Cast & Crew
Samuel S. Hinds
Because test pilot Jim Lane loves carousing almost as much as he loves flying, his partner, Gunner Morse, has to watch out for him. During a flight in a plane owned by Drake Aviation in which Jim is attempting to break the cross-country speed record, Jim has to make an emergency landing on a Kansas farm owned by Ann Barton's family. Ann and Jim are immediately attracted to each other, although each feigns disinterest. Jim and Ann spend the day together before Gunner arrives to fix the plane and although they have a good time, that evening Ann and her local "sweetheart" announce their engagement. The next day Jim leaves, but he comes back, and the two fly off to get married. Drake and Gunner are surprised and annoyed at the marriage, but Ann, whom Drake calls "Thursday" soon becomes an important part of their lives. Jim continues on the way he has, despite Gunner's warnings, and narrowly escapes death in an air race during which fellow pilot Greg Benson dies when his plane loses its wings and takes a nose dive. Ann now realizes that they are faced with three roads, all ending in doom, but she promises Gunner that she will stick with Jim no matter what. Jim keeps flying, blissfully ignorant of the devastating effect that his wrecklessness has on Ann and Gunner, as both become more and more fatalistic. On a flight to test the altitude potential of a military plane, Gunner rides along to help. As the plane reaches thirty thousand feet, the sandbags simulating bombs break loose during a tail-spin and Gunner is crushed. Jim refuses to bail out and is able to crash-land the plane, but Gunner dies, telling Jim that he has taken the easiest road. At home, Jim is confronted by an almost hysterical Ann, who says that she wished that he had died too. Jim then goes to Drake's office where Drake helps him realize that he loves Ann. Later Drake calls her to say that Jim will no longer want to fly because his heart is on the ground with her. A few years later, Jim is an army officer, training young pilots and Ann happily brings their little boy to visit the air field.
Samuel S. Hinds
Louis Jean Heydt
Arthur Stuart Hull
Charles Waldron Jr.
Louis D. Lighton
Edwin B. Willis
Best Writing, Screenplay
Gable plays Jim Lane, a binge-drinking test pilot who lives for the thrill of risking his own hide. Jim works for Howard Drake (Lionel Barrymore), a rich airplane manufacturer. Tracy - whose rare supporting role was beefed up during shooting - plays Gunner, a loyal mechanic who idolizes Jim. One day, while testing a hot new plane called The Bullet, Jim crash lands in a Kansas cornfield. There, he meets a dazzling farm girl named Ann Barton (Loy), whom he later marries. (Plane crash or not, you’re doing pretty well when you find Myrna Loy twiddling her thumbs in the middle of Kansas.)
Jim, as you might imagine, is too much for an innocent farm girl like Ann to handle. Her nerves get jangled when she thinks about him crashing, and she soon develops second thoughts about their marriage. But that’s all put on the back burner when the military comes knocking, and Gunner winds up playing the hero while Jim test flies a new Air Force bomber (actually a newfangled B-17, the plane that would soon be blasting Germany to pieces in World War II.)
Test Pilot isn’t likely to be confused with a documentary, but it’s so well done it snagged a 1938 Best Picture Oscar nomination (Frank Wead was also nominated for Best Screenplay, and Tom Held for Best Editing.) Loy always cited this as her favorite role. She discusses the picture at some length in her autobiography, Being and Becoming, during which she details her close, platonic relationship with lady’s man Gable.
“We always used to celebrate together at the end of a picture,” she wrote. “Clark insisted on it. It was just a kind of ritual the two of us had. We would share a bottle of champagne while he read poetry to me, usually the sonnets of Shakespeare. He loved poetry and read with great sensitivity, but he wouldn’t dare let anybody know it. He was afraid people would think him weak or effeminate and not the tough guy who liked to fish and hunt.”
Tracy and Gable weren’t very close – at one point, Tracy refused to hop a B-17 to Catalina with Gable and his buddies because he knew there would be drinking, and he was on the wagon - but they had a healthy rivalry on the set. Gable, who never considered himself a great actor, was in awe of Tracy...and Tracy basically thought he should be. Though he was happy to work with Victor Fleming (they had previously worked together on Captains Courageous, 1937), Tracy was less than thrilled to appear in Test Pilot. He knew that the film was designed as a “Gable picture,” and it ate at him. He was tired of being cast as the laid-back guy who never got the girl.
(SPOILER ALERT) He did, however, attempt to even the score while playing his death scene. Gable claimed Tracy died the “slowest, most lingering death in history.” He had to cradle Tracy in his arms during the scene, and was hard-pressed to react accordingly throughout the extended exit. During one remarkably lengthy take, Gable dropped Tracy’s head with a thud and shouted “Die, goddamn it, Spence! I wish to Christ you would!” For some reason, that particular anecdote didn’t make it into Test Pilot's press releases.
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Producer: Louis D. Lighton Screenplay by: Vincent Lawrence, Frank Wead, Howard Hawks, Waldemar Young, John Lee Mahin
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Tom Held
Music: Franz Waxman
Set Design: Edwin B. Willis
Costumes: Dolly Tree
Principal Cast: Clark Gable (Jim Lane), Myrna Loy (Ann Barton), Spencer Tracy (Gunner Morris), Lionel Barrymore (Howard B. Drake), Samuel S. Hinds (Gen. Ross), Arthur Aylesworth (Frank Barton), Claudia Coleman (Mrs. Barton).
by Paul Tatara
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
She was was born in Los Angeles on March 22, 1917, and was exposed to the film industry at a very young age. Her father, Ray Grey, was a Keystone Cop and acted in several other of Mack Sennett's comedies with the likes of Mabel Normand, Dorothy Gish and Ben Turpin. When her father died when she was still a child, Virginia's mother encouraged her to join the acting game and audition for the role of Eva for Uncle Tom's Cabin, a big budget picture for Universal Studios in the day. She won the role, and acted in a few more pictures at the studio: The Michigan Kid and Heart to Heart (both 1928), before she decided to temporarily leave acting to finish her schooling.
