Clearly the executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer knew what they were up to when they put together 1938's Test Pilot - good old-fashioned Star Power. This robust aviation drama contains Clark Gable being his own commanding yet tender self, a sprightly Myrna Loy as the world's most sophisticated farm girl, and Spencer Tracy fuming magnificently. Add in some capable direction by The Wizard of Oz's Victor Fleming, and you have a good addition to the Warner Archive Collection of made-to-order DVDs of vintage MGM flicks.
For such a breezy, carefree movie, it's easy to overlook the fact that MGM made Test Pilot out of desperation - Gable and Loy needed a jolt after the failure of 1937's overstuffed costume drama Parnell. Their remedy was to re-team the popular duo in a contemporary drama helmed by Fleming, who had already guided co-star Tracy to an acclaimed performance in Captains Courageous. Despite being unusually lengthy for a 1930s-era movie, the plot is so simple it could have been scribbled on a cocktail napkin during an executive bender at Musso Frank's - Gable's cocky playboy aviation whiz, Jim Lane, falls for the fetching Ann Barton (Loy) when his plane makes an unplanned landing in her rural backyard. They have a whirlwind courtship and quickie wedding, but Jim's mechanic best friend Gunner Morse (Tracy) grumbles that the marriage will make Jim's reckless flying deadlier than ever before. After Jim becomes involved in an air race accident which kills another flyer, Ann comes to realize Jim's destructive tendencies and begs him to stop. She and Gunner also know that daredevil flying is in Jim's blood, however, which causes a quandary for all involved. When an Army official assigns Jim and Gunner to participate in a classified altitude test on a state-of-the-art aircraft, Ann fears that it might be too challenging for both men.
As much as Test Pilot appears to be about derring-do in the air, mostly it stays grounded in a soapy story that focuses purely on the three main characters. Despite being too long and dialogue-heavy, it soars purely on the film's casual vibe and the palpable chemistry of the lead actors (especially Gable and Loy, scintillating in their sixth and final screen teaming). Gable's infectious enthusiasm betrays the fact that he's playing a charming scamp for the umpteenth time, while Tracy does a valiant job of giving his rather flat character real meaning and motivation. Perhaps most surprising is Myrna Loy's radiant, vivacious portrayal - she's never been this loose and uninhibited onscreen, which might explain why the actress chose this over other, better-known projects as her favorite film. Other terrific actors show up in smaller roles, such as Lionel Barrymore as Gable and Tracy's gruff boss and a surprisingly subdued Marjorie Main as Gable and Loy's landlady.
Imperfections aside, Test Pilot does typify vintage MGM in all its glories - attractive, charismatic stars, a semi-intelligent script, a good balance of action and romance, interesting characters, glossed-up production values. The aircraft scenes are done with an odd mixture of stock footage and artificial looking yet nicely detailed model work, with tantalizing looks at actual aircraft of the day like an early United Airlines passenger plane and the gleaming Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" craft flown by Gable and Tracy at the film's climax. If anything, one can watch the film merely for the lavishly done set pieces such as the gaudy Wichita nightclub and Barrymore's chrome-bedecked office, which seemed way too slick and modern for an old coot like his character, Drake.
The Warner Archive made-to-order DVD edition of Test Pilot looks good - perhaps a little too soft and grainy, but the black and white picture sports solid light/dark levels and a clean look. While the original film element has not been spruced up, the level of specks and dirt is pleasantly on the low side.
The mono soundtrack is a typical, decent listen, even if the sound balance gets too loud and distorted on the action scenes (so loud, we had to adjust the volume on our television). No subtitles.
None. The disc's simple menu design uses elements from the film's original poster.
When MGM trumpeted that they had "More Stars Than There Are In The Heavens," it could be guaranteed that a solidly made drama like 1938's Test Pilot lived up that claim. Sure, this Victor Fleming-directed romance-in-the-air spectacle can get too talky and long-winded, but the relaxed presence of Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy pretty much define what is meant by Star Quality. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.