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Key to the City (DVD Review)

22 Apr, 2013

Manufactured on demand via Warner Archive
$18.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Frank Morgan, Raymond Burr.

Known to fanciers of low-end trivia questions as the 1950 George Sidney movie that wasn’t the year’s biggest box office attraction (which was Annie Get Your Gun), this is one of those projects more interesting for the history and dynamics that occurred off screen than on it. A romantic farce that isn’t farcical enough, it casts Clark Gable and Loretta Young as, respectively, East and West Coast mayors who meet at a mayoral convention — with reserved Young falling for her counterpart’s masculine ways (former longshoreman that he is).

I first saw a 16mm print of City when I was about 12, and my lingering memory has always been a battle-of-the-mustaches in the climactic scene when Gable and Raymond Burr (sporting facial hair) go at it in an office and eventually in a outdoor fountain in plot-central San Francisco. Gable sometimes utilizes a double but at other times seems to be legitimately in the action. By this period in the late ’50, Burr was, of course, TV’s Perry Mason, and I had limited knowledge (Rear Window aside) of how many times he had cast as heavies (both senses) earlier in his career before he survived Godzilla in the U.S. release version.

What makes this movie a little interesting around the edges is, first, the fact that third-billed Frank Morgan — Oz himself — died at 59 of a heart attack right after filming; according to the very first volume of Daniel Blum’s Screen World from 1949, it was two days. Though looking unambiguously elderly in his role as Gable’s fire chief, Morgan doesn’t seem at all infirm and, in fact, delivers a broad performance. The second point is even more intriguing: Gable and Young had conceived a child during the filming of 1935’s screen version of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, a daughter whose real identity was somewhere between a secret and open secret after she was “adopted” from the Catholic orphanage in which Young had initially placed her. The late Judy Lewis’ memoir about her upbringing, Uncommon Knowledge, is one of the best show biz biographies I’ve ever read and, to my mind, as chilling as Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest, given that Lewis met her birth father exactly once.

There must have been some compelling dynamics on the City set — more compelling, to be sure, than what this inoffensively mild comedy has to offer, though Marilyn Maxwell does put a little more spin than expected on the part of a balloon-dancer pal of Gable’s whose balloons start to pop while performing. As for Gable, he was from that era when guys in their late 40s often looked old (Spencer Tracy was 49 when he made Father of the Bride) — but for the day, and as much as one can discern through his shirt, the dude looks pretty ripped.

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