She returned to films after graduating from high school, and after bouncing around Hollywood doing bits for various studios, she hooked up with MGM in 1938. Her roles in her first few films were fairly non-descript: In Test Pilot and Ladies in Distress (both 1938), she did little more than look pretty, but in the following year she had scene-stealing parts in The Women (upstaging Joan Crawford in a delicious scene as a wisecracking perfume counter girl) and as the suffering heroine in Another Thin Man (both 1939).
Despite her versatility (she could handle comedy or drama with equal effectiveness), MGM would cast her in some above-average, but hardly starmaking movies: Whistling in the Dark, The Big Store (both 1941), and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). She left MGM in 1943 and became a freelance actress for several studios, but her material as a leading lady throughout the '40s were mediocre: Swamp Fire, House of Horrors (both 1946), and Mexican Hayride (1948) were sadly the more interesting films in her post-MGM period. But by the '50s she was a well-established character actress, appearing in fairly big-budget pictures: All That Heaven Allows, The Rose Tattoo (both 1955), Jeanne Eagels (1957).
In the '60s, Grey turned to television and found work on a variety of hit shows: Wagon Train, Peter Gunn, Bonanza, My Three Sons, I Spy, and several others; plus she also captured a a couple of notable supporting parts in these films: Madame X (1966), and Airport (1970), before retiring completely from acting in the early '70s. She is survived by her sister, Lorraine Grey Heindorf, two nieces and two nephews.
by Michael T. Toole
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
Some reviews and modern sources call the character played by Spencer Tracy "Gunner Sloan"; the onscreen credits say only "Gunner," and his surname is only spoken once, by Clark Gable's character, who calls him "Gunner Morse." The title Test Pilot was first announced by M-G-M in 1933. According to news items in Film Daily and Hollywood Reporter, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery and Jimmy Durante were to star in the picture with Clark Gable, that was to be filmed partially on location at Wright Field in Dayton, OH by special permission from the the U.S. War Department. A February 1, 1936, Hollywood Reporter news item noted that M-G-M was buying the story "Test Pilot" by Frank Wead for a Lucien Hubbard production to be adapted by Bertram Millhauser for Gable. In late April 1937, another Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Homer Berry and John Lee Mahin were doing a treatment for the film. Wead, who was himself an ace pilot, is credited on the screen with the original story (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), and Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young are credited with the screenplay. No other sources credit Millhauser, Mahin or Berry, and the extent of their participation in the completed film has not been determined. Although Gable was mentioned in sources from 1933 through production as the star of Test Pilot, it is possible that the 1933 title referred to an unrealized project and is only coincidental to the 1938 film.
Some reviews indicate that events in the film were based on the life of test pilot James "Jimmy" Collins. Collins died in 1935 in a plane crash similar to the one in the film in which character Greg Benson dies in a nose-dive crash after his plane loses its wings. According to news items in Hollywood Reporter and Motion Picture Daily, Collins wrote a book called Test Pilot shortly before his death. In July 1938, Collins' widow, Dolores Collins, filed a suit against M-G-M charging that the studio had plagiarized her husband's book. The suit was settled in late 1938 when the judge ruled against Collins saying "I am satisfied that there was nothing in the motion picture that confirmed this came from the plaintiff's story."
According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter on December 1, 1937, actress Janet Beecher was signed to play the part of Myrna Loy's mother; however, Claudia Coleman played the the role in the released film. An article in Life magazine state that portions of the picture were filmed at March Field, CA, and that the final airplane crash of the film was based on another 1935 incident in which the first "Flying Fortress," a Boeing 299, went down. Articles in Hollywood Reporter prior to the beginning of principal photography noted that location work at the Cleveland Air Races was being done by pilot Paul Mantz, M-G-M legal department representative Harry Prinzmetal and assistant director Cullen Tate. Hollywood Reporter and International Photographer list additional backgrounds and location shooting at Chino, CA, Van Nuys Municipal Airport, Mines Field, Metropolitan Airport and Union Air Terminal in Southern California, Lindbergh Field in San Diego and Langley Field in Virginia. International Photographer also notes that the picture was scheduled for thirty-five days of location shooting on a seventy day shooting schedule, and that it was the first aviation picture made by M-G-M in several years.
The Motion Picture Herald review noted that the studio held previews of the picture simultaneously in Westwood and New York on a Thursday and opened it the next morning, usually a sign that the picture would not do well. The review further noted but that this would definitely not be the case for Test Pilot, which had the added plus factor that Loy and Gable had just been named the "King" and "Queen" of Hollywood. (This was a reference to a poll of over 20,000,000 fans conducted by fifty-five metropolitan newspapers, and sponsored by New York Daily News and ChicTrib. Reviews also noted that the film would receive added attention because Tracy had just won an Oscar for Captains Courageous. The picture was one of the top box office films of the year and, though it received many positive reviews, several critics mentioned that the film was "too exciting" and would not be suitable for young children. The picture was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Writing (Original Story) and Best Picture. Robert Taylor and Rita Hayworth appeared in a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the story on May 25, 1942.
Released in United States 1938
Released in United States 1938