Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable

Pre-Code Retro – Idiot’s Delight (1939) Review, with Norma Shearer and Clark Gable

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Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable
Harry Van
Clark Gable
Irene
Norma Shearer
Released by MGM | Directed By Clarence Brown

Idiot’s Delight: The Gathering Storm

“Evidentially, Mr. Van, that you are not fully aware of the present international situation!”

“I’m aware the international situation is always regrettable. What’s wrong now?”

A lot of other entries you’ll read in the CMBA Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon are about unequivocally great movies—your Adventures of Robin Hoods and Bringing Up Babys. Idiot’s Delight is not one of the great movies of the 1930s. Considering it came out in 1939, it’s probably not even among the best of that year.

What it is, though, is unique. It’s MGM’s first big swipe at the thunderclouds hovering over Europe that would soon engulf America too. But keep in mind that MGM wasn’t afraid of fascism, nor were a lot of other Americans. The wealthiest and most autocratic of the studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer luxuriated in tales like Marie Antoinette (1938) about a wealthy, glamorous queen who was simply misunderstood by the grubby masses.

Idiot’s Delight is instead about the tragedy of not knowing where those clouds came from or why they’re there. It’s about life in spite of the uncertainty of the world. And, strangely, it has the full power of MGM’s biggest assets on its prow.

Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable
A fine how-do-you-do.

Besides having two of the biggest stars of the decade, Norma Shearer and Clark Gable (previously teamed together in A Free Soul and Strange Interlude), it’s an incredibly expansive movie, covering the twenty year gap between the wars. It makes no emphasis on events, eras or ages, but that’s part of its charms.

Opening with strains of “Over There”, George M. Cohan’s tune that became the patriotic theme for the First World War, we soon meet Harry Van (Clark Gable), a World War I veteran and flailing actor. He struggles through chorus lines and even selling snake oil before hitting upon a mind reading act with a very sauced Madame Zuleika (Laura Hope Crews).

Waiting in the wings as the act goes badly in Omaha one night is Irene (Norma Shearer). She’s an acrobat and becomes fascinated with their scam. She interrupts one night and offers to become Harry’s new partner. He passes, but there’s a sudden romantic connection between the two that overcomes Harry’s natural huckster sensibilities and Irene’s rather playful tendency to exaggerate every detail of her life.

Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable
“No, Cindy, *I* get to grab his thigh!”

One of the most poetic moments happens as the two part ways in opposite directions to continue their tours. As both are in their buses, parting, Irene’s begins to move, and she runs along the length of it, waving goodbye to Harry. It’s kind of dopey and sweet, a good summation of their chemistry and the warm, lived-in feeling it’s already achieved.

A decade later and Van has brought together a troupe of six women called “Les Blondes” who are taking a budget-priced European tour. They’re stopped before they cross the border of Switzerland and placed in a nearby hotel. The unnamed country they’re now trapped in is on the brink of war and is watching all of its foreign nationals closely.

The hotel’s other unwilling guests include German Dr. Waldersee (Charles Coburn), a scientist on the verge of curing cancer and Quillery (Burgess Meredith), an anti-war activist. Arriving later is arms merchant Achille Weber (Edward Arnold) and on his arm is the voluptuous Irina (Norma Shearer), a familiar looking story teller with a thick accent.

… Okay, Irina is really Irene in a blonde wig and Norma Shearer doing her best Greta Garbo impersonation, but it’s fun to watch as Harry goes from confusion, to recognition, to bafflement, and finally to admiration at his former fling’s new disguise.

Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable
“Are you kidding me?”

The story of life and conflict is written across the characters the two Americans meet as the Europeans fret and plan for the upcoming Armageddon. The hotel is situated next to an airfield and haunted by the drills and sirens that kick off at inopportune moments, setting everyone on edge. As the war grinds closer, tempers flare and reality comes close to breaking into the warm deco hotel.

It’s 1939 and the book on the causes and problems of the Second World War was still being written—hell, it was barely out of the prologue when this film was released—so it’s unsurprising that the movie takes most of its negative feelings about the conflict from the same place Americans had come from during the First World War. That’s why Idiot’s Delight may throw off modern viewers, because to it, the war is a scam, a trick played on the masses by the rich and greedy. Second verse, same as the first, and not the black and white ‘good versus evil’ narrative that would develop as the Allies learned more about the Nazi’s motivations.

That fits into the film’s overriding themes about disguises and cons. Every patron is phony in some way, save for the honest Quillery (who certainly pays for it, brutally and off-screen), but their lives are all still scarred from the last war with mixed levels of eagerness to move onto the new one at their front door.

Gable gets his only musical number in this film—yes, ever. He sings “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with the backup of Les Blondes and even gets out a few dance moves. I mean, he isn’t bad, but he’s no Astaire or even a limping Cagney. But he is surprisingly game, especially considering his other big film of 1939 was vastly different and made him the icon he remains to this day—but you can read about that one elsewhere.

Idiot's Delight Norma Shearer Clark Gable
The upcoming onslaught.

Shearer, meanwhile, is clearly enjoying the opportunity to send-up one of her biggest rivals with her over-the-top Garbo mimicry. The mix between phoniness and naivete that she finds as Irene is also interesting, and somehow appealing as she scrambles to find a version of herself she can live with. Shearer had been through three prestigious costume dramas before this–The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the disastrous Romeo and Juliet, and her grand triumph, Marie Antoinette— and Shearer seems to be relishing the chance to step back into reality, so to speak.

