Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Boom Town

When Clark Gable was honored in Summer Under the Stars last month, one of the movies TCM ran was 1940's Boom Town. It's going to be on TCM again tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, and is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive anyway.

Spencer Tracy plays "Square" John Sand, an independent oil driller in a town in the Texas oil boom of the 1920s. Unfortunately, he doesn't have enough money to buy the equipment to drill deep enough to extract the oil. He's in luck though, as he runs into, quite literally, Big John McMasters (Clark Gable). McMasters has more money than Sand, whom Big John calls "Shorty", and Square John misunderstands as thinking that he's got enough money to buy the equipment from local outfitter Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan). So the two go into business together.

Square John was hoping to earn enough money to bring his girlfriend out to Texas so he could marry her, but therein lies a tale. Big John goes into town and runs into a beautiful new stranger, Betsy (Claudette Colbert). He falls in love with her immediately, and the feeling is close enough to mutual that the two actually get married that night. There's just one problem: Betsy was Square John's girlfriend. As you can imagine, this is going to drive a big wedge into their relationship. Eventually splitting up their partnership.

Each man goes his merry way, with Square John eventually working for an American extractor in one of the Latin American dictatorships where the fear of nationalization is omnipresent. Big John winds up in New York after first going through Square John's South American field, and then becoming an oil magnate in Oklahoma. Big John wants to go to New York and get involved in the refining (and later stages) part of the oil industry because he's always looking for new fields to conquer. In fact, it's because he wants to take on new rival Compton (Lionell Atwill), having met Compton's beautiful factotum Karen (Hedy Lamarr, who gets billed above the title even though she doesn't appear until more than halfway through the movie).

Anyhow, Square John's job gets nationalized out of existence, so he winds up in New York City too, and goes back into partnership with Big John, and Luther surprisingly in tow. It's a short-lived partnership, however, as Square John sees Karen for what she really is....

Boom Town is an interesting, sprawling movie that generally does well despite having some flaws. Claudette Colbert is one of those actress for whom it seems tough to wipe all teh glamor off. She does as well as she can, and it's not her fault, but at times she seems like a fish out of water in the oil towns. The movie also careens from one part of the plot to the next; unlike something like Cimarron the material here either calls for a more intimate story or fcusing only on the McMasters character's lifespan. And the ending came across to me as a bit unrealistic.

Still, with all that, Boom Town is an excellent example of the sort of quality work a studio like MGM could put out with its stable of actors and people behind the camera. Its pluses outweigh its minuses and the film ultimately works as a whole, and is thoroughly worth a watch.

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