Test Pilot (1938): Fleming’s Oscar-Nominated Romantic Adventure, Starring Gable, Tracy, and Myrna Loy

A star vehicle for MGM’s top actors, Victor Fleming’s romantic adventure Test Pilot features Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy at their most charming.

Like many other Gable (and Fleming) pictures, the narrative is rather conventional, a routine story punctuated by (and coming to real life during) the thrilling air climaxes.  As the New Yorker critic wrote, “All flying films have fine flying scenes in them, just as all boat pictures have fine sea scenes, but those in “Test Pilot” are superior to the average.

Based on the story of Lieutenant Commander Frank Wead, an accomplished pilot himself, the movie offers amiably romanticized glimpses into the professional and domestic lives of fliers.


At the top of his popularity and just before being cast in “Gone With the Wind,” Gable plays Jim Lane, a pilot who has established numerous records for the Drake Airplane Company.  He perceives his life is a series of great risky adventures, enlivened by periodic binges.  Swaggering, hard-living, and egotistical, Jim is contrasted with Gunner (Spencer Tracy), his solid, patient, and understanding mechanic, who idolizes him but watches over every move of his.


Jim is to test the new Drake Bullet on a coast-to-coast flight.  Over Kansas, he has motor trouble and makes a forced landing on the Barton farm.   Enters Ann Barton (Myrna Loy), who soon becomes Jim’s love interest.  When the ship is repaired, he takes Ann East with him, and they later married in Pittsburgh.


When Jim breaks the news to Drake (Lionel Barrymore) and asks for a week off, they quarrel, and Drake fires him.  Jim goes on a five-day-bender, during which Ann decides to leave him.  But when Gunner brings him back to her broke, she realizes she can’t give him up.  Drake also relents and rehires Jim.


Meanwhile, General Ross (Samuel S. Hinds) wants to get Jim back into the army, after kicking him out for indulging in nightlife.  Jim is ordered to test an army bomber, and Gunner is also assigned to the mission.  The ship is loaded with sandbags to equal the weight of bombs and crew.  Hoping to reach the optimal altitude, Jim almost makes it before the ship goes into a dive. The sandbags burst from the rear compartment, and Gunner is pinned under them.  Jim tries to release him, but Gunner, wishing to save his friend, kicks him out of the ship.  Jim’s parachute opens and he lands safely, before the ship crashes, causing Gunner’s death.


Jim is so deeply affected by the loss of his friend that Drake realizes he won’t be any good as a test pilot anymore.  With the aid of General Ross and Ann, he maneuvers Jim back into service, and the saga ends with Jim happily married, raising his newly-born son with Ann.


Largely enjoyable due to its star power, “Test Pilot” is a typical MGM production of the 1930s, one that smoothly blends elements of adventure, melodrama, and romance, joyously demonstrating the validity of its logo, “More stars than in heaven.”


As the Newsweek critic pointed out: “The performances of the three stars transform contrived emotion into the real thing.  In fact, the film is just what Dr. Will Hays (the MPAA censor) might have prescribed for the nation’s ailing box-office.”


Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Louis D. Lighton.

Original Story: Frank Wead

Film Editing: Tom Held

Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context


In 1938, no less than ten films competed for the Best Picture Oscar: “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Boys Town,” “The Citadel,” “Four Daughters,” “Grand Illusion,” “Jezebel,” “Pgymalion,” and “You Can’s Take It With you,” which won. 


Frank Capra, who directed “You Can’t,” won his third Oscar in 5 years!  Dore Schary and Eleanor Griffin won the Oscar Story for “Boys Town,” and Ralph Dawson the Editing for “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”




Clark Gable

Myrna Loy

Spencer Tracy

Lionel Barrymore

Samuel S. Hinds

Marjorie Main

Ted Pearson

Gloria Holden

Louis J. Heydt

Virgina Grey

Priscilla Lawson

Claudia Coleman

Arthur Aylesworth




Produced by Louis D. Lighton.

Directed by Victor Fleming.

Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young, based on a story by Lt. Comdr. Frank Wead.

Photography by Ray June.

Edited by Tom Held.

Montage: Slavko Vorkapich.

Musical score by Franz Waxman.

Art direction: Cedric Gibbons.


Release date: April 22, 1938.


Running time: 118 minutes.