Boom Town (1940): Jack Conway’s Oscar-Nominated Comedy-Adventure, Starring Gable and Tracy

Based on their successful teaming in “San Francisco” and “Test Pilot,” MGM cast Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, their top male talents, in the comedy-adventure “Boom Town,” directed by Jack Conway, which became one of the most popular films of 1940.

Gable plays “Big John” McMasters and Tracy is “Square John” Sand, oil field wildcatters who meet in a developing oil town, where they have come to seek fortunes. Square John is engaged to Betsy Bartlett (Claudette Colbert), whom he intends to bring to Texas, once business is good. However, in an adventurous mood to surprise, Betsy arrives in town. Upon meeting “Big John,” she falls hard for him, and the couple marries on the eve of the day the well comes in.

Square John accepts his loss without resentment. However, a year later, he is enraged, thinking that Big John is unfaithful o Betsy. For his part, Big John is hurt by his peer’s lack of trust.   Big John loses, when he and Square John gamble for the oil field, and Betsy decides to stand by him now that he’s lost everything.

In the following years, Square John loses a fortune in oil and regains it. Big John enters successfully into the refining and distributing side the business. He becomes involved with another woman, and Betsy is heartbroken. Square John attempts to bring big John to his senses. Though losing all his money in the effort, he succeeds in reuniting Big John and Betsy.

When Big John is indicted under the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, it’s Square John’s testimony that frees him. However, Big John’s business has been ruined. Once again the two enter partnership and start from scratch in an undeveloped California field.

The story is preposterous, but the two male stars are charming and there’s good rapport between them and the women in their lives.

The “Variety” critic noted correctly that, “Although there is a lot of woman power in the picture with Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr, the masculine sparks are the ones that light up the script about the virile, crude world of oil drilling.”

It’s noteworthy, that in 1940, Tracy made no less than four pictures: “I Take This Woman,” with Hedy Lamarr; “Northwest Passage”; the biopic “Edison, the Man”; and “Boom Town.”

Released on September 6, “Boom Town” was the third top-grossing picture of the year, reaffirming Gable’s and Tracy’s star status.

Oscar Nomination: 2

Cinematography (b/w): Harold Rosson

Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, photographic; Douglas Shearer, sound


Oscar Context

The Oscar went to George Barnes for lensing “Rebecca” and Jack Whitney for “The Thief of Bagdad” special effects


Curio fact:

Joe Yule, Mickey Rooney’s father, is in the cast



Clark Gable

Spencer Tracy

Claudette Colbert

Hedy Lamarr

Frank Morgan

Lionel Atwill

Chill Wills

Marion Martin

Minna Gombell

Joe Yule

Horace Murphy

Roy Gordon

Richard Lane

Casey Johnson

Baby Quintanilla

George Lessey

Sara Haden

Frank Orth

Frank McGlynn, Sr.

Curt Bois.




Produced by Sam Zimbalist.

Directed by Jack Conway.

Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on a short story by James Edward Grant.

Camera by Harold Rosson.

Edited by Blanche Sewell.

Special Effects by Arnold Gillespie.

Montage: John Hoffman.

Musical score: Franz Waxman.

Art Director: Cedric Gibbons.

Costumes by Adrian and Giles Steele.


Release date: August 30, 1940.

Running time: 116 minutes.