Thursday, August 11, 2011
Too Hot to Handle
Too Hot to Handle is the sixth and final film collaboration between Hollywood A-listers Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. Part screwball comedy, part high adventure, Too Hot to Handle is a clear predecessor to later romantic adventures like Romancing the Stone, setting the template for this type of film - a heady mix of equal parts snappy dialogue, thrilling adventure, and romantic tension. I was somewhat surprised by how well this film (made in 1938) has aged, proving the staying power of its charismatic co-stars and its fast-paced, globe-trotting storyline.
Gable is Chris Hunter and Walter Pidgeon is Bill Dennis, each the star cameraman for rival news organizations. Now I'd always been aware of newsreels in the 1930s and 40s - prior to the advent of television and the internet, people got their news primarily through the papers or radio. But I'd never really given much thought to the people behind the newsreel cameras. In the 1930s, newsreels would've been a relatively new phenomenon, an exciting new format through which the biggest stories of the day could be consumed by the populace with an immediacy not afforded by print or audio formats. This film brings the culture of newsreel reporting to vibrant life. It's fascinating to watch Gable and Pidgeon strive to "scoop" each other as trend-setting players in the precursor to the modern news broadcasts we take for granted today.
When the film opens, Hunter and Dennis are languishing on the front lines of the Sino-Japanese War, unable to capture the footage of Japanese bombing raids that their respective bosses expect. Hunter is renowned and despised by his newsreel competitors for his willingness to do anything to land exclusive footage of a big story. Gable is perfectly suited to play the role of a fast-talking, ethically questionable (but oh-so-appealing), fearless reporter. There's a scene towards the beginning of the film where Hunter attempts to elaborately stage a fake Japanese air raid that is COMIC GOLD (many of the gags were created by an uncredited Buster Keaton). Between dealing with the neuroses of his soundman Joselito and the uncooperative locals he hires to stage his fake attack, the results are absolutely hilarious - I cannot remember the last time I saw Gable in a film where he was so effortlessly funny.
Hunter's cutthroat tactics start to backfire when his competitors stage a fake medical supplies delivery, and Hunter, not realizing he's being setup, causes the plane to wreck. He's shocked to discover that the pilot is actually a she - a fast-talking, streetsmart aviatrix named Alma Harding (Loy), desperately trying to raise her public profile so she can gain backers for a search-and-rescue mission seeking her long-lost adventurer brother Harry (George Lynn) in South America. The role of Alma lacks the polish Loy's characters were so well-known for in the 1930s (i.e. Nora in The Thin Man film series), but she exudes a fiestiness and an innate strength of character that lends her credibility here - just the right balance of vulnerability and tenacity. And even more importantly, Loy is one of the few leading women of the time that I can think of who could give as well as she took opposite a star of Gable's prowess. Loy has the spunk, the fire, and the vitality to stand on equal terms with Gable's larger-than-life, raw force-of-nature personality, and ultimately, that is what makes her perfect for role of Alma.
The supporting cast is stellar, lending just the right mix of comedy to counterbalance the film's action sequences. Walter Connolly is perfectly cast as Gabby MacArthur, Hunter's boss at Union Newsreel. Prone to stress (thanks to a wife who wants to bleed him dry in a divorce settlement) and possessing a rather excitable nature, it's hilarious fun watching Gable give his on-screen boss fits. The biggest surprise was perhaps Marjorie Main as Kitty Wayne, Gabby's long-suffering secretary. Thanks to her turn as "Ma Kettle," I seem to always associate Main with more unsophisticated, stereotypical "hick country" roles, but here she's just as no-nonsense as ever, only more polished to suit the office setting. *wink* And I loved Gable's buddy chemistry with Leo Carrillo as Joselito, his soundman. The two exchange some hilarious quips, and Carrillo relishes the opportunity to masquerade as a wealthy South American landowner with hilarious results.
I was incredibly impressed with the special effects shots, especially the angles and editing for the sequence where Gable and Loy fly through the fog to film aerial footage of a sinking ship on the verge of exploding. I could never claim to be an expert on the technical aspects of filmmaking, but the sequence holds up incredibly well considering the relative limitations filmmakers had at their disposal in the 1930s compared to today. While the film isn't strictly accurate (particularly in its portrayal of the equipment available to newsreel reporters), what strikes me as rather timeless about the film is its portrayal of "faked" news events and the idea of filmmaking as "truth," if you will. Liken it to reality TV - all it takes is some clever editing and the way an event played out in real life can be recorded and presented on-screen as the new, "definitive" version of the truth. The film also plays with the idea of the role explicit news footage should play in the lives of everyday people, particularly when Alma has a strong emotional reaction to the captured images of the sinking ship, and questions the appropriateness of "exploiting" the sailors' deaths on-screen. I just found it fascinating to watch these news-related issues play out in a time that by comparison to our own is significantly less media-saturated.
The final third of the film, when Hunter, Alma, and Dennis make the trip to South America suffers from some unfortunate stereotyping of the natives they encounter enroute to rescue Harry. But the zippy pace and script provide Gable with a slew of opportunities to chew the scenery with his trademark wisecracks or sequences showcasing his affinity for broadly comic physicality. I loved how Gable's character goes above and beyond to make things right with Alma, yet he still can't resist going to ridiculous lengths to scoop a story out from under his biggest competitor's nose - Gable's verve and perspicacity embody the iconic, never-say-die image I carry in my mind's eye of reporters from the time period.
Part King Solomon's Mines and part Romancing the Stone, Too Hot to Handle is a relatively entertaining slice of cinema anchored by appealing performances from two of the brightest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. While perhaps not my favorite Gable/Loy collaboration (I'm partial to the comedy Wife vs. Secretary), the almost-palpable star power and chemistry between Gable and Loy in Too Hot to Handle are potent reminders that once upon a golden time, they were "King and Queen" of Hollywood for a reason.