Saturday 3 June 2017

Movie Review: Boom Town (1940)

The adventures and loves of two oilmen over many years, Boom Town enjoys plenty of star power but sprawls for too long with predictable ups and downs.

The rural town of Burkburnett, Texas, is the bustling mucky centre of activity for prospective oil drillers. Wildcatters "Big John" McMasters (Clark Gable) and "Square John" Sand (Spencer Tracy) literally bump into each other and team-up, borrowing equipment they cannot afford from Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan) as they try to strike it rich. Their first attempt is a bust, and they barely stay one step ahead of local sheriff Harmony Jones (Chill Wills). The two Johns cut Aldrich in on their next exploratory oil well, and this time they strike oil.

McMasters meets and quickly marries Betsy McMasters (Claudette Colbert) unaware that Sand was also trying to win her heart. Over the years the two men embark on a strained on-again off-again partnership, their fortunes rising and falling with the wild fluctuations of the international oil business. Sand never loses his feelings for Betsy, but she sticks with McMasters through good times and bad. McMasters eventually moves into the big leagues of New York City corporate life, where he falls under the spell of exotic businesswoman Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr). His extramarital dalliances provide Sand with a further incentive to try and win back Betsy's heart by any means necessary.

Directed by Jack Conway, Boom Town re-teams Gable and Tracy from 1938's Test Pilot, as well as Gable and Colbert from 1934's It Happened One Night. With Hedy Lamarr adding silky seductiveness in the last third, the star power certainly helps but does not fully overcome the limited material. The John Lee Mahin scripts sets the tone early, then unfortunately just repeats the cycle of ups and downs with mechanical efficiency but without gaining genuine soul.

The love triangle dynamics between McMasters, Sand and Betsy are always just a bit off. Tracy was starting to get resentful of Gable's star billing and shows it by delivering a generally downbeat and disengaged performance. Colbert's Betsy goes through the film riding the fence between the two men, loyal to McMasters but never severing her emotional ties to Sand, an unconvincing role that comes across as both passive and indecisive.

Just as the romantic liaisons are interesting but not engrossing, the business aspects of the story are curious but superficial and quickly repetitive. The wealth and happiness of the two men ride the rollercoaster of oil booms and busts, test wells proving to be either duds or gushers, money made and money lost in an instant, fortunes sometimes riding on coin tosses. Conway keeps it all moving briskly and throws in one genuinely impressive fire disaster scene, but the cyclical fortunes all start to meld into each other and go on for longer than necessary.

The film often looks the part, and is aesthetically at its best in the early scenes. Conway recreates the chaotic muddy roughness of Burkburnett, a macho rough and tumble place where everyone has a claim and a dream of striking it rich, but few have the combination of resources and smarts required to turn paper and equipment into a fortune.

Boom Town sometimes ignites, but often marks time with predictable ticks and tocks.

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