Watching 1939: Idiot’s Delight (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: Idiot’s Delight (1939)

Release date:  Premiered Jan. 27, 1939

Cast:  Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Edward Arnold, Charles Coburn, Joseph Schildkraut, Burgess Meredith, Laura Hope Crews, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Peter Willes, Pat Paterson, Hobart Cavanaugh (uncredited), Mitchell Lewis (uncredited), Frank Faylen (uncredited)
Les Blondes: Virginia Grey, Virginia Dale, Paula Stone, Bernadene Hayes, Joan Marsh, Lorraine Krueger

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:  Clarence Brown

After World War I, Harry Van (Gable) hopes to break into show business. He travels around the country performing and runs into an acrobat, Irene (Shearer). After a brief acquaintance, the two are separated for more than 20 years. Harry is later traveling through Europe in 1939 with his dance group, Les Blondes en route to Geneva. Their train is stopped and can’t cross the frontier because of the political climate and the impending possibility of war. Harry and his troupe have to stay at an Alpine hotel with other stopped due to the conflict including a scientist (Coburn), honeymooners (Paterson, Willes), a political activist (Meredith), and a munitions tycoon (Arnold) and his mistress, Russian countess, who Van thinks he recognizes as Irene.

1939 Notes:
• Norma Shearer was in two films released in 1939, the other film was “The Women.”
• Clark Gable was in two films released in 1939, the other was “Gone with the Wind.”
• Burgess Meredith was in two films released in 1939, the other was “Of Mice and Men.”
• Charles Coburn was in six films released in 1939.

Clark Gable with Les Blondes in “Idiot’s Delight”

Other trivia: 
• The film was shot with two endings. One in the shown in the United States print was more frivolous and discussed them continuing on with their vaudeville act. The second ending was shown in Europe and had more of a solemn, anti-war message.
• Based on Robert E. Sherwood’s from his 1936 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play. The play starred Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Sydney Greenstreet
• The only film where Clark Gable performs a dance number. He practiced for six weeks and asked that the set be closed when it was filmed because he was nervous. The dance was shot in one take.
• Joan Crawford lobbied for the role, according to the book “Norma Shearer” by Gavin Lambert
• MGM hesitated to produce this film because Vittorio Mussolini (son of Benito Mussolini), the head of the Italian Censor Board, would not approve the script.
• One of the last projects acquired by Irving Thalberg in 1936 before his death, according to the book Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris
• To prepare for the dance number, director Clarence Brown enrolled Clark Gable in two weeks of dance school and rehearsed for several weeks with choreographer George King, according to Harris’ book.

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in “Idiot’s Delight”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In 1939, the talk of war was growing in Europe and also Asia. But the United States was neutral and so were their films (until Warner Bros. stepped up. See: Espionage Agent).

This neutrality was complicated when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to adapt Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 political, anti-war play “Idiot’s Delight.” The plot focuses on an American vaudeville troop trying to travel to Geneva, Switzerland. They are stopped and forced off a train due to the start of a world war. They have to stay at an alpine hotel with various other misplaced people; waiting until they can travel to a safer political climate.

In the play, the setting is the Italian Alps. However, in the film, no location is disclosed and the aggressors are not identified. Edward Arnold’s character is a munitions manufacturer dealing with the unfavorable side but they are also not identified.

MGM did this in an effort to have the script approved for filming and comply with the United State’s neutrality. To make matters even more interesting, Vittorio Mussolini, son of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and head of the Italian Censor Board, wouldn’t approve the initial script, particularly because the play’s script mentioned Benito Mussolini, Italy and Germany. However, the message of the story is still pacifism.

While the film is an anti-war story, most people would know “Idiot’s Delight” for one scene if they have watched “That’s Entertainment” (1974), the nostalgia documentary chronicling 50 years of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Clark Gable dancing to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Many actors who aren’t traditionally musical stars were required to sing and dance on film, and Clark Gable did not escape these job duties. In “Idiot’s Delight,” Gable sings and dances to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with his Les Blondes dancing troupe.

Director Clarence Brown put Clark Gable into dancing school for the role. He was reportedly nervous and had the set closed down (except for Carole Lombard) when the dance was filmed. The dance was filmed in one take, according to the book Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris.

“I’ve seen it but I still don’t believe it,” Lombard is quoted as saying in Harris’s book.

I have read comments that Gable hated the dance and others saying it’s awful. As someone who currently takes tap dancing classes, I would say he does a darn good job in this dance number – particularly for someone who is out of his element. It’s funny, I have always loved Gable’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number and it never occurred to me to criticize it. But then I also have a love non-traditional musical numbers.

Truthfully, whatever you think of his performance, I would say that Gable’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is what people know “Idiot’s Delight” for.

Despite having to white wash the anti-war aspect of the plot, “Idiot’s Delight” is a fairly entertaining film.

Norma Shearer was cast in an effort for her to recover from “Marie Antoinette” (1938), which didn’t do well in theaters. Formerly one of Hollywood’s top box office draws, “Idiot’s Delight” would be one of her last films, and Shearer would leave Hollywood in 1942. However, 1939 also held a film that is famous for it’s all female cast – “The Women,” which starred Shearer and Joan Crawford (and a bevy of other top actresses).

I will admit, the Russian accent that Shearer’s character has to use in the second half of the film gets pretty tiresome. In the mid-1970s, Shearer alluded that the accent was her doing Garbo, according to “Norma Shearer” by Gavin Lambert.

In light of the war, another interesting aspect of “Idiot’s Delight” is that two endings were filmed: one for American audiences and one for international audiences. Both begin with an air raid and Gable and Shearer staying in the hotel lobby rather than taking shelter but end differently:
American ending: Amidst the air raid, Gable and Shearer begin planning the vaudeville show they will have together. Gable bangs out “A Vision of Salome” on the piano as Shearer discusses what she will wear and her stage name as planes swoop outside the window.
International ending: The vaudeville reteaming is discussed right before the air raid begins. The two watch the planes dropping bombs outside the window and are fearful. They begin to sing and play the hymn “Abide with Me” on the piano during the air raid, and embrace when the firing stops and they are safe.

I’m glad that both endings are preserved and you can see them back-to-back. The American ending is pretty ridiculous. The international ending is better and fits the tone of the film better. It’s solumn ending was also meant to be optimistic for audiences overseas.

While I may sound critical of “Idiot’s Delight,” I really do enjoy this film. It has that indescribable late-1930s/early-1940s MGM vibe that I love. And I will watch anything directed by Clarence Brown or starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, even though when it comes to 1939 – “Idiot’s Delight” generally isn’t the film most people discuss for either actor.

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Idiot’s Delight (1939)

  1. I enjoyed your review of this film, Jessica. As much as Iove Norma Shearer, I’ve never made it all the way through — although, oddly enough, I have seen the end, but it was the international version! Weird. Anyway, you are so right about Gable’s dance number being the main thing I remember — from the moment I opened your post, and even while I write this comment, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” has been playing on a loop in my head! (I love Gable’s performance by the way!)


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