM movie magic, and a soulful look at the goodness humankind is capable of when it dedicates itself to truth and honesty. All of which makes "Boom Town" an uplifting paean to the city upon a hill we Americans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid are committed to realizing.
"Boom Town," an MGM release directed by Jack Conway, stars Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Claudette Colbert. Running time: 119 minutes