Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.
By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.
The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.
It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.
You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.
However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.
In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.
She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.
Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.
Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before until it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.
Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.