(American, 1938, 103 minutes, b/w, 16mm)
Jack Conway? TOO HOT TO HANDLE's director was no Orson Welles, no Preston Sturges, no Frank Capra. His name was never above the title in the credits, and no graduate film study seminars have ever reverently examined his films for traces of visual or thematic unity. But without Jack Conway, and two or three dozen men like him, the Hollywood studio system that made possible the Capras, the Sturgeses and the Welleses would have ground to a halt.
Theater critic George Jean Nathan once sniffed that Hollywood was a "machine that functions elaborately to put skin on baloney." Other critics took up the metaphor of the factory to describe the Hollywood production system. In a time of strict vertical integration (the same companies owned studios, distribution networks, and large numbers of theaters), the studios had to supply thousands of theaters with hundreds of films a year. No factory is complete without its foremen, and the contract director -- a skilled, efficient craftsman who could turn a script he had never seen into a movie in eight or ten weeks -- was the floor manager who made the studios of the 1930's and 1940's hum.
Hollywood at its Golden Age zenith was a system that had little patience for the slow gestation periods of creativity common to the other arts. Columbia Pictures' famously crass boss, Harry Cohn, had contempt for the methodical `artistic' directors imported from Europe's film industries in the 20's and 30's. He used to say that the doors to his studios on Gower Street in Hollywood would open up once a week, and when they did, he had to toss out a finished film -- good, bad, drama, comedy, Western, A, B, whatever, but something that theaters in Des Moines, Altoona, and Knoxville could show to a voracious moviegoing public. Cohn, and his fellow studio bosses much preferred the workaday methods of men who had come up through the ranks of studio employees, many as actors or camera operators in the early silent period, men who had been socialized to the frenetic pace of moviemaking-by-committee. Contract directors usually had little input on the scripts they were given, or the choice of cinematographers, composers, and actors they worked with. On conclusion of principal photography, they handed their work off to one of the studio's leading editors, who would put the film together while the director worked on his next film. The contract director could be counted on to bring it in on time, under budget, each of their films an elegant "product" to be sold like Nathan's much-maligned sausages.
At Warner Brothers in the 1930's, there was Lloyd Bacon, William Keighley, Archie Mayo, Roy Del Ruth, and perhaps the greatest contract director of them all, CASABLANCA's Michael Curtiz. Twentieth-Century Fox in the 1930's and 1940's had Henry King, Henry Hathaway, Allan Dwan, and, for many years in the 1920's and 1930's until his graduation to auteur status, John Ford. Paramount's Mitchell Leisen and RKO's Gregory LaCava both earned reputations as gifted directors of both comedy and drama in the late 1930's and early 1940's, though they were little known beyond the Hollywood hills.
But it was MGM who refined the system of contract direction to well-tooled perfection. There, directors like Jack Conway, Clarence Brown, Sidney Franklin, Robert Z. Leonard, and the legendary "One-Shot" Woody Van Dyke (who spurned retakes of any kind), were given access to the studio's most important literary properties and its most prestigious performers. By working quickly, the contract director could help to maximize the studio's investment in a roster of stars so large (Garbo, Gable, Tracy, Loy, Rooney, Garland, Stewart, Hepburn, William Powell, Greer Garson, Jeanette McDonald, Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Hedy Lamarr, Jean Harlow, The Marx Brothers, Lionel Barrymore, and a legion of starlets and character actors) that it took considerable ingenuity to keep them all busy at the same time. By nature amiable and flexible, the contract director was frequently a mediator in the constant struggles between stars and studio, the very speed of their work a balm to both harried studio bosses and actors frustrated by the restrictions they faced within the contract system. Occasionally, MGM would blithely put more than one director to work on the same film to hasten production. It was this climate of maximum efficiency which resulted in the two of the biggest films ever made, MGM's THE WIZARD OF OZ and the MGM-sponsored GONE WITH THE WIND, being signed by the same man in the same year, 1939, consummate MGM contract director Victor Fleming.
