Tuesday, October 8, 2019


The movie Parnell has a reputation for being a huge misfire for its star, Clark Gable, during his days as the king of the MGM lot. It aired on TCM not too long ago and, not having done a post on it before, I decided to sit down and watch it.

Gable plays Charles Stewart Parnell, an Anglo-Irish politician who served in Parliament in Westminster in the 1880s, this being the era when all of Ireland was still a part of the UK. One of the key issues in Ireland at that time was the question of "home rule", which would have meant something somewhere betweem what Scotland has now and full independence. Parnell is seen in the film's opening raising support for the issue in America, before returning to Ireland and being arrested (at least in the movie; I can't tell whether he was arrested in real life).

There's a general election coming up, and an ambitious politician named William O'Shea (Alan Marshal) gets Parnell to endorse him. It's also here that Parnell meets William's wife Katie (Myrna Loy). She no longer loves her husband, but he's not about to give her a divorce because she's got an elderly aunt "Ben" (Edna May Oliver) and knows that Ben is going to leave a substantial inheritance to Katie that he wants to get his hands on.

The election of 1885 produced a hung parliament, in which William Gladstone's (Montagu Love) party won the most seats but did not have a majority, in no small part because the Irish party that Parnell led won the vast majority of the Irish seats. Parnell used this to try to get Gladstone to get a home rule bill passed. However, it wasn't going to be easy as Parnell had some powerful political enemies.

One was a man named Pigott, who forged some letters ostensibly from Parnell that showed Parnell supporting the murder of a prominent British official in Ireland, something that could have had Parnell facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder himself. He calls for a trial in the Commons and wins. The other enemy turns out to be William O'Shea.

Katie, as mentioned, felt herself in a loveless marriage to William that she could not get out of. She sits in the gallery in the Commons and watches Parnell's great speeches, and when the two meet again a friendship develops that grows into something more than friendship. Now, this is a 1930s MGM movie, so they weren't about to give the whole story, which is that Parnell was the father of three of Katie's children while she was still married. Eventually, William has had enough and tries to blackmail Parnell, who refuses, letting William make the affair public.

As I said at the beginning, Parnell was Gable's biggest flop during his 1930s stardom at MGM. To be honest, though, it wasn't nearly as bad as I would have thought. It's certainly not without its flaws, notably that it's way too talky and Gable was probably not the right actor to be playing Parnell. He really should have been playing somebody more radical. The love affair isn't much of a love affair, and the Irish scenes are your typical Hollywood doe-eyed view of Ireland.

Still, if you don't know much about the drive for "home rule", which I didn't, a movie like Parnell isn't a bad place to start before looking for the real history. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive should you wish to watch it for yourself.

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