Idiot’s Delight (1939)

Directed by Clarence Brown
Cinematography William H. Daniels

Idiot’s Delight is a 1939 MGM comedy-drama with a screenplay adapted by Robert E. Sherwood from his 1936 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. The movie showcases Clark Gable, in the same year that he played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, and Norma Shearer in the declining phase of her career. Although not a musical, it is notable as the only film where Gable sings and dances, performing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin.


Yet Another Gem from 1939

14 January 2004 | by EightyProof45 (New Jersey) – See all my reviews

Robert E. Sherwood won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his allegory-like satire Idiot’s Delight. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the film rights to the play, and commissioned Sherwood himself to adapt his play to the screen. The result is this astoundingly poignant classic, which features Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in the third and last of their radiant screen pairings. Harry Van (Gable) is a vaudevillian touring all of Europe with his musical troupe `Les Blondes.’ The group is forced to stay in an exclusive Alpine hotel when the European borders are closed due to the possible coming of war. A German doctor (Charles Coburn), a French pacifist (Burgess Meredith), an English honeymoon couple (Peter Willes and Pat Paterson), and an Italian officer (Joseph Schildkraut) are lodging in the hotel as well. And also checking in are munitions manufacturer Achille Weber (Edward Arnold) and a beautiful traveling companion of his named Irene (Shearer).


Irene, it seems, reminds Harry of an old girlfriend of his, with whom he had shared a special relationship ten years before in Omaha, Nebraska. But she was a redhead, and spoke with no accent. Irene, however, is a platinum blonde, and has a very clear Russian accent. Still, Harry wonders if it could be the same woman. As Harry pursues Irene, probing her complex web of stories to find out about her past, the war develops rather suddenly. A nearby airfield sends out its bombers, and the garbled radio broadcasts carry the fearful news: war has already been declared. As quickly as the guests assembled, they must depart, as the frontiers are opened for perhaps the last time. But Harry is unwilling to go until he is sure, and Irene is unwilling to divulge… One of the countless films from 1939 to help it earn the nickname of `the greatest year in movie history,’ Idiot’s Delight is both acerbically funny and tragically distressing. Although the original 1936 play and the film version both predate World War II, the threat of war was a very real fear, a sentiment quite powerfully expressed via the disparate, sundry characters. It is startling and even more meaningful all these years after the war, as one can easily see how many of the unfortunate predictions came to glaring truth.


But aside from dramatic poignancy, the two lead performances catapult this film to first-rate status. Shearer is brilliant, quite plainly. She spoofs her number one rival Greta Garbo mercilessly, and uses her accent to its hilarious apex. When she tells her story to Harry, and he just gazes at her, incredulously staring, hilarity reaches its peak! She has turned in so many fine performances, that it is hard to single out any one as her finest (Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, the title role in Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, her Oscar-winning role in The Divorcée, and Amanda in Private Lives are all strong contenders), but her Irene is certainly amongst the competitors. Gable, in a role that requires quite a lot of singing and dancing, succeeds admirably. He is a perfect Harry Van, complimenting perfectly with Shearer. The two have fantastic chemistry, and this was the last of the three classics they starred in together.


****side note****respected Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert singled this out as his favorite of all of the star’s pictures. In one vignette he illustrates in his biography of Norma Shearer, he describes an occasion where the actress herself invited him to a private screening of the film in the 1970s.


Author: auntielynn from United States, Texas, flatland
5 July 2009
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Not so much a “relic” as an artifact of a particular time and place — and state of mind. While Sherwood’s play was quite a strong (and sometimes heavy handed) criticism of the nature of man (and woman) as we approach an inevitable war; his adaptation for the screen is lighter, quirkier, and focuses far more on the American, Harry Van, than on the French weapons-monger (who has been radically Americanized and re-molded into a capitalist-industrialist.) Before we had the luxury of hindsight about Hitler, Mousselinni, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, fascism, Naziism, and capitalism, the focus was on the use of war as a social whip — both restraint and stimulus.


The play takes place completely in a resort in the Italian Alps — but the film only gives us this setting as Act II. As a result, much of the preamble politics of the play are missing, instead replaced by an extended romance between Gable and Shearer for movie audiences.

The artifact (aside from a wonderful look at the con and film-flam of traveling entertainers and the crowds they draw) here is the political analysis of a looming war BEFORE we knew what WWII would eventually become. The “Anti-War” of Idiot’s Delight is anti-war in general, not anti WWII. This is film is a pacifist — not an isolationist. And, Harry Van’s & Norma Shearer’s con and film-flam are identical to that of the master politicians — an attempt to distract us from what is coming with dancing girls, fancy stage effects, and mind-reading tricks.