Because MGM was the most hierarchical of the major studios, it was not an environment in which auteurs could thrive. The studio rigorously enforced a house visual style (high-key lighting, expensively dressed sets, and a silvery visual tone) through its art directors, costume designers, and cinematographers. Directors with distinctive visual styles (like Fritz Lang) or who were used to complete authority over their shoots (like Alfred Hitchcock) found the atmosphere at MGM's Culver City soundstages inhospitable.
And TOO HOT TO HANDLE? This breezy, delightful comedy illustrates the art of the contract director at its pinnacle. Jack Conway had been an actor in David Belasco's West Coast unit, and had graduated to a position as a directing assistant for D.W. Griffith when Griffith moved his operations to California. He'd been directing films since 1915, and at MGM, he became a favorite of Clark Gable, for whom he also directed SARATOGA, BOOM TOWN, and HONKY TONK. Conway was known around the studio as an "action director," but he also did comedy (LIBELED LADY) and literary adaptations (A TALE OF TWO CITIES). The year of TOO HOT TO HANDLE, Conway also directed another big-budget MGM "special," A YANK AT OXFORD. A typical MGM star vehicle, TOO HOT TO HANDLE's protagonist was patterned by its writers on other Gable leading men -- brash, cynical, reasonably lecherous, but finally, big-hearted, loyal, and brave. Frequent Gable co-star Myrna Loy was cast as his urbane, combative love interest; a year after they made TOO HOT TO HANDLE, Gable and Loy would be voted "King and Queen of Hollywood" in a fan magazine poll. Also along are a squadron of indispensable MGM second leads and character actors headed by Walter Pidgeon, Leo Carillo, Virginia Weidler, and Walter Connolly. Gable and Pidgeon play competing newsreel cameramen, each out for the "big story," even if they have to weave it out of the whole cloth. As was customary in Conway's films, TOO HOT TO HANDLE mixes comedy and gags in a bubbly cocktail. The sequence in which Gable fakes a bombing attack on China is sublime action comedy. A clutch of magnetic stars, a delightful, forgettable story exceptionally well-executed, a fine evening's entertainment for depression-weary audiences...
The contract director, professional, versatile, and fast, is a thing of the past. In 1949, the Paramount Decrees ordered that the film industry's vertically integrated structure of production, distribution, and exhibition be separated into distinct corporate entities. The gigantic Hollywood film factories like MGM were sold off, bit by bit. And without the factory, who needs a foreman?
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
Adventures of a newsreel cameraman is the basis for this Clark Gable-Myrna Loy co-starrer, "Too Hot to Handle." It’s a blazing action thriller aimed as a follow-up to cash in on the same pair’s click in "Test Pilot." Even more than "Test Pilot" it’s hoked far beyond the limit of credibility. But it has a driving excitement, crackling dialog, glittering performances and inescapable romantic pull. So it’s a sock audience picture and should make a parachuteful of money.
There are enough absurdities in the story to give a real newsreel cameraman the shudders for a month. For instance, Gable is shown using a hand camera and recording sound with it, which would certainly earn a cameraman the best-trick-of-the-week medal. As another instance, Gable and Carrillo, after paddling for four days up the Amazon in a small dugout canoe and scrambling through the tropical underbrush, show a series of newsreel pictures on an unexplained screen to terrify a tribe of blacks. Apparently they had their projection equipment with them, sound amplifiers and all.
. . . Since "Too Hot to Handle" is tingling adventure stuff, audiences won’t mind its flaws of logic.
