Two buddies who rise from fly-by-night wildcatters to oil tycoons over a twenty year period both love the same woman.
“Big John” McMasters (Clark Gable) and “Square John” Sand (Spencer Tracy) are two down-on-their-luck oil wildcatters who join forces. Without enough money, they steal drilling equipment from a skeptical Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan). Their well proves a bust and they have to hastily depart when Aldrich shows up with the sheriff to take back his property. The two oilmen team up and make enough money to partially pay Aldrich. To get him to back them for a second try, they cut him in for a percentage of the well. This time, they strike it rich.
When Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Bartlett (Claudette Colbert) shows up, McMasters sweeps her off her feet (without knowing that Sand considers her his girl) and marries her. Sand accepts the situation, wanting Betsy to be happy. However, on their first anniversary, she catches her husband dancing with a barroom floozy. As a result, Sand quarrels with McMasters and they flip a coin for the entire oilfield. Betsy leaves too, but returns when she learns that her husband has lost almost everything to Sand and needs her.
Each man goes through booms and busts. Building on his renewed success as a wildcatter, McMasters moves to New York to expand into refineries and distribution, competing against former customer Harry Compton (Lionel Atwill). Seeking inside information about his rivals, he hires away Compton’s adviser Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr), who uses her social contacts and womanly charms to gather industry information.
Meanwhile, Sand loses everything he has built up in South America to a revolution. When he meets McMasters at an oilmen’s convention, the two finally reconcile, and Sand goes to work for his old friend. When he suspects that McMasters is carrying on an affair with Karen, he tries to save Betsy’s marriage by offering to marry Karen. However, she deduces his motives and declines. When a miserable Betsy tries to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills, Sand decides that the only way to help her is to bankrupt McMasters. Sand loses his costly battle with his former friend and goes broke. It is only when he asks McMasters to give his wife a divorce that the married man finally comes to his senses. Later, McMasters is prosecuted by the government for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and loses his business. In the end, poor, but happier, Sand and McMasters team up again, with the blissful Betsy looking on. Aldrich supplies them with equipment and the whole cycle begins again.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised the scenes involving the oil wells as exciting but found the human part of the story “peters out into repetitious wrangling along monotonous lines.” Variety‘s review was positive, writing: “Unlike many large-budgeted productions carrying multistar setups that tend either to costume background or sophistication for limited appeal, this one breaks out with a dashing, rough-and-tumble yarn of modern adventure that carries all elements for widest audience appeal … story is repetitious in its cutbacks to new oil fields and gushers, but this fact will be considered unimportant by the customers.” Harrison’s Reports accurately predicted that the film’s star power would make it a big hit, but said the story was “only fairly good” and the plot “somewhat thin.”
Film Daily called the screenplay “excellent” and wrote that Conway “has furnished an outstanding job of directing, blending the action, love interest and comedy so that interest is held to the end.” John Mosherwrote a mixed review for The New Yorker, stating that “when the plot leaves the West and comes East, it grows rather feeble. Western bars, these boom towns and their peculiar architecture and their customs, and the spectacle of the great oil gushers themselves form a substantial background of interest, I should say, which a commonplace plot merely frames
Boom Town was second only to Gone With the Wind in generating ticket sales for a Clark Gable picture. According to MGM records the film earned $3,664,000 in the US and Canada and $1,365,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $1,892,000
What jumps out for me after my first viewing is the extraordinary confidence on display in the two male stars. The women are also strong, but the story belongs to Tracy/Gable and their identical code of honor. Few US films achieve this level of natural aristocracy. If they do, it’s often one character who possesses the requisite courage and honor, and it brings out the Iago-esquire in others. This is an unusual document in which love and honor rule, and the matter of winning/losing in terms of material goods is viewed with the hauteur of a view of life that has pretty much been eclipsed. As for the writing, it’s not bad – the characters could have been more fully rounded, but there’s enough substance to make for a credible world in which these guys make their way. Tracy and Gable brought this quality of strength to a lot of their films, but having both present, without sacrificing part of either, is quite special.
Gable’s most personal role
When one thinks of roles identified with Clark Gable, Boom Town does not immediately come to mind. Yet this film, done at what most would consider the high water mark of Gable’s career (after Gone With the Wind and before Carole Lombard’s death) was possibly his most personal role. Before he was actor Gable worked in the oil fields with his widowed father. After that he decided acting was a far easier way to make a living. But he actually lived the life that he and Spencer Tracy portrayed in Boom Town. He brings more to the part of Big John McMasters than any other part he ever did. I’m sure he was an unofficial technical consultant on the film.
The film is also an ode to laissez faire capitalism, maybe one of the most right wing films ever done in Hollywood. You will never hear Herbert Hoover’s rugged individualism better justified than in Spencer Tracy’s speech to the jury in Gable’s anti-trust trial. One half of the script writing team was James Edward Grant who later did many of the more propagandistic films that John Wayne did.
Frank Morgan is his usual befuddled self, he had a patent on those parts. Claudette Colbert is fine as the woman both men love and Hedy Lamarr was her usual alluring self.
Great entertainment all around.
Would Have Preferrred Grubby Over Soapy
Author: ccthemovieman-1 from United States
15 July 2007
There was something lacking in this film, not that I didn’t like it: it just wasn’t as good as it should have been. There was an intensity missing. I found it tough to get involved with the story and the characters.
The cast was terrific: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, Hedy Lamarr, Frank Morgan, Lionel Atwill, Chill Wills – are you kidding me? That’s an incredible cast.
Gable had the lead as the cocky oil wildcatter “John McMasters” and Tracy has his more controlled friend “John Sand.” The latter is more than leery of his buddy which turns out to be prophetic as McMasters marries the woman Sands had his eyes on: “Elizabeth Bartlett,” called “Besty” in the film and played by Colbert. However, he accepts it in a mature manner.
This romance angle comes and goes just like the oil fortunes of these two men. One day they’re up; the next day, they’re broke. Lamar enters the picture to give it another melodrama twist. That’s probably why I was bit letdown in the end. The romances took over from the rousing man’s adventure story I thought it was going to be, and looked like it was going to be in the first part of the story. However, I guess they figured women might not come to the theater if there were no complicated romance issues among the tales of two man grubby oilmen. I would have preferred the grubbiness, as this turned out to be a little too long and boring, despite those dynamic lead actors.
Who’s oil is it, anyway?
Author: funkyfry from Oakland CA
4 October 2002
Tracy and Gable play two “wildcatters” — oil hunters — who are always at loggerheads and both manage to gain and lose several fortunes before the film’s end. Colbert is the woman they both love; Lamarr is of course the “other” woman in husband Gable’s life. A lot of fun scenes (especially when the 2 bullheaded oil barons finally duke it out), good characterizations (Morgan, as always, deserves a mention, this time as the slightly petty equipment broker they both rely on), but a somewhat predictable story, though well scripted. Ultra-conservative Mahin has spiced Tracy’s rousing final speech (yes, he ALWAYS gets one) with the pro-business slant so favored by himself and exec-producer Mayer, managing to make this into sort of an anti-Capra comedy.