It is also interesting that it was released in January of 1939 — the bookend for that year’s OTHER Gable war film, Gone With The Wind. While GWTW looks back at a war that pitted brother against brother and neighbors/friends against each other — complete with all war’s worst foibles and consequences — this one is looking forward through the mist of mis-information and missing information at the war in Europe. It is forecasting the same foibles and consequences as the Civil War, WWI, and all other conflicts which wasted lives, inflicted unbelievable pain, wasted the wealth of nations, and de-stabilized the lives of all — all for such laudable motives as greed, pride, lust for power, and jingoistic nationalism.

It’s hard to believe (and yet believable, because we do have artifacts like this) that the conversation about the looming war in Europe during the late 1930s wasn’t so much about Hitler, the Nazis, or global domination as it was about occupation, tyranny, and profit to be made at the expense of lives.

And that is what makes this film an artifact, rather than a relic. Relics are just old and outdated physical evidence of the past. Artifacts show our connection to the past — because they tie our humanity to the same emotions, behaviors and thoughts of those who came before us.


Odd film about the start of World War II in Europe

Author: blanche-2 from United States
30 December 2007

Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Josef Schildkraut and Edward Arnold star in “Idiot’s Delight,” a 1939 film based on the play by Robert Sherwood. Sherwood certainly provided fertile ground for Hollywood. Not only were his plays, such as this one, “The Petrified Forest,” “Waterloo Bridge” and “Tovarich” adapted, but he himself wrote some wonderful screenplays, including “The Bishop’s Wife,” “Rebecca” and “The Best Years of our Lives.” He wrote the screenplay to “Idiot’s Delight” as well.


Not having seen the play, it’s a little unclear as to what “Idiot’s Delight” was supposed to be – a comedy? A drama? A farce? A vaudevillian and his troop wind up having to stay at an Alpine hotel due to border closing as World War II is about to begin. There he meets a woman he swears he has already met – the exotic Irene, a blond Russian, who is traveling with an arms manufacturer (Edward Arnold). Some years before, Gable met this woman, he believes, when she had a different color hair and no accent. Other people at the hotel are a doctor (Coburn), a pacifist (Meredith), honeymooners (Peter Willes and Pat Paterson) and an Italian officer (Joseph Schildkraut). War does break out, the borders re-open quickly – but Harry wants an answer to his question – is Irene the same woman?



This film possibly was intended to be a high-class version of “The Petrified Forest” with people of different beliefs all stuck in the same place, but with Gable dancing and Shearer doing an imitation of Garbo, the balance is thrown off a bit. Nevertheless, despite some comments on this board, they’re both very funny. Someone suggested Gene Kelly, had he been around, would have been good as the vaudevillian, missing the point that Harry isn’t particularly talented, he’s just glib. No one would have seriously cast Clark Gable as a musical comedy performer unless it was intended he be bad. Shearer goes all out as a black-gowned, platinum blond Russian holding a cigarette in a long holder. As Gable tries to pierce her identity, she regales him with wild stories.

So we have Gable dancing and Shearer speaking with a Russian accent on one side, and Burgess Meredith on the other, screaming his guts out about the coming war. In the middle is the medical scientist played by Coburn and the cold manufacturer of Edward Arnold, who doesn’t seem to care if Irene has passport problems or not.


TCM showed two endings of this film – one for Europe and one for the U.S., the U.S. one totally ignoring the war. Watching both was fascinating.

Despite the comedy, the film has very serious undertones, but I wonder if they didn’t get somewhat lost due to the power of the two stars. They both give first-rate performances, but one wonders if they were doing the same movie as Meredith et al. Nevertheless, well worth seeing.

A Can of Mixed Nuts

Author: dglink from Alexandria, VA
24 October 2010

Clarence Brown’s “Idiot’s Delight,” based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, is like a can of mixed nuts: a few classy cashews, the rare Brazil nut, and lots of boring peanuts. On the verge of World War II, a motley crew of travelers is stranded at an Alpine hotel in an unnamed country. However, the film is no “Grand Hotel,” more a “Chalet of Fools.” The highlight is Clark Gable’s famous or infamous song-and-dance routine, “Putting on the Ritz,” with a bevy of blonde showgirls. Gable’s endearingly clumsy dancing is classic and probably best seen as an excerpt in “That’s Entertainment.” To the amusement of Gable and the audience, Norma Shearer in a blonde wig and a deliberately thick Russian accent camps shamelessly. Obviously enjoying herself, Shearer steals the scenes as a phony playing a phony when Gable is not hoofing.


