Idiot's Delight (film)
|Directed by||Clarence Brown|
|Produced by||Clarence Brown
|Written by||Robert E. Sherwood|
|Music by||Herbert Stothart|
|Cinematography||William H. Daniels|
|Editing by||Robert Kern|
|Release dates||January 27, 1939|
|Running time||107 min.|
|Box office||$1,167,000 (Domestic earnings)
$545,000 (Foreign earnings)
Idiot's Delight is a 1939 MGM comedy-drama with a screenplay adapted by Robert E. Sherwood from his 1936 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. The movie showcases Clark Gable, in the same year that he played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, and Norma Shearer in the declining phase of her career. Although not a musical, it is notable as the only film where Gable sings and dances, performing "Puttin' on the Ritz" by Irving Berlin.
Harry Van (Clark Gable), an American World War I veteran, tries to reenter show biz and ends up in a faltering mentalist show with an inept, aging alcoholic, Madame Zuleika (Laura Hope Crews, who also appeared in Gone with the Wind as Aunt Pittypat). While giving performances in Omaha, he is courted by Irene (Norma Shearer), a trapeze artist, who claims to come from Russia and hopes both to replace Harry's drunken partner in the show and be his lover. They have a romantic night, but he is suspicious of Irene's overstated flights of fancy. Harry, keeping Zuleika, and Irene's troupe board trains going in the opposite directions the next day.
Twenty years later, after a number of jobs, Harry is the impresario and co-performer with Les Blondes, a dance group of six women on a trip through Europe. While taking a train from Romania to Switzerland, they get stranded at an Alpine hotel in an unnamed, belligerent country when borders get suddenly closed as war becomes imminent. The passengers watch through the hotel lounge's large windows as dozens of bombers take off from an air field at the bottom of the picturesque valley and fly away in formation.
Among the passengers lingering in the lounge, Harry meets Irene, a glamorous platinum blonde with an exaggerated Russian accent, who is traveling as the mistress of a rich armaments entrepreneur, Achille Weber (Edward Arnold). Although she claims never to have been to Omaha, Harry's casual innuendos show he is convinced that she is the acrobat he knew there and believes that she recognizes him too. An agitated pacifist (Burgess Meredith) rants to his fellow travelers about Weber's guns, which he says are behind the war that just started, and describes for them how the planes they saw disappear over the spectacular snowy mountains will be killing thousands of people in other countries. The pacifist is hauled away and shot by the border police commanded by the impeccably-mannered and friendly Captain Kirvline (Joseph Schildkraut), who associates with the travelers while they wait at the hotel.
In their hotel suite, an upset Irene explodes and tells Weber "the truth [she has] always wanted to tell." She blames him for the likely deaths of untold numbers of people in the war, whose victims – in her vivid accusations – might include the newlywed English couple, the Cherrys (Peter Willes, Pat Paterson), they met at the hotel, all killed with the weapons that Weber sells.
The Swiss border opens again the next day, and the people at the hotel are able to continue on their journeys. They learn they had better be off as soon as possible, because foreign countries are likely to retaliate today for yesterday's air raid and bomb the air field near the hotel, which could get hit by mistake. As everyone rushes to leave, Irene finds out that Weber has decided to dump her when he refuses to vouch for her flimsy League of Nations passport to Capt. Kirvline, who tells Irene she must stay at the hotel.
Having escorted his Les Blondes to the Swiss border, Harry returns to stay with Irene. She admits she is the woman he met in Omaha twenty years ago and still loves him. Harry talks about her future of performing with him and the blondes. They hear approaching planes and are told to run to the shelter, but Irene declares she does not want to die in a cellar. As Harry tries to take her there anyway, a bomb partly destroys the hotel and blocks their escape from the lounge.
- The ending shown to the domestic (U.S., Canadian) audience replaced the hymn from the play with Harry and Irene talking about their plans for the future in hopes to divert their minds from the bombs exploding outside the lobby windows. Harry rehearses with her the secret code Irene watched him use with his "mind-reader" partner in Omaha. As the bombing stops and the Alpine valley turns serene once more, Irene excitedly describes their future act together while Harry begins to play the damaged piano. The film's ending:
does not go as far as the original in sounding the knell of destruction, [it takes a] lighter and more romantic course in dealing with the menaces of bombings.
