This film captures the spirit and excitement of America at a time when the oil fields were being opened. It explores two types of relationships: one between "wildcatters" and oil, the other between three people who are in love. Betsy Bartlett (Claudette Colbert) is the Eastern lady who comes between friends John McMasters (Clark Gable), a tough man of the oil fields, and John Sand (Spencer Tracy), an honest man.

The chemistry created between two performers on the screen is something which is occasionally a major reason behind a film's success. Such was the case with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert when they performed together in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), which brought them both Academy Awards. In 1938, a different kind of chemistry between Gable and Spencer Tracy made TEST PILOT, an otherwise only fair film, a success. In order to capitalize on these three stars as box-office draws, M-G-M put them all into BOOM TOWN, adding co-stars Hedy Lamarr, Frank Morgan, and Chill Wills to complete the cast.

BOOM TOWN is a film which attempts to capture the spirit and excitement of America at the time when the American oil fields were opened. It explores two type of relationships: the one between "wildcatters" and oil, and the other among three people who love one another.

The film has an exciting start, with a gunfight in the muddy streets of a rough West Texas oil town. During the fight, John McMasters (Clark Gable), a handsome, glib, tough man, meets John Sand (Spencer Tracy), who is honest and loyal and equally able to handle himself in difficult situations. The men find themselves sharing a hotel room in the crowded town. McMasters shows his brashness by calling Sand "Shorty," which the latter finds distasteful; but Sand overlooks McMasters' cockiness out of affection and respect for the bigger man.

Sand gets the impression that McMasters has money and tries to convince him to invest in an oil well venture on Sand's land. McMasters refuses, saying he intends to move further West. Later, however, in a saloon brawl, Sand comes to McMasters' aid, and the latter has a change of heart and agrees to check out Sand's land. In the same scene, a saloon girl named Whitey (Marion Martin) gives the men nicknames. She refers to McMasters as "Big John" and Sand as "Square John," which establishes the wildcatters' characters throughout the film. McMasters decides that the land has possibilities, but he does not have very much money either. Nevertheless, the men decide to become partners, with a flip of a coin making McMasters the boss. Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan), the owner of an oil drilling equipment company, then offers McMasters a job hauling equipment. While on the road with Aldrich's assistant Harmony Jones (Chill Wills), he is "held up" by Sand, who absconds with the merchandise. The partners regard this equipment as a loan, however, and intend to pay Aldrich for its use when their well comes in.

Unfortunately, the first attempt brings up salt water. The partners are both disappointed at not "striking it rich," but Sand is especially upset as he had planned to send for his girl with money from the well, which was to be named Beautiful Darling Betsy after her. The two begin traveling from job site to job site, represented by a montage of wildcatters at work on various oil wells. One day McMasters wins two thousand dollars gambling, and he and Sand attempt to repay Aldrich for the stolen equipment, but as this is only a portion of what they owe him, they convince him to finance their new well in exchange for a one-eighth interest in the profits.

After the brisk pace of the first part of the film, the action slows with the introduction of Betsy Bartlett (Claudette Colbert). Betsy is an Eastern lady, but is also sharp and witty, although obviously an outsider in the atmosphere of the oil town. McMasters saves her from being robbed by some con artists, then begins to pursue her. She says she has heard of him, but does not elaborate on the source of her information. They spend the evening together, going to such contrasting places as a rodeo and a church which houses an oil well. She tells McMasters that her name is Elizabeth, and by now, the audience has guessed that Betsy is the woman Sand loves, but she does not tell McMasters about her friendship with his partner. By the end of the evening, McMasters asks Betsy to marry him immediately, and she agrees. While McMasters is in town, the oil well comes in, and Sand rushes to town to tell him about their luck. Just as Sand is about to enter their hotel room, Betsy reveals to her new husband that she is the woman Sand loves. She never promised to marry him, however, but was only coming West to open a lingerie shop because she was bored with being a schoolteacher and tired of living alone. Sand is naturally hurt that Betsy has married McMasters, but he nobly remains friends with both, and also continues on as McMasters' partner.

