Clark Gable was anxious to do a movie about oil — wildcatters as they call ’em — because his father had been an oil man. Of course, MGM was looking to put him in such a picture too and when a certain story was published in Cosmopolitan it would prove the inspiration for Jack Conway’s Boom Town.
The most obvious attraction to this picture then and now is the copious amount of star power. We already mentioned MGM’s beloved Gable but Boom Town has Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr all readily available. This would be the two men’s final film together out of three outings. It’s not so much that they didn’t like each other but the fact that they were both formidable attractions and Tracy was starting to command top billing.
In an industry consumed with A-list and B-list stars, MGM didn’t quite know how to go about keeping them together and so they never appeared in the same film again. I can’t say that it leaves me heartbroken.
They meet on a plank crossing a muddy mining street. Whether it was purposeful or not you can’t help but recall the fateful meeting of Robin Hood and Little John. Except these two men share the same name. The local saloon keeper christens them Big John (Gable) and Square John (Tracy) respectively. They’re none too amicable at first but after a bar brawl that looks more like lawn bowling, they’re pals enough. Those type of things builds camaraderie in hard-bitten men like these.
Soon enough they are going halfsies on a piece of land “Shorty” has been aiming to drill on. Frank Morgan isn’t much help as the begrudging equipment salesman and so they take matters into their own hands. A lovable Chill Wills plays a drawling Sheriff with a penchant for cookbooks and a decent shot with a rifle.
The film could have been a gusher laden with drama but most of the blasts of energy are few and far between hidden under layers of good luck and hard luck, romantic interplay, and the ever-changing tides of the oil business. Some of these themes would be echoed again in works like Giant (1956) and There Will Be Blood (2007).
The most rewarding scene by far is watching Gable and Tracy brawl it out in an office. By now they’ve both been big men who have known both failure and success. But this strips everything down to the two of them and the woman caught between them.
I must admit that Hedy Lamarr’s part is rather uninteresting — little fault of her own — though most would note that she is as alluring as ever as the ingenious socialite and serial eavesdropper who helps McMasters take over the New York market.
Claudette Colbert is compelling enough in a role that reunites here with her It Happened One Night (1934) leading man, though the role was written initially for Myrna Loy and there is an innate sense that if she could have repeated her spectacular turn in Test Pilot (1938), this picture now transplanted to the oil fields would have been better for it. As it is Gable and Tracy do seem to command most of the attention. After all, this is really their story as we watch them rise, fall, and come back clawing again and again.
The final big moment, however, goes to Tracy standing up at the witness stand and even though he and McMasters have long since parted ways, pushed each other out of business, and even come to blows, he still manages to exonerate the man of any wrongdoing.
Because if nothing else they are both oil men with ideals of what the country might be if we take care of our limited resources for our children. You might call “Hogwash” but it’s a nice sentiment anyways and as usual, Spence delivers it with his typical candor that silences any naysayers. However, one wonders what the picture might have been if Colbert and Lamarr were given a bigger stake.