Big John (Clark Gable) and Square John (Spencer Tracy) are two good buddies who travel around, conning oil equipment out of people in order to eventually develop their own fields. They make a few enemies and owe a bit of money along the way, but eventually get a little plot set up and start drilling for oil.
Square John has been dating a girl named Elizabeth, usually called Betsy (Claudette Colbert), whom he writes to frequently. Betsy comes to the town where the Johns are setting up their oil field, but rather than getting hitched to Square John, she finds herself falling for his best friend.
While Square John seems forgiving, the love triangle puts a strain on their friendship, which eventually ends, leading the men to also go their separate ways in business. Boom Town follows the lives of these characters over the next twenty years of their lives, through the ups and downs (of which there are many!) of both business and love.
Jack Conway directs this adventurous Western drama. The story was written by James Edward Grant and adapted for the screen by John Lee Mahin. Harold Rosson secured an Oscar nomination for his cinematographic work on the film, as did A. Arnold Gillespie and Douglas Shearer for special effects.
Boom Town boasts a truly all-star cast, which along with those listed above includes Hedy Lamarr as Karen Vanmeer (Big John’s eventual mistress and business advisor) and Frank Morgan (of The Wizard of Oz fame) as Luther Aldrich, the man who the Johns con their very first oil rigging equipment out of.
Gable and Tracy make a surprisingly good on-screen pair. They made three films together, but this is the first I’ve seen and as a result I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from them. Gable’s enormous, highly charismatic screen presence provides a nice contrast to Tracy’s more understated performance, and as a result they work wonderfully together, both as thieving friends and as bitter enemies.
Ironically, it’s Gable’s other pairing in this film – his romantic pairing – that brings Boom Town down a bit. There isn’t a whole ton of romantic chemistry between Gable and Colbert here. They were great together in It Happened One Night (which is one of my favorite films), but the spark that they shared in that film is absent here. Their performances individually are good, but their characters are supposed to have fallen in love instantly, marrying very soon after meeting. That scenario is an improbable one with any two actors portraying it, and in order for the audience to buy into it there has to be fantastic chemistry between them.
The business side of the plot is intriguing, full of backstabbing and greed. It seems to be a fairly realistic depiction of the oil business. It does border a bit too much on pro-business propaganda for my taste, particularly near the end. But even though the characters are tied up in the oil business, the film’s focus is not 100% on oil. Boom Town is very much a film about its characters, their interactions with each other and the problems that they face over the course of their lives.
Though there is a lot going on in this film, its pace is fairly slow and it does have a few dull moments that allow the viewer to become easily distracted. Though I’m not usually a fan of westerns, Boom Town may have fared well from a bit more focus on the oil plot and a bit less of a focus on the melodrama. As previously mentioned, the chemistry just wasn’t there between Gable and Colbert in this film, so the melodrama portion of the plot was less engrossing than it could have been.
Boom Town is a decent film with interesting characters and scenarios, but it definitely falls short of its potential, especially with such a great cast of actors on board. It does include a great Gable/Tracy fist fight and a passionate courtroom speech by Tracy which do a bit to bring it back to the realm of goodness, but these moments aren’t enough to save the whole film. The score: 3/5