Test Pilot (1938)

Cinematography by

Ray June

Test Pilot is a 1938 film directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy, and featuring Lionel Barrymore. The film tells the story of a daredevil test pilot (Gable), his wife (Loy), and his best friend (Tracy).

Test Pilot was written by Howard Hawks, Vincent Lawrence, John Lee Mahin, Frank Wead and Waldemar Young. The screenplay was largely based on an original story by former naval aviator Wead.


Clark Gable, Myrna Loy , Spencer Tracy


Proving to be an “audience-pleaser”, becoming one of MGM’s top money-makers in 1938, Test Pilot also found favor with critics. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called it “a bang-up aviation drama … It is a generous show by any reckoning, long in its running time, star-studded and spectacular, and Victor Fleming, its director, has paced it wisely.” Film Daily raved, “Spectacular romance thriller … It can’t miss.” Harrison’s Reports wrote, “Excellent entertainment … Other air pictures have been made; but for sheer thrills, this one leads them all because of the realistic way it has been done.” John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that while aviation films with fine flying scenes had already been done, those in this picture were “superior to the average.”

Today, it is considered a significant aviation film by historians due to the use of contemporary aircraft. Even at the time of its release, Variety noted that the “story bespeaks authority in detail, obviously explained by the fact that Capt. Frank Wead, who authored the original, has had (a) practical aviation background.” Both Loy and Tracy (despite his obvious scene-stealing battles with Gable) later claimed Test Pilot was their favorite film


Myrna Loy

Wonderful fun

18 March 2006 | by planktonrules (Bradenton, Florida) – See all my reviews

Like their movie TOO HOT TO HANDLE, this movie proves that Myrna Loy and Clark Gable made a great team (provided you, of course, don’t count Parnell). Their chemistry, though less famous than William Powell and Myrna Loy, is great. The light and fun movies they did together are among my favorites of the 1930s. Now I am NOT saying they are the BEST, as there were many films that were more significant or realistic. But, sometimes I just want a film that is fun for fun’s sake and doesn’t necessarily have great depth. And you can’t do a lot better than this film for just such a film. Wonderful acting, a cute plot and dialog and action combine to make a very enjoyable film that will most likely encourage you to look for more like it.


Excellent Film with Gable, Tracy and Myrna Loy

Author: Al from United States
16 June 2006
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This second pairing of Gable and Tracy was a great follow-up to the exciting “San Francisco” which was their first film together. Tracy was fast-becoming a very big star had an expanded role, but was still Gable’s side-kick; something he would soon tire of. But all three stars, Gable, Tracy and Myrna Loy have a wonderful chemistry together. They play both the comedy and drama of the film with great ease and truthfulness. This trio, along with the wonderful Lionel Barrymore really make the film work.

This isn’t quite standard MGM fare. Underneath the fun-loving natures of the leads there is a slowly building sense of doom that begins to wear on them all. Tracy’s character gives the tension a voice in his quietly stated mantram “Three Roads”.


As with the earlier film pairing, “San Francisco”, “Test Pilot” was considered quite a fine action film with terrific special effects. Although, the latter suffers greatly in the special effects department today, while “San Francisco” still holds up quite well due to the excellent camera work, editing and creative special effects.

There is one scene in particular that is fun to watch when you know the back story. It takes place rather early on with Gable driving a car with Loy sitting in front with him, and Tracy sitting in the back. The scene’s lines are only between Loy and Gable with Tracy sort of listening and chewing gum. Gable was quoted after the premier complaining in an envious but lighthearted manner about that “damn Tracy, we’re acting our asses off, we have all the lines and he’s still the only one you watch!” Gable had a life-long respect for the great acting prowess of his co-star.


Also look for Gable’s last speech at the end of the film. While lecturing a group of air force recruits he suggests that the’re either “cracking wise or giving him the bird!” The first time that gesture was ever mentioned on screen!

A great 1930’s MGM classic. Don’t miss it!

