Boom Town (1940)

“You’re my girl, see? And you always will be — even if I have to lick you to prove it.”

Synopsis:
Two aspiring oil barons — “Big” John McMasters (Clark Gable) and “Square” John Sand (Spencer Tracy) — become business partners, but find their relationship strained when Gable marries Tracy’s would-be love interest (Claudette Colbert). Gable’s ongoing affair with a beautiful charmer (Hedy Lamarr) in New York causes loyal Tracy to do what he can to save Colbert from heartbreak — including wooing Lamarr himself.

Genres:

Review:
The perils of “wildcatting” (drilling for oil in unknown fields) nearly take second place to the pitfalls of loving another man’s wife in this sprawling tale of frenemies battling for both the heart of the same woman, and bragging rights as oil barons. It’s a true challenge to keep track of who’s up or down oil-wise at any given time, given how often their fortunes shift — but what’s not confusing is the endurance of Tracy’s thankless love for Colbert, whose similarly thankless love for Gable is met with repeated infidelities. Lamarr is beautiful eye candy as the primary rival for Gable’s affections, and Frank Morgan plays a spluttering equipment financier whose loyalties waver as often as his clients’ fortunes. The most engaging scenes in this flick are those of oil fires raging away — yikes!

Note: If this subject interests you at all, be sure to check out the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, which was turned into an 8-hur miniseries documentary that is well worth watching.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good historical recreation of early oil towns
  • The terrifying oil fire scene

Must See?
No; this one isn’t must-see except for diehard fans of the stars.

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One Response to “Boom Town (1940)”

  1. A tentative once-must, for its historical backdrop and for Jack Conway’s direction.

    I thought I’d include this viewer response from 2006 that I happened to find at IMDb:

    [As one who has worked in the “oil patch” for 25 years, I feel that ‘Boom Town’ is the most realistic portrait of the industry (during that period) that has ever been put on film. The formation of the cartel mimics the origins of Standard Oil. Also, the ‘feel’ of the picture is right and the industry is not romanticized as in other films. Perhaps, as was noted in other comments, this is because of Gable’s experience as a wildcatter.

    Several others have noted, or objected to, Gable’s speech about the nature of the industry. Yes, it is decidedly pro-business and anti-government, but it is not really laissez faire. The film argues for controlled production of oil fields to maximize their long-term benefit. This speech is amazingly prescient of our current crisis.

    I watch this one every time it airs.]

    I’m in agreement with the initial assessment. The film chooses a broad sweep of its subject matter in order to highlight its main characters and their ups-and-downs with each other. (The goal seems to have been to guarantee the dual interest of male and female audience members.)

    Conway’s direction is solid throughout. Somewhat unsung among more contemporary audiences, he is credited with about 100 feature films – among them ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1935) and ‘Libeled Lady’ (1936). He may not have the number of high-profile titles that others have but, of the ones of his that I’ve seen, he was capable of noteworthy work.

    The main cast members are fine – even if their performances seem to rely on work they’ve done elsewhere and aren’t particularly characterizations unique to this film. ~that includes Morgan; “spluttering” is the perfect description for him since he’s still doing in this film what he just finished doing (to better and more colorful advantage) in ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

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