The film alternates between comedy and drama with no subtlety and no regard for the audience. It’s yearning for an answer to a world gone mad and finding none, making it tough to unpack. It’s an anti-war Grand Hotel set just as a fragile world seemed on the brink of what may have been the last war they’d ever see. But it’s also broadly comic and romantic, playing with the audience’s expectations constantly. It can be brutal, but still laconic in its own way, a weirdly disjointed movie that gropes towards meaning without finding it– with an ending that is particularly unsatisfying. That’s fine. Idiot’s Delight‘s true finish was still a half decade and millions of lives away.

What I like so much about the movie is that it’s a tapestry of many things. It’s about the warmth of the unexpected and the coldness of the world. Coming from MGM with an impressive pedigree of producers and technicians and some of its biggest stars, it’s a nice, big-budgeted and distinctly odd coda to a decade that had seen the entire world consumed by hopelessness and anger and now propelled towards its darkest hours. Alas, the worst was yet to come.

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Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives on the coast of California with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

19 thoughts on “Pre-Code Retro – Idiot’s Delight (1939) Review, with Norma Shearer and Clark Gable

  1. I have yet to see this film, although I enjoyed a production of the play a few years ago. I found it earnest and biting. In the history of adaptions to the screen, I wonder how this fares. I’ll certainly check this out soon to watch that interesting cast have a go.

  2. I LOVE this film – precisely for the many reasons you mention. It is strange and the stars are just so over the top. Gable is so darn charming as a second-rate song and dance man and Shearer – who requires a bit of an effort on the part of modern audiences, but it so worth it – is a star with an upper case “S.” 1939 was a crucial year (one reason why I prefer :Love Affair” over “An Affair to Remember”). The war, off stage, is a major character. Great post, Danny – and thanks for doing a bang up job with the blogathon and the eBook.

  3. I love films that resist easy definitions or conclusions. We see too many that fit into a neat box and express pat generalizations. How fun to see one like this–I’m so grateful to you for recommending it! I love this line, by the way, “but he’s no Astaire or even a limping Cagney.” Hilarious. Thanks so much for a wonderful blogathon, and for all of your beautiful work on the eBook. Leah

    1. Idiot’s Delight really tries to push some ideas that seem ludicrous in retrospect, but are interesting in their aberration. Hope you check it out!

  4. The animated .gif may be the movie’s most perfect moment. Harry is now certain that this countess is that Irene he fed and bed back in the states. As she continues to deny while ascending in the elevator, he states the hotel from back when, and with no subtly to the symbolism, smashes his fist through his hat: “The Royal Grand!”

    Joan Crawford wanted Irene, but after the multi-Oscar nominated triumph of Marie Antoinette, Mayer wasn’t hesitant to please Norma, which only added fresh fuel to Crawford’s enmity toward her. But it was only fair: Crawford would eventually log eight rounds with Gable in total, while Shearer had only three.

    Shearer does a wicked Garbo send-up too; “The cockles of your heart must be so crowded…,” “Omaha…? Is that in Persia?”, her ‘escapes’ from the Bolsheviks, as well as her insistence on the health aspects of vodka, it’s all great. Perhaps Gable was the only actor who could deflate Shearer’s fakery in a way that left us assured both that she wasn’t wounded, and that he loved her just the same.

    Gable is indeed the surprise of the movie. Given a chance to push against, tweak or lampoon his own image, he’d embrace the challenge fearlessly and he’s clearly having a ball as song and dance man Harry Van. While Rhett would soon play to Gable’s established strengths, Harry Van showed the man had rabbits up his sleeve too. Idiot’s Delight is a jewel.

  5. Wonderful, Danny! I always love your captions and this line in particular was a perfect description: “…Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer luxuriated in tales like Marie Antoinette (1937) about a wealthy, glamorous queen who was simply misunderstood by the grubby masses.” Movies made at the dawn of WWII like this one and Foreign Correspondent have always fascinated me. We know what’s coming, but they don’t…and before Hollywood (and the nation) had figured out the narrative they’re all over the place. Thanks for this terrific write-up of a very interesting movie!

  6. Fantastic post! I’ve never even heard of this film, and now I can’t wait to see it.

    I really like the thought of Norma Shearer sending up Greta Garbo. That alone would be worth the price of admission.

    Thanks for the introduction to this film!

    1. Hope you like it! And you can tell Shearer is having a blast. She even calls it one of her favorite performances for just that reason in Lambert’s biography.

  7. Have not seen this, but like a few other films in this blogathon, I will add it to my list of films to see.

  8. Hi Danny. I should first confess right off that Norma is my all-time favorite actress (why? she just makes me feel good whenever I watch anything she is in and I think I’ve seen everything we can still see. Not saying she is the best, just my favorite). Having said that, I really enjoyed your take on this movie. You know, I believe that Gable enjoyed working with Norma and vice versa, because I think they prodded each other to stretch the confines of their images. And I give you this performance and theirs in Strange Interlude as proof. Both pretty weird movies that they actually manage to succeed in. Bob Montgomery will always be my fave male acting partner of Norma’s, but Gable’s a close second.

    I’m glad you didn’t go into the whole side story about this movie’s two different endings. One time TCM showed the other ending after they showed the movie, and to me, it didn’t really matter which they chose to use. Like you intimate, the movie was more the characters reactions of what might come. And until Americans felt that Pearl Harbor sting of invasion and commitment of sacrifice, many really were reacting in terms of WWI. I’m currently reading Alistair Cooke’s The American Homefront 1941-1945, and early on, many Americans were still in the mindset and of the perspective you so well describe.

    At any rate, thank you for such an insightful and open-minded review. I very much enjoyed it!

    1. Thanks for sharing. And I’ll have to check out that book too– it’s interesting to see how the American character evolved after the Depression and during World War II .

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