The most common criticism of Test Pilot, then and now, is that at an hour fifty-nine minutes it is just too long. And it is long, especially for a movie from this era. But surely more liberal editing would leave us making legend of the lingerie scene or clamoring for Gable's drunk scene because, after all, Test Pilot stars Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy and we want to eat up every bit of existing footage featuring that trio. That makes it hard for me to say that it's too long.
While Lionel Barrymore makes his presence felt a few times, Test Pilot is all about its three stars, Gable, Loy and Tracy, each at the peak of their powers and popularity. In a bit of Hollywood's most famed and fondly recognized publicity, Gable and Loy were crowned King and Queen during production while Tracy enjoyed his first of back-to-back Academy Award triumphs just ahead of Test Pilot's release. Test Pilot was nominated for three Academy Awards itself in 1939, but if you prefer bottom line the movie enjoyed holdover business throughout the previous year when it marked itself as one of the biggest hits of 1938.
Gable plays Jim Lane, test pilot of the title, with Tracy playing sidekick as his mechanic, Gunner Morris. When a plane that Jim is testing for Drake (Barrymore) malfunctions he is forced to crash land in a Kansas farm where he encounters Loy’s Ann Barton. At first Jim, angered over the crash, spits orders at Ann, who takes him in stride before confounding the pilot by standing up to him. Once Jim gets a look at Ann he’s smitten and the two fall in love during the single day that it takes Gunner to fly in from New York to repair Jim’s plane. Ann is hurt when Gunner gets Jim to agree they should leave early the next morning, so she immediately gets herself engaged to a local (Joe Pearson) who is certainly no Clark Gable. Jim sulks through sunrise leaving Ann to cry on Gunner’s shoulder after he takes off, but cruising past the Wichita ballpark stirs memories of Ann cheering the home team just the day before and so Jim turns around and comes back to claim Ann. When Jim takes too long returning to the airfield Gunner and Drake become concerned. They’re both fed up when they see ladies’ man Jim has flown a girl back with him, but the woman in question turns out to be Ann, Jim's new wife.
All of that takes place in just a little over a half hour which leaves almost another ninety minutes of dramatic and romantic scenes between our three big stars with the occasional air race or test flight interspersed for danger and action.
Tracy is mostly forced to take a back seat to Gable and Loy, even literally in one scene, but somehow Tracy manages to steal a lot of his co-stars’ thunder, sometimes even with his eyes closed. Even when he doesn’t have many lines, Tracy makes his presence known by letting loose with a quip, one-liner or some sort of business, such as cracking nuts in the background of an otherwise tense scene between Gable and Loy. He mugs a bit, but also raises the stakes through several dramatic scenes opposite Loy, whose Ann quickly comes to realize that marriage to a test pilot is more worry than adventure.
Myrna Loy is at the height of her beauty as farm girl Ann and even a bit saucy during the first portion of the movie, but she plays more than just your average love interest in Test Pilot. She is a true leading lady here given as much to do as her male co-stars, if not a bit more. After Ann and Jim are married, Loy is left to carry most of Test Pilot’s emotional weight, but she has keen help from Tracy, who manages the perfect expression as response to almost any outburst of emotion.
Gable is not to be short shrifted for his work either. Playing the testosterone-fueled test pilot is just up his alley allowing Gable to spend most of the movie in love with himself, sweet-talking a mile a minute and even stumbling through a drunk scene that can’t help to remind the modern viewer of his final bit of work in The Misfits (1961) many years later. Gable’s best dramatic moment in the film comes at a funeral home opposite the widow Benson (Gloria Holden), who he assures, “It’s all right, pal. Hey listen, he died at his trade, see? Now that’s a lot, take my word for it. He has to die sometime, doesn’t he? Well, he died in the air and the air is Benson’s business.”
Many years later at a private showing of another film that included one of the planes used in Test Pilot, Spencer Tracy described the movie as the one, “in which Myrna Loy and I were both in love with Clark Gable” (Curtis 337). Gunner’s initial response to Jim’s dalliance with Ann is suspicion. We’ve already seen Tracy usher Virginia Grey and Priscilla Lawson off the premises so he could put Gable to bed, so we know Gable’s Jim Lane plays the field and Gunner sees no reason to believe Ann is any different from all the women who came before. What’s interesting about Test Pilot is that Gunner doesn’t remain a wedge between Jim and Ann for long. He quickly sees that Ann is a “good girl,” someone with common sense whose influence on his friend will be positive if any at all. His protective instinct soon shifts from keeping Jim safe from distraction to being the inevitable shoulder Ann will need to lean on as she learns just how damaging the new life she has chosen will be. But Gunner never fully turns his allegiance away from Jim, it's just that his loyalties are now split two ways. There is no hint of romance between Gunner and Ann, only friendship based on a mutual understanding that Ann comes to grasp through the passage of time.
The same several stories about the behind the scenes activities of the three Test Pilot stars seem to have mostly trickled down from Loy’s autobiography, Being and Becoming, co-written with James Kotsilibas-Davis. Gable called her “Queenie,” while he was in turn, “the King” and Tracy, “the Iron Duke.” Gable and Tracy playfully needled one another on the set and Loy recounts Gable and director Victor Fleming tempting the then dry Tracy to join them on a bender, teasing that Loy eventually scolded pal Gable for. But the three major stars were very friendly at the studio, almost always coming off as what I would think of as "work buddies." Loy calls Test Pilot “a personal favorite” (151) from among her films and also informs us of Tracy’s insecurities in his strive towards perfection as well as Gable’s terror over some of Test Pilot’s more tender scenes. While Loy’s stories from the set of Test Pilot are oft repeated, you’ll find a bit of a different look at the movie in Chrystopher Spicer’s biography of Clark Gable, where he discusses several of the aviators and aspects of aviation during his brief overview of the film. James Curtis, in his masterful and comprehensive biography of Tracy, expands many of the details originally provided by Loy as well as citing specific facts and figures about Test Pilot's success.
Directed by Victor Fleming, a Gable favorite who later took over directorial duties on Gone With the Wind (1939), Test Pilot earned mostly raves in 1938 with the occasional complaint of being overlong or even a bit on the sappy side. The sap depends on personal taste, but unless you’re pressed for time I can’t see many complaints about the length. Yes, several small scenes could have been cut and sometimes the dialogue wanders, but no, the movie doesn’t suffer much overall because of any of this. We’re watching this one for the three names on the poster and at least one of them is in very nearly every scene of Test Pilot. Our star trio are very often paired off and even spend a good amount of time all together, so this is no Night Flight (1933). They outshine the material, but with three stars of this magnitude it would almost be impossible for that not to be the case. Star power is the payoff in Test Pilot and these are two hours that will only inflate your opinion of each of three of the greatest stars in movie history.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for sending along a review copy of Test Pilot. The title was recently released as a Made to Order DVD-R that you can order direct from the Warner Archive website.