I thought I knew all the reasons why I loved Myrna Loy, but then I saw Test Pilot this weekend and it completely changed my mind about her. She’s an MGM star we take for granted, with the good looks and sweet voice meant for the wife Clark Gable or William Powell meets at home at the end of the day. But in Test Pilot, she’s gets to show off those dramatic skills she had been forced to hold back.
Test Pilot, directed by Victor Fleming and released in 1938, is one of those stereotypical MGM movies. Gable is the dashing leading man with more wisecracks at the ready than dollars in his pocket. Loy is the young woman he falls in love with. Tracy – even though he has one more Oscar on his resume than Gable – is still Gable’s third wheel, the man tasked with trying to knock some sense into Gable’s head. Plus, what would an MGM movie be without Lionel Barrymore offering sage advice? The answer: not an MGM movie.
The plot finds Gable in one of his most dashing roles, as Jim Lane, the daredevil test pilot of the film’s title. Tracy is Gunnar, his mechanic and best friend. While trying to break the record for shortest trip across the country, Jim runs into some trouble at the exact middle point – Kansas – and has to make an emergency landing. There, he meets the most beautiful farmer’s daughter in film history, Ann Barton (Loy – can you tell that I have a crush on her?).
Now, this is where Fleming plays with the audience’s emotions like only a Golden Age director can. Fleming sets up everything against the two – Ann gets engaged and Jim’s plane is fixed so he can go home. But we know they have to get together! Jim even starts flying back to New York. However, he finally turns around and our happy couple gets together again.
Anyway, you can probably tell where the rest of the story is going. Jim has to decide between Ann and flying. (Of course, someone has to die to convince Jim to stay on the ground… guess who?)
Since I started buying Warner Archive titles in 2010, this is the first one where I’ve really wondered, “How on earth had Warner Home Video never released this on DVD before?” This seems like the perfect candidate to have been included in that old Signature Collection Gable box instead of Dancing Lady. No offence to Dancing Lady, but Test Pilot is more representative – to me, at least – of what Gable meant to the movies. Plus, it’s directed by Fleming and has Tracy and Loy. The print on the DVD is a bit rough and the sound is weak in the early parts of the film, but it’s still a serviceable transfer. WAC also included the trailer, which calls it the “Captains Courageous of the sky!”
Test Pilot is one heck of an emotional roller coaster. Fleming really did know how to salvage human emotion from a relatively predictable plot. The human drama never gets lost in between the flying sequences. It’s really one incredible movie.