TOO HOT TO HANDLE
SYNOPSIS: Chris Hunter (Clark Cable), ace cameraman for Union Newsreels, and his rival, Bill Dennis (Walter Pidgeon), are entreated by pretty Alma Harding (Myrna Loy), an intrepid aviatrix. She needs their help to finance a search party to South America to find her brother Harry (Johnny Hines), who was lost on a flight over Brazil a year before. Smelling a story, they agree and are soon on their way.
In the small town of Pinto, on the Amazon, they encounter a native who has Harry Harding's watch. Chris' assistant (Leo Carrillo), who is a Spaniard, talks with the native, and learns that he is a member of a voodoo tribe. Undoubtedly they have been practicing their secret rites on Harry, and now want a white woman for their rituals.
To forestall Alma, Chris and his assistant take the native down to the river in a canoe. Approaching the voodoo village, they mock their companion out and tie him up. Then they cautiously make their way toward the village, where a ceremony is taking place. An emaciated white man, undoubtedly Harry, is carried out, appearing nearly dead. Chris decides to act at once. Using the smooth face of a cliff as a screen, he starts projecting a series of newsreels, in which he a p pears. Then he appears in the flesh before the astounded natives, who believe he is a god.
That night, Chris tries to revive Harry Harding. In the morning Alma and Bill arrive in her amphibian. Dressed as a native, Chris indicates that they are to put Harry in the ship. Meanwhile, he secretly takes pictures of the whole thing. But the native who led them here has been released by another. Now he comes into the village and exposes Chris to his tribesmen. Alma and Bill, with Harry in the plane, have started down the river. Chris and his assistant jump into a punt and hanging onto the tail of the ship, are pulled to safety. But Bill, not realizing who the weirdly dressed occupants of the punt are, fires at them, forcing them to let go.
Back in New York, Alma and Harry are given a royal welcome. But Bill Dennis learns, to his dismay, that Chris has scooped him. Newsreels of the rescue of Harry Harding are showing all over the country. Chris is of! now, shooting a gangster gun battle. Eager to see him, Alma, with no regard for the danger involved, joins him.
The film is set in the era before television, videotape, and satellite, when
the American public depended upon newsreels to look at the world' s events.
A newspaper headline informs viewers that "Planes Battle over Shanghai,"
and Chris Hunter (Gable), the "best camerman in the business," forwards
to Gabby MacArthur (Walter Connolly), the ever- flustered boss of Union Newsreel,
footage of some young Chinese dancing the Big Apple. MacArthur fires off a
cable to Hunter: "Send me shots of bombings...or send me your resignation."
Hunter, instead, offers some faked footage, with a child and propeller airplane.
The other cameramen, headed by Bill Dennis (Walter Pidgeon), Hunter' s chief
rival, are incensed. Dennis stages the emergency arrival of cholera serum
by airplane, intending to freeze Hunter out of the action. Hunter, however,
drives a van onto the runway, blocking out the others. He gets his footage,
but the plane crashes, and the pilot is almost killed. To his surprise, the
hero aviator is a heroine, Alma Harding (Loy).
Hunter instructs his editor back home to cut and run the film as if the mission
had not been faked and to destroy the incriminating footage. "Cut this
film like it's the Hope Diamond," he orders. Make it look as if the girl
really flew the serum to Shanghai....She'll be a bonanza for us, a goldmine....I'm
coming home...(with) Alma herself. Yeah, she's a comic little dame who thinks
she's a man flying around the world with grease on her face and her hands
in her pockets. But maybe I can show her how it feels to be a woman. I'll
make her the darling of Union Newsreel....(There'll be a) million-dollar melon
that you and I and the stockholders can split three ways.
This quote establishes the entire premise of TOO HOT TO HANDLE. At this point,
a few sequences into the film, the rest of the story line can be guessed easily.
First, Hunter and Dennis will do a bit of sparring over Alma. Hunter, in trying
to use her to gain fame for himself, will pursue her. He will tame her and
then back off when he has what he wants. He is cocky, and he does not count
on the fact that he will eventually fall in love with her. Alma, meanwhile,
is no fool. She is liberated, her own woman, a serious and dedicated professional
flier. She at first may be partial to the bland Dennis, who is really only
a friend, but she will be intrigued by Hunter's spark and flair. She will
fall in love, probably for the first time in her life, and will be destroyed
when she learns of the deception. At the same time, Hunter will come to terms
with his feelings and repent. He will utilize his talent to perform some heroic
deed that will more than compensate for his chicanery. Will he win back Alma?
In 1938 Hollywood, there can only be a happy ending.
This is exactly what happens, more or less. To gain Alma's trust, Hunter
fakes exposing the film he shot. Dennis catches on, however, switches the
reels, and sends home the incriminating footage. Hunter begins romancing Alma;
she tells him that if she can fly around the world, an aircraft company has
promised to back her on an expedition to the Amazon, where she will search
for her lost brother, Harry.
Hunter lies to Alma, telling her that he has been fired for destroying the
film. Alma, who feels responsible, travels with him back to New York to help
him reclaim his job. Hunter telegraphs MacArthur, asking him to play along;
the boss tells her that he will rehire Hunter as well as put her on the staff.
She agrees, if he will finance her Amazon trip.
