Monday, January 4, 2010

IDIOT'S DELIGHT (MGM 1939) Warner Archive Collection

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Robert E. Sherwood (who also wrote the screenplay), director Clarence Brown's Idiot's Delight (1939) is a rather tepid anti-war melodrama/comedy that pits MGM's 'queen of the lot' Norma Shearer against their reigning king, Clark Gable. The two make for an engaging couple.

At the time of its release, Shearer was decidedly on a downswing at the studio. After the death of her beloved husband, Irving Thalberg, Norma lost the one man who truly understood how to mold and shape her career. Gable's career, however, was just on the cusp of entering its golden period with his turn as Rhett Butler overshadowing his performance herein by a long shot.

Gable is Harry Van, a Vaudevillian who returns from WWI a hero, only to discover that his soldier's status means he is at liberty in the outside world - a tactful way of saying he's unemployable. Leaving the army hospital and breaking hearts along the way, Harry eventually develops a mentalist act with Madame Zuleika (Laura Hope Crews); an old beef who is prone to drink and therefore not what she ought to be when it comes to deciphering Harry's code for the act.

Waiting in the wings is fellow performer, Irene Fellara (Shearer), an aerialist who, in an attempt to save Zuleika from making a fool of herself, inadvertently exposes her as a fraud to a live audience. Irene and Harry share an impassioned few days before parting company. The years roll by until Harry is discovered on a train bound for Vienna with Les Blondes - a troop of hoofing beauties he hopes to promote as a new act.

Unhappy circumstance for Harry and Les Blondes that their train is detained at the frontier on the cusp of WWII. Invited to a posh hotel in the Alps by American tourist turned hotel coordinator, Don Navadel (Skeets Gallagher) Harry and his group discover they are guests of one of the Nazis high commanding officers, Capt. Kirvline (Joseph Schildkraut) and his entourage of soldiers.

Also in attendance at the hotel are Charles Coburn as Dr. Hugo Waldersee, a scientist who abandons his research on a cure for cancer - using the metaphor of war as a cancer that humanity will never cure; Burgess Meredith, as a staunch anti-war protestor who incurs Kirvline's wrath and is assassinated; and Edward Arnold - as Achille Weber, a disreputable Nazi sympathizer arriving on the arm of none other than Irene, masquerading as a Russian countess.

Denying that she ever knew Harry, Irene continues her rouse until it is revealed that Achille has no intension of taking her with him. In fact, Achille does everything he can to expose Irene as a fraud - hence, leaving her at the mercy of the Nazis. Bombs fall on the hotel from a nearby airfield, leveling most of it to the ground, but sparing Harry and Irene who reconcile their love amongst the ruins.

The film is justly famous for Gable's delightfully rambunctious performance of Puttin' On The Ritz - a buck n' wing that outraged his devote following at the time of the film's release. Viewed today, Idiot's Delight isn't particularly engaging entertainment. It's passable enough, but too passive in its 'war is hell' statement to be anything more than a minor diversion. Shearer and Gable have chemistry, and this saves the film from becoming a bore. Gable's roguish personality is in fine form - his sly lady's man approach to the material boding well with Shearer's regal remoteness. In the final analysis, Idiot's Delight is worth a second look, but it doesn't retain the hallmarks of an enduring classic.

Idiot's Delight is a Warner Archive release. There's not much to recommend the transfer. It suffers from excessive video noise. Fine details strobe in multicolored array and/or are plagued by an excessive amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. When the image is solid, it is generally free from age related artifacts, but that doesn't happen too often. Worse, there seems to be a glitch in the authoring. About an hour and 45 minutes into the film, the disc inexplicably pauses, then jumps forward by several minutes before continuing to play.

This reviewer is unable to deduce whether this glitch is specific only to my copy of the disc or a general malfunction indicative in all burn on demand mintings of this particular title. Either way, this transfer is NOT recommended. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. A theatrical trailer is the only extra feature.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



1 comment:

Juanita's Journal said...

Gable's career, however, was just on the cusp of entering its golden period with his turn as Rhett Butler overshadowing his performance herein by a long shot.

I think Gable's career was reaching the end of its golden period with this movie and "GONE WITH THE WIND". He ended up starring in more hits after 1939, but his career was never the same as it was during the 1930s.