Testing for World War Two

Author: D.S. Bertolotti (dbertolo@kettering.edu) from flint mi
22 January 2001

This film is essentially about testing planes for the war that anyone who even had a passing interest in international affairs knew was unavoidable, World War Two. The plot deals with the experimental phase of flying military equipment, of which the United States had inferior quality and little quantity in 1938. In the interest of progress, test pilots were willing to take to the air and strain both themselves and their equipment beyond normal bounds. The mythology is enhanced by the prologue in terms of the lack of the publication of “the specifications of government aircraft.” It is probably just as well since America’s enemies generally had better aircraft before the American involvement, except perhaps for the C-47 and the B-17. This initial disclaimer only sharpens the fiction of the film. The movie is worth a look if one is even mildly interested in aircraft lore.


Good Flying

Author: hcoursen from United States
4 August 2007
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The flying shots are often very good, particularly since they look to have been taken from another aircraft. The planes are antique, even by late 30s standards. The sleekest fighter resembles a P-36, already obsolete (vs. the Zero and the Me 109). The B-17 is the early model sans tail gun. Loy is an improbable farm girl and her conflict with the flamboyant Gable (in love with the wild blue dress yonder) is unconvincing compared to the witty interchanges with Powell in the Thinman films. Tracey, without a great part, shows how good he is. He just raises an eyebrow or lowers a lip — no wonder Gable envied his acting! But watch this one as part of a “history of flight” course — not necessarily how it was done back then but how it was depicted. And there is some truth to the mythology that inter-war flying in this country was done by a bunch of loners, rogues, and madmen. We were only a few years from the more mechanized approach to turning out pilots in great and necessary quanities, in schools where “training” was really done.


Sometimes Those Surly Bonds Look Like S&M.

Author: Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
9 October 2012
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A product of MGM in its heyday, written by Frank “Spig” Wead, about whom John Ford was to later make a movie (“The Wings of Eagles”), directed by Victor Fleming, a man’s man who barked orders, played rough, and boozed it up. Manly Clark Gable is the test pilot who always wants to push the envelope, even though he met and married the devoted Myrna Loy overnight. Spencer Tracy is the sidekick, there to provide common sense, worry about Gable, and maintain Gable’s airplanes.


With credits like that, it can’t be all bad. Yet the characters are familiar. We’ve all seen movies before in which the hero is involved in some dangerous pursuit and the woman wants him to quit, settle down, and have babies in a normal home instead of all this running around with roughnecks — and the drinking and swearing and the exhilaration of the adrenalin rush and all those tootsies hanging around and in general everybody carrying on like animals in a zoo. And why doesn’t he get a haircut? She wants him to become a farmer or a shopkeeper or something, and start going to church, and she wants to push the perambulator along the sidewalks.

Now, usually — are you following this? — usually the sidekick is homelier than the hero, as is the case here, and frequently he’s in love with the hero’s pretty wife, devoted to her in fact, which is not the case here. It’s not one of Tracy’s better parts, hobbled as he is by a script that turns him into a sullen and disapproving partner before he becomes a sacrificial lamb who turns Gable’s life around.


It’s too talky. I enjoyed the scenes of flight, even the mock ups. I mean, how often do you get to see an experimental model of the B-17 on the screen? Or a Seversky P-35, a kind of forebear of the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt? The airplanes are real. On the other hand, you can usually tell when something dramatic is about to happen — an engine fails, a stall takes place — because suddenly we’re watching obvious models.

There’s a scene at a drunken party after one of the test pilots goes all the way in. Myrna Loy happens to mention the dead pilot’s name, Benson, and Gable is suddenly enraged and shouts at her, “Who’s Benson?” We get a similar exchange, more light hearted, in Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings” a year or two later. (“Who’s Joe?”) I’d like to think of it as a case of independent invention but Hawks was notorious for ripping stuff off from himself as well as others.


What a strange movie

Author: jpheifer-1 from United States
29 January 2007

First of all, I am not a critic. This is just a visceral reaction to the movie.

It starts out as a fun screwball comedy and then gets really deep. Halfway through I was still wondering where this movie was going. And after it got deep, most of the time I had no idea what the characters were talking about. Of course, by the context I knew they were talking about life, death and love, but what they were really trying to say wasn’t clear. On one hand, I would think that this movie was quite a surprise to ’30s audiences expecting a “Clark Gable movie,” but on the other hand, ’30s audiences weren’t a bunch of innocents. They’d been through a lot of crap, so maybe this movie spoke to them.

On the positive side, is there anything lovelier to look at than Clark Gable? Especially a young (about 37 years old) Gable. It’s also fun to see Lionel Barrymore as a nice guy. Whoda thunk it?



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