- In the ending intended for international audiences, Harry plays and the two of them sing a hymn from Harry's youth in hopes to divert their minds from the bombs exploding outside the lobby windows, and they embrace after the Alpine valley turns serene once more. The studio's marketing goal with the more solemn bombing sequence failed:
In an effort to make the play, staged entirely in the hotel lounge, less wordy and more attractive to watch on the screen, Sherwood wrote the script for MGM with 167 scenes on 42 sets. When Warner Bros. was previously considering to make a movie of Sherwood's play, the studio checked with Joseph Breen, a film censor, who predicted it "would be banned widely abroad and might cause reprisals against the American company distributing it. The play is fundamentally anti-war propaganda, and contains numerous diatribes against militarism, fascism, and the munitions ring." MGM tried to address similar concerns when it purchased the rights to the play, while the Italian Ambassador to the U.S. threatened all of MGM's production would be banned in Italy, but with Italy's Consul in Los Angeles eventually hired as adviser, Rome agreed to cooperate on the production. Although the script was apparently approved by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini himself, Italy still banned the film after it was finished.
Unlike in the play, which takes place in Italy, the country is not identified in the film and the local characters do not speak any national language, but Esperanto, albeit with something of an Italian accent. The inscriptions are also in Esperanto, including, e.g., the sign Autobusō (although the letter ō is not used in Esperanto).
The title phrase, idiot's delight (meaning "solitaire" in U.S. English), was reduced to insignificance in the film, perhaps to avoid the potential for religious controversy:
Mr. Sherwood selected his title with a view to epitomizing his free notions of the motivation, in presumably high places, of armed conflict. His editorial instinct is highly emblazoned in the expression, in two words, of the only feasible basis that can exist for the precipitation of international slaughter.
In the play, the phrase was part of Irene's response to the armaments industrialist Weber after she berates him for his contribution to the war, to which he says:
WEBER: I am but the humble instrument of His divine will.
IRENE: We don't do half enough justice to Him. Poor, lonely old soul. Sitting up in heaven, with nothing to do, but play solitaire. Poor, dear God. Playing Idiot’s Delight.
In the film, though, merely the short phrase idiot's delight is mumbled by Capt. Kirvline (his name changed from the Italian-sounding Locicero in the play) when Harry asks him about the reason for the war.
In the play, the curtain goes down on Harry and Irene as they sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while bombs are exploding outside, leaving it open whether they survive or not, but both versions of the film's ending show the couple to be safe and happy after the air raid. The domestic film version featured no hymn (see above), the international version replaced the impelling "Onward, Christian Soldiers" with its battle-like imagery, employed in the play, with a more demure supplication.
- Norma Shearer as Irene Fellara
- Clark Gable as Harry Van
- Edward Arnold as Achille Weber
- Charles Coburn as Dr. Hugo Waldersee
- Joseph Schildkraut as Capt. Kirvline
- Burgess Meredith as Quillary
- Laura Hope Crews as Madame Zuleika
- Richard "Skeets" Gallagher as 'Don' Navadel (as Skeets Gallagher)
- Peter Willes as Mr. Jimmy Cherry
- Pat Paterson as Mrs. Cherry
- William Edmunds as Dumptsy
- Fritz Feld as Pittatek
- Virginia Grey as Shirley Laughlin
- Virginia Dale as Francine Merle
- Paula Stone as Beulah Tremayne
- Glancy, H. Mark "When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945" (Manchester University Press, 1999)
- Schallert, Edwin (1939-02-02). "Clark Gable sparkles, Norma Shearer Picturesque in Screen 'Idiot's Delight'". The Los Angeles Times.
- Coe, Richard L. (1939-02-17). "Sherwood Film Continues at the Palace". The Washington Post.
- Spicer, Chrystopher J. (2002). Clark Gable: biography, filmography, bibliography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-1124-4.
- Black, Gregory D. (1991). "Movies, Politics, and Censorship: The Production Code Administration and Political Censorship of Film Content". Journal of Policy History (3, April).
- Black, Gregory D. (1994). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-45299-6.
- Bell, Nelson B. (1939-02-08). "'Idiot's Delight' Still Delights the Sapient". The Washington Post.
- Sherwood, Robert Emmett (1936). Idiot's Delight. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.