Idiot’s Delight 1939

However, the fun stops there. Burgess Meredith brings the film to a halt every time he appears to rant anti-war propaganda at the other guests. Charles Coburn muddles around with cages of rats and talks about curing cancer, and a pair of innocent newly weds do nothing but occupy screen time. The blonde showgirls that accompany Gable are standard stereotypes from the Southern belle to the perky pixie, and Joseph Schildkraut is the handsome but stern stereotypical military officer. The girls cavort with the soldiers; the young husband must return to defend his country; the bad guys drop bombs. Too many stale peanuts.

After the clichés have played out, the film takes a dark turn that dampens, no, actually drowns, any fun that preceded it, and the finale is absolutely ludicrous. About half way into “Idiot’s Delight,” Sherwood strives to add “meaning” and “significance” to his work and forgot “entertainment.” A stellar cast and a few good scenes are generally wasted in a film whose best bits appear in “That’s Entertainment.”



Two endings


  • The ending shown to the domestic (U.S., Canadian) audience replaced the hymn from the play with Harry and Irene talking about their plans for the future in hopes to divert their minds from the bombs exploding outside the lobby windows. Harry rehearses with her the secret code Irene watched him use with his “mind-reader” partner in Omaha. As the bombing stops and the Alpine valley turns serene once more, Irene excitedly describes their future act together while Harry begins to play the damaged piano. The film’s ending:

    does not go as far as the original in sounding the knell of destruction, [it takes a] lighter and more romantic course in dealing with the menaces of bombings.



  • In the ending intended for international audiences, Harry plays and the two of them sing a hymn from Harry’s youth in hopes to divert their minds from the bombs exploding outside the lobby windows, and they embrace after the Alpine valley turns serene once more. The studio’s marketing goal with the more solemn bombing sequence failed:

    After the trouble to which the producers […] went to make this palatable for the totalitarian states, it seems all the more futile that despite the hazy geographical location and the scrupulous use ofEsperanto, it has been banned in those nations, anyway.


    Right message, wrong war

    Author: calvinnme from United States
    29 November 2015

    This film was released in January 1939, based on a play, eight months before Hitler’s Germany would start WWII by invading Poland. From the mid 1920’s up to the mid 1930’s Hollywood had been making anti war films based on the fact that WWI took so many lives and, in the end, really seemed to be pointless. This was probably the last of that bunch.

    So the backdrop to this film is some unnamed country bordering Switzerland, which has always been neutral not because it chooses to be, but because nobody wants to scale all of those mountains and then face a nation in which every household is required to have a gun and the inhabitants are required to know how to use it.

  • idiot005War is about to be declared and so you have a group of unrelated and dissimilar travelers all temporarily trapped at a swanky mountain hotel until their passports can be verified and they can get across the border the following day. Obviously the author’s viewpoint for the reason for this war is that of pacifist Quillary (Burgess Meredith), who simply believes he can go out and convince men to stop killing each other, and that whatever people think they are fighting about is just a ruse cooked up by those who profit from the selling of war machines. How quaint. I think Hitler would have remained unconvinced by Quillary’s argument up to the point he put a bullet through his brain. Early in the movie the local soldiers arrest him for his speech, or perhaps because they found him as tiresome as I did.
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    As for the rest of the travelers, there is an owner of munitions plants played by Edward Arnold, his female companion played by Norma Shearer, a perpetually failed vaudeville entertainer (Clark Gable) who has finally got a niche with a half a dozen blonde singers and dancers, and a honeymooning British couple. There is also a soldier (Joseph Schildkraut), who is dressed similarly to a Nazi, but doesn’t have that “Nazi way” about him that you see in actual WWII films. Instead he seems somewhat like a bored but polite bureaucrat, just doing his job. He is definitely not Conrad Veidt’s interpretation of that kind of role just a couple of years later.What makes this film worth watching, given that the film is so off base as to what WWII was about? Earlier in the film we see Gable’s character and Shearer’s character meeting in vaudeville in Nebraska and, as much as the production code would allow, implying they spent a single night together, and then never saw each other again. Until now. Maybe. You see, the munitions magnate’s female companion is the spitting image of the girl Gable’s character knew back in America ten years before. But this woman says she is a Russian aristocrat, run out of her homeland by the Bolsheviks as a child. She walks around in ridiculous looking fashions that would have made Dietrich gawk and a silly looking blonde wig. She claims to never have known Gable.
  • idiotsdelightIt’s fun to see Gable give Shearer that same “I’ve got your number sister” look he gave Harlow, Leigh, and Crawford. And you’ve got to wonder if Shearer’s obviously deliberate over the top performance was inspired by exaggerating Greta Garbo’s past performances, and if Garbo punched her in the nose after seeing this obvious parroting of her method. But that would be so un-Garbo. Oh well, if Gable can sing and dance in this film, then I guess Garbo could punch someone in the nose. Enjoy, it is a delight and I’m no idiot.
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