In another short montage, we see that the two become rich. On Betsy and McMasters' first wedding anniversary, however, a fire breaks out in one of the wells. Sand comes to tell McMasters about the fire, but he is not home. Betsy and Sand locate McMasters drunk, dancing in a saloon with one of the saloon girls. In a spectacular scene, the partners successfully contain the fire with explosives, but the relationship between the men has deteriorated. They decide they can no longer work together, and once again, they use the flip of a coin to determine who gets the entire operation. This time Sand wins, and he throws McMasters off the premises. After that, Sand begins to drink heavily and eventually sells the business to Aldrich. Betsy, who has forgiven her husband's indiscretion, accompanies him to a series of oil towns. They are poor but happy, and now have a son. Sand is now doing well in Latin America, where McMasters and Betsy come. McMasters is seeking work, but when he learns that Sand is the boss, he refuses the job. Sand visits Betsy and his former partner, but when he learns about the child, he feels upset at the itinerant life Betsy is leading and worries about the effect the migrant existence will have on the child. McMasters tells him to leave, but Sand has little time to brood when a revolution erupts and the revolutionaries set fire to the oil wells, breaking him again. Just afterward, McMasters becomes very successful in Oklahoma and decides to move to New York to work in the distribution end of the oil business, against Betsy's wishes. At this point McMasters becomes involved with Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr), who functions as an industrial spy and becomes a valuable asset to him in bringing him information about his competitors.

When McMasters learns that Sand is in town, he seeks him out at the racetrack, where he finds him with Aldrich. Sand has struck it rich again in Oklahoma. He meets Karen as well, and guesses her relationship to McMasters. When Sand goes home with McMasters for dinner, Sand suspects that, despite the trappings of success which surround her, Betsy is desperately unhappy. He also realizes that Karen is the reason. The next day, Betsy admits that she only puts up with her husband's infidelity because of their son. Sand goes to see Karen, and asks her to marry him, even though he does not love her. His idea is to remove her from McMasters' life and thereby save Betsy' s marriage. Karen refuses him, saying that she plans to marry McMasters. In order to stop McMasters any way he can, Sand joins with another company in an attempt to break his former partner. McMasters counterattacks, corners the oil market, and puts Sand out of business.

In a final confrontation, Sand goes to see McMasters at his office to ask him to divorce Betsy. The two get into a fist fight, which lasts until other people in the building come in and break it up. Karen also sees the fight and realizes that it is ultimately about Betsy, not business. She graciously admits defeat and leaves McMasters, who then goes home to his wife. Karen has been a rather unsympathetic character up to this point, but her good-natured acceptance of the facts makes the lasting impression she gives positive rather than negative. This scene changes her image of the femme fatale to the so-called "hooker with a heart of gold" in a matter of moments.

The final sequence of the film reconciles Sand and McMasters during McMasters' trial for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. McMasters loses his fortune, but in the end, he and Sand again become partners in a new venture at Kettleman Hills. As the audience knows as soon as the name is given, this became one of the richest oil strikes in history, and the final frame of the film is a picture of hundreds of oil wells.

BOOM TOWN is most successful in its action scenes. The underlying theme of the story is the psychology of wildcatters, and indeed, of the entire pioneer spirit which pervaded this country. The film touches on the personalities of such individualists, but never explores them in depth. Actually, none of the relationships of the principals is fully developed, and the love story was fairly routine, even in 1940. While the characters' stories are entertaining, the film would have been better had there been greater concentration on the action, which is the film's greatest strength, next to the screen charisma of its stars.

Release Date: 1940

Production Line:
Sam Zimbalist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: Jack Conway
Cinematographer: Elwood Bredell
File Editor: Paul Landres
Additional Credits: 
Montage - John Hoffman

Run Time: 116 minutes

Big John McMasters - Clark Gable
Square John Sand - Spencer Tracy
Betsy Bartlett - Claudette Colbert
Karen Vanmeer - Hedy Lamarr
Luther Aldrich - Frank Morgan
Harry Compton - Lionel Atwill
Harmony Jones - Chill Wills
Whitey - Marion Martin
Spanish Eva - Minna Gombell
Ed Murphy - Joe Yule
Tom Murphy - Horace Murphy
McCreery - Roy Gordon
Asst. District Attorney - Richard Lane
Miss Barnes - Sara Haden

Studios named in Production Credits:

Screenplay (Author):
John Lee Mahin
James Edward Grant

Award Citations:

Academy Awards - Nomination - Cinematography (B & W) - Harold Rosson

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