Program Notes: Idiot’s Delight (1939)

Idiot’s Delight is a movie whose time has come.

And gone.

Sorry to damn with faint praise a film based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a movie that features Clark Gable’s only on-screen singing/dancing performance. But this is a classic case of a once-celebrated flick that no longer works for modern audiences.

Still, it came out in 1939 and as one of that year’s hits it’s part of our year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year.

Idiot’s Delight is about a bunch of travelers representing different countries and political persuasions who are stranded in a posh mountaintop hotel in the Alps. War has broken out (clearly World War II, though it’s not identified as such) and the borders have been closed.

Film Screening:
Idiot’s Delight (1939)
Saturday, Jan. 18 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

The central character – American song-and-dance man Harry Van (Clark Gable), who is touring with several blonde showgirls – is apolitical and largely indifferent to the big issues swirling around him.

Instead, he becomes obsessed with solving a personal mystery. Harry suspects that a fellow traveler staying at the hotel is not what she seems.

The beautifully coiffed and dressed Russian countess (Norma Shearer) is the kept woman of a rich man. But to Harry she looks suspiciously like a struggling actress he knew in Omaha nearly two decades earlier.

The 1936 Broadway production of Idiot’s Delight starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and won playwright Robert E. Sherwood the first of his four Pulitzers for drama. It was typical of Sherwood’s work in that it delivered personal farce against overriding social themes – in this case the stupidity of war and the danger of the rising fascist tide.

“The trouble with me,” Sherwood once said, “is that I start with a big message and end up with nothing but good entertainment.”

Initially, Sherwood was concerned that his play would be too political for mainstream audiences. He needn’t have worried. The New York Post critic raved that the play had the “uncommon ability to combine entertainment of a fleet and satisfying sort with an allegory which reaches for a larger meaning.”

Given the play’s success a movie version was inevitable. M-G-M cast two of Hollywood’s hottest actors – Gable and Shearer – and packed the supporting cast with solid pros like Edward Arnold, Charles Coburn, Joseph Schildkraut, and Burgess Meredith.

Now, imagine you’re a member of the movie audience in 1939.

First you’ve got the ever-charming Gable kicking up his heels in two dance routines. Since the big-eared star had never before done musical comedy, this was a big deal. (The star was so insecure about his hoofing skills that he had the set cleared of all but essential personnel.)

Then you’ve got an anti-war message at precisely the moment the world is about to be plunged into another monumental conflagration. So at the time of its release, Idiot’s Delight was very timely.

And you’ve got the ever-popular Norma Shearer, sporting a platinum blonde ‘do that makes her look like Joan of Arc in a helmet, doing what appears to be a Greta Garbo imitation.

Back in 1939 folks ate it up.

Today, not so much.

Gable, it must be admitted, is terrifically charming as a show-biz vet who’s more concerned with his next booking than with world peace. Like Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, Gable’s Harry Van eventually realizes that his problems don’t amount to a hill of beans when the world is on the brink.

Plus you’ve got him singing and dancing. Not well, granted, but then Harry is supposed to be a third-rate entertainer. So it works.

But Shearer is a mess as the Russian countess/con artist, all affectation and bad acting. (Okay, maybe the character was supposed to be a bad actress – it doesn’t make her line delivery any easier to swallow.)

The supporting characters – a greedy industrialist eager to make a killing manufacturing weapons of war, an idealistic young radical, an altruistic M.D. working on a cure for cancer – are less real people than ambulatory political/social points of view.

And 75 years later, the movie’s world-on-the-brink setting has lost much of its immediacy.

Plus, the direction of veteran Clarence Brown (National Velvet, Anna Karenina) feels extremely stage bound. There’s hardly any camera movement and the sets feel claustrophobic, with the mountain views created on a studio soundstage looking particularly phony.

Sherwood, a former film critic, had a spectacular run on both the stage and screen. Among his plays/screenplays are Waterloo Bridge, The Petrified Forest, Rebecca, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

Most of these films continue to entertain and inspire...so let’s cut him some slack on behalf of Idiot’s Delight. They can’t all be keepers.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: The Comedies (Part I)”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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