Hunter and Alma spend more time together. He flirts with her, and it is clear
that she is beginning to care for him. Hunter learns that his film is blank
and that Dennis' company has released his work. He figures that Dennis also
has the incriminating footage. He now begins his professional relationship
with Alma; they fly off and shoot pictures of a burning munitions ship. Dennis,
who has followed them home, attempts to blackmail Hunter. He demands the recently
shot footage, and Hunter has no choice but to go along.
Alma is toasted as a heroine at a press screening; but, without his knowledge,
Dennis' boss plays all the footage -- including the "comic little dame"
speech. He is convinced that all three participated in the deception. They
are ruined, with Alma in particular becoming a laughingstock. Hunter tries
to apologize, but she is deeply hurt. She is unable to receive any support
for the Amazon mission, because the public believes it would only be a publicity
Hunter hocks his camera and has the money delivered to Alma anonymously so
that she can fund her search. By this time, he is hooked: "Boy, there's
a champion," he observes. "She not only can give it, but look at
her take it. There she goes on an assignment that's licked the best fliers
in South America." He adds, "We can't let her tackle this job alone.
I think I've got an idea that'll get us on the next boat."
A phony compass, supposedly discovered in the jungle, is delivered to MacArthur.
Its serial number matches the one owned by Harry Harding, Alma's brother.
So MacArthur sends Hunter to South America. Dennis tricks the boss into giving
him the information and follows Hunter. The three are again united. A native
has Harry's watch -- his real one -- and offers to show the Americans where
its owner is. This native, however, is a voodoo man, one of the "cruelest
bunch of savages in South America," and he really only wants to kidnap
Alma. (Here, the scenario reflects the racism inherent in Hollywood films
of the period, as Hunter callously refers to the South Americans -- who could
be extras from a Tarzan film -- as "jitterbugs" and "monkeys.")
Hunter wants to prevent Alma from leaving, but she has no reason to trust
Alma and Dennis fly into the jungle. Hunter and his sound man (Leo Carrillo)
row in. After four days, they come upon a tribe performing a fire dance and
Harry Harding about to be sacrificed. Hunter and his aide perform some magic
of their own: They happen to have a reel of test film with them, and, that
night, as the natives prepare to burn Harry, their party is broken up by a
screeching fire engine, a noisy train, an explosion, a diver, and a burning
forest. Hunter appears as the "great medicine man" who has come
to "take the bird- man away," which he does, but not before Alma
and Dennis appear. He and the sound man dress up as native chieftains and
photograph the landing, Alma's reunion with her brother, and their takeoff.
Alma, Dennis, and Harry arrive home. The newsreels of the rescue have already
been released, and Alma realizes that Hunter is responsible for everything.
She finds him at the site of a furious gun battle between police and a gangster.
Hunter is about to risk his life to get a spectacular shot. She implores him
to stay down, then playfully mimics his "comic little dame" speech.
They wink at each other, and the final credits roll.
It would not be inaccurate to describe TOO HOT TO HANDLE as a live- action
cartoon. Everything about it is larger than life. The jungle finale in particular,
with Hunter and his sound man garbed in feathers, is utterly preposterous.
This flaw, however, is irrelevant, because the actors do not take their roles
seriously. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and their mood is
transmitted effortlessly to the audience. At the end, Hunter and Alma wink
at each other, but they could easily be winking at the viewer.
Loy is radiant as Alma Harding. This character is Nora Charles in a cockpit,
similar to many other roles she and such contemporary Hollywood stars as Bette
Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Katharine Hepburn played: talented, determined,
quick-thinking, and quick-witted professional women, liberated from the kitchen,
who compete with -- and never take second place to -- any and all men. Nevertheless,
they still could, and would, fall in love. Perhaps these characters were fantasy
women to audiences in the 1930's and 1940's, when career-oriented females
were by far the exception. They are nevertheless solid, positive role models,
far more interesting than the dumb blondes, prostitutes with hearts of gold,
and submissive housewives who would dominate the screen in later years.
Gable's Chris Hunter is a conniving, two-faced, devil-may-care adventurer
and hustler. His character is not credible in that the "best cameraman
in the business" would have no need to lie or fake footage. He is no
villain, however, and he is not to be taken seriously. Actually, he is a rogue
who will come to thwart the bad guys in the final reel. Gable is playing Gable
here: a charming sharpie who has a way with the ladies and who, during the
course of the scenario, will meet the woman with whom he can be serious.
TOO HOT TO HANDLE was the seventh film in which Gable and Loy appeared together,
beginning with NIGHT FLIGHT (1933). Loy played opposite Walter Pidgeon as
early as 1928, in TURN BACK THE HOURS. Loy was identified onscreen with Gable
almost as much as with William Powell, her THIN MAN costar. In 1936, she and
Gable were dubbed the King and Queen of motion pictures in a newspaper poll
conducted by Ed Sullivan.
As a Gable-Loy vehicle, TOO HOT TO HANDLE may not be as memorable as TEST PILOT (1938; in which Gable is the expert in the cockpit) or WIFE VS. SECRETARY (1936), but it does have its merits. Frank S. Nugent, writing in The New York Times, accurately described the film as "any one of a dozen fairly entertaining melodramas you might have seen in the last five years."