The story is one of those familiar Hollywood triangle affairs, with Gable and Walter Pidgeon as the sizzling rival newsreelers and Miss Loy the he-man’s ideal who entangles their already frenzied competition. When Gable hijacks Pidgeon’s girl and they both land in the dog house through Pidgeon’s efforts to get even, the girl goes to South America to search for her long-lost aviator brother. Of course. Gable not only makes chumps of the natives and effects the rescue, but he scoops Pidgeon on the films of the yarn and even winds up with the prize heartthrob. It’s all unashamed pulp-mag stuff, but the peanut-munching contingent will gobble it up —and not even an irate newsreeler will walk out on it.
Strange angle of the picture’s implausibilities is the fact that the story was written by Len Hammond, an executive of Fox Movietone newsreel, while Laurence Stallings, co-author of the screenplay, is a former employee of the same outfit. Obviously both men know better; but apparently they declined to look a thrill-packed yarn in the mouth. Probably they’ll take a ribbing from the boys in the trade, but that won’t worry the film-going public.
Best parts of "Too Hot" are the early sequences, all the way up to the sequence of the ship explosion. This entire portion of the film is terse and impelling. It is neatly introduced, the story is kept moving, the characters are clearly etched and the dialog is salted with biting humor. By the time the ludicrous latter parts roll into view enough interest has been aroused to carry the yarn to its climax.
Metro has given the picture one of its typically slick productions. Sets, lighting, photography and sound are all superbly handled, while Jack Conway’s direction carries a stunning punch. Clark Gable and Myrna Loy zoom through the leading parts with glittering persuasion. Both bring out the facets of their parts and their acting styles offer a fascinating contrast.
Walter Pidgeon is also bullseye in another of his other-man characterizations, this time with more than his usual vitality. In fact, for a time it looks as if it might even step into the boy-gets-girl class. Walter Connelly is wholly satisfying as the lightning-tempered newsreel editor while Leo Carrillo ignites all the laughs in the part of the cameraman’s assistant. Marjorie Main is agreeably acid as Connolly’s philosophical secretary and Willie Fung is good for several chuckles as an amiable Chinaman.
— Variety, September 19, 1938
Few Hollywood images ever made so complete a turnaround as did that of Myrna Loy. Virtually from her film debut in 1925 she found herself typecast as a treacherous, mysterious wanton: an island girl with languid eyes and a promising sarong in "Across the Pacific," a Sengalese spy (played in black-face!) in "Ham and Eggs at the Front," a Gypsy siren who pits father against son in "The Squall," a dangerous, soft-hearted guerilla in "The Black Watch," the villainous Morgan le Fay in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court," and, in her own words, "a sadistic nymphomaniac" in "The Mask of Fu Manchu."
Her fortuitous casting opposite William Powell in "Manhattan Melodrama" was the genesis of typecasting of quite a different sort. Their onscreen rapport was immediate, and, from "The Thin Man" on, Loy was the epitome of the dream wife: witty, resourceful, beautiful, tolerant, level-headed, loyal, and just looney enough to stay fresh and engaging. This became her trademark, as identifiable as Buster Keaton’s porkpie hat, yet Loy was never bound by it. Indeed, her wit, grace, and aplomb were of such an appealing artlessness that she found the character endlessly tractable.
She appeared with Powell in 13 films and their droll partnership is one of the cinema’s happiest pairings. She also teamed well with other actors of virility and humor: Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Frederic March, and Clark Gable. In the mid-1930’s, Ed Sullivan named Gable and Loy the "King and Queen of Hollywood."
After World War II Loy appeared less frequently, but she continued to do wonders with the better roles that came her way: the clear-eyed, patient wife in "The Best Years of Our Lives," a bemused judge in "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer," the quietly extraordinary mother of twelve in "Cheaper by the Dozen" and its sequel "Belles on Their Toes."
Since 1960 Loy has taken small parts in films like "The End," and "Just Tell Me What You Want" (in which her comic performance is the highlight of the film). Hers is a talent easily taken for granted, seeming so assured and effortless; but this only heightens the delightful sense of discovery that comes whenever she directs her wry and beautiful countenance toward the camera.
—Frank Thompson, International Guide to Films and Filmmaking
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