Idiot’s Delight (1939): Romantic Drama, Starring Norma Shearer (Miscast) and Clark Gable (Singing and Dancing)

Norma Shearer gives one of her weakest performances in MGM’s Idiot’s Delight, a serio comedy penned by Robert E. Sherwood from his 1936 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same title.

The movie showcases Clark Gable, in the same year that he played successfully Rhett Butler in the Oscar-winning Gone With the Wind, in the only film in which he sings and dances, performing (none too well) Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

The film is also notable for being one of Gable’s few commercial flops at MGM in the 1930s, alongside with Parnell and Too Hot to Handle.

Sporting the same hairstyle as Lynn Fontanne, who had played the role on stage, Shearer gets star billing above Gable in a role that precipitated her decline as MGM’s reigning queen.  Both hairdo and unconvincing accent prove distracting to a role, in which Shearer was miscast to begin with.

Shearer made in the same year the blockbuster comedy, The Women, directed by George Cukor.  In two years, however, she would retire from the screen.

Gable plays Harry Van, an American World War I vet, tries to reenter showbiz and ends up in a faltering mentalist show with an inept and aging alcoholic, Madame Zuleika (Laura Hope Crews).

While performing in Omaha, he is courted by Irene (Norma Shearer), a trapeze artist, who pretends to Russian, hoping to replace Harry’s drunken partner in the show and be his lover. They have a romantic night, but he is suspicious of Irene’s flights of fancy.

The movie was shot with two ending. In the US release, the hymn from the play is replaced with Harry and Irene talking about their future in hopes to divert their minds from the bombs exploding outside. Harry rehearses with her the secret code Irene watched him use with his “mind-reader” partner in Omaha.

As the bombing stops, Irene describes their future act together while Harry plays the damaged piano. The film’s coda is thus lighter and more romantic in dealing with the war menaces of bombings.