16 August 2009

Idiot's Delight (1939)

I just watched Idiot's Delight earlier today, and I have to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised. This was one of those movies that I watched largely because of who was in it--in this case Norma Shearer--but wound up liking for its own merits. Clark Gable was very much likable in the role of Harry Van, a veteran of the Great War turned showman. His only ever song-and-dance number (the celebrated "Puttin' on the Ritz" routine) is especially great, although it is quite clear that Gable is, by any stretch of the imagination, no Fred Astaire. As for Norma, her performance as an expatriate Russian noblewoman is enjoyable (if a little hammy, thanks to her decidedly Garbonian accent, and also in spite of her disconcerting wig). It is also worth noting that Norma not only speaks passable Russian (albeit only a few words and phrases), but also hangs by her teeth in an acrobatic act (although that was probably a double in that scene).

There are, however, more important matters than romantic comedy addressed in the picture. Idiot's Delight was released in 1939, when the storm clouds of World War II were gathering. The reality of global politics was not lost on the film's producers. The impact of the impending war on the various guests of the alpine hotel where Clark and Norma find themselves is well-illustrated: a pacifist (played by Burgess Meredith) is arrested and shot for seditious talk against the war, a German scientist abandons his pursuit of a cure for cancer in order to design weapons instead and an industrialist heads back to his factories to oversee the production of munitions. Once the war actually breaks out, the hotel is severely damaged by bombs.

Another point of interest about this picture is the fact that it actually has two endings. It might not be the first film to do so, but it must be among the earliest. In the "domestic" (i.e. American) version of the film, Clark and Norma survive the bombing raid unscathed and plan to begin a show business career together. In the foreign version, however, the bombing raid is much more dramatic and the two stars maintain their composure by singing a hymn as the bombs explode around them. In my opinion, the latter ending is much more interesting, and also a much more honest take on the nature of the impending war.

Idiot's Delight is a romantic comedy, to be sure, but it is a romantic comedy with a much more profound message behind the smooching.

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