Idiot's Delight (film)

Idiot's Delight is a 1939 MGM comedy-drama with a screenplay adapted by Robert E. Sherwood from his 1936 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. The movie showcases Clark Gable, in the same year that he played Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, and Norma Shearer in the declining phase of her career. Although not a musical, it is notable as the only film where Gable sings and dances, performing "Puttin' on the Ritz" by Irving Berlin.

Idiot's Delight
Movie poster
Directed byClarence Brown
Produced byClarence Brown
Hunt Stromberg
Written byRobert E. Sherwood
StarringNorma Shearer
Clark Gable
Edward Arnold
Charles Coburn
Joseph Schildkraut
Burgess Meredith
Music byHerbert Stothart
CinematographyWilliam H. Daniels
Edited byRobert Kern
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • January 27, 1939 (1939-01-27)
Running time
107 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,167,000 (Domestic earnings)[1]
$545,000 (Foreign earnings)[1]



Harry Van, an American World War I veteran, tries to reenter show business and ends up in a faltering mentalist show with an inept, aging alcoholic, Madame Zuleika. While giving performances in Omaha, Nebraska, he is courted by Irene, a trapeze artist, who claims to come from Russia and hopes both to replace Harry's drunken partner in the show and be his lover. They have a romantic night, but he is suspicious of Irene's overstated flights of fancy. Harry, keeping Zuleika, and Irene's troupe board trains going in the opposite directions the next day.


Twenty years later, after a number of jobs, Harry is the impresario and co-performer with Les Blondes, a dance group of six women on a trip through Europe. While taking a train from Romania to Switzerland, they are stranded at an Alpine hotel in an unnamed, belligerent country, when borders are suddenly closed as war becomes imminent. The passengers watch through the hotel lounge's large windows as dozens of bombers take off from an air field at the bottom of the picturesque valley and fly away in formation.

Among the passengers lingering in the lounge, Harry meets Irene, a glamorous platinum blonde with an exaggerated Russian accent, who is traveling as the mistress of a rich armaments entrepreneur, Achille Weber. Although she claims never to have been to Omaha, Harry's casual innuendoes show he is convinced that she is the acrobat he knew there, and he believes that she recognizes him, too. An agitated pacifist rants to his fellow travelers about Weber's guns, which he says are behind the war that just started, and describes for them how the planes they saw disappear over the spectacular snowy mountains will be killing thousands of people in other countries. The pacifist is hauled away and shot by the border police, commanded by the friendly and impeccable Captain Kirvline, who mingles with the travelers while they wait at the hotel.

In their hotel suite, an upset Irene explodes and tells Weber "the truth [she has] always wanted to tell." She blames him for the likely deaths of untold numbers of people in the war, whose victims – in her vivid accusations – might include the newlywed English couple, the Cherrys, they met at the hotel, all killed with the weapons that Weber sells.

The Swiss border opens again the next day, and the people at the hotel are able to continue on their journeys. They learn they had better be off as soon as possible because foreign countries are likely to retaliate today for yesterday's air raid and bomb the air field near the hotel, which could be hit by mistake. As everyone rushes to leave, Irene finds out that Weber has decided to dump her when he refuses to vouch for her flimsy League of Nations passport to Capt. Kirvline, who tells Irene she must stay at the hotel.

Having escorted his Les Blondes to the Swiss border, Harry returns to stay with Irene. She admits she is the woman he met in Omaha 20 years ago, and she still loves him. Harry talks about her future, performing with him and the blondes. They hear approaching planes and are told to run to the shelter, but Irene declares she does not want to die in a cellar. As Harry tries to take her there anyway, a bomb partly destroys the hotel and blocks their escape from the lounge.

Two endings

The print that has aired on TCM since 1999[3] shows the international ending and briefly displays The End followed by a title card that reads: “You have just seen the original ‘International’ 1939 ending of MGM’s ‘Idiots (sic) Delight’ which is spiritual and optimistic in tone. We now present the original ‘domestic’ theatrical ending that seems to ignore the fact that the rest of the world is at war.” However, the second ending does include Irene’s line, “The whole world has gone to war!” Dramatic music plays while this card is displayed.


The ending shown to the domestic (U.S., Canadian) audience replaced the hymn from the play with Harry and Irene talking about their plans for the future in hopes of diverting their minds from the bombs exploding outside the lobby windows. Harry rehearses with her the secret code Irene watched him use with his "mind-reader" partner in Omaha. As the bombing stops and the Alpine valley turns serene once more, Irene excitedly describes their future act together while Harry begins to play the damaged piano. The film's ending does not go as far as the original in sounding the knell of destruction, it takes a lighter and more romantic course in dealing with the menaces of bombings.[4]


In the ending intended for international audiences, Harry plays the piano as together they sing a hymn ("Abide with Me") from Harry's youth in hopes of distracting their minds from the bombs exploding outside the hotel windows. They embrace after the Alpine valley turns serene once more. The studio's marketing goal with the more solemn bombing sequence failed. After the trouble to which the producers went to make this palatable for the totalitarian states, it seems all the more futile that it was banned in those nations despite the hazy geographical location and the scrupulous use of Esperanto.[5]




Variety’s Dec.31, 1938 review praised author Robert Sherwood for “deftly added an entertaining prolog establishing the early meeting and a one-night affair between Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in Omaha as small time vaudeville performers. This provides plenty of entertainment when the pair meet later in an Alpine hotel.”[6]

Marketing concerns

In an effort to make the play, staged entirely in the hotel lounge, less wordy and more attractive to watch on the screen, Sherwood wrote the script for MGM with 167 scenes on 42 sets.[7] Previously, when Warner Bros. was considering making a movie of Sherwood's play, the studio checked with Joseph Breen, the film censor, who predicted it "would be banned widely abroad and might cause reprisals against the American company distributing it. The play is fundamentally anti-war propaganda, and contains numerous diatribes against militarism, fascism, and the munitions ring."[8] MGM tried to address similar concerns when it purchased the rights to the play. The Italian ambassador to the U.S. threatened that all of MGM's productions would be banned in Italy, but with Italy's consul in Los Angeles eventually hired as adviser, Rome agreed to cooperate on the production. Although the script apparently was approved by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, Italy still banned the film after it was finished.[9]


Unlike the play, which takes place in Italy, the film is set in an unidentified country, and the local characters speak only Esperanto, albeit with something of an Italian accent. The written material is also in Esperanto, e.g., the sign Aŭtobuso.


"Idiot's delight" refers to one of several games of solitaire or patience, including Aces Up, King Albert, and Narcotic aka Perpetual Motion. It was reduced to insignificance in the film, perhaps to avoid the potential for religious controversy:

Mr. Sherwood selected his title with a view to epitomizing his free notions of the motivation, in presumably high places, of armed conflict. His editorial instinct is highly emblazoned in the expression, in two words, of the only feasible basis that can exist for the precipitation of international slaughter.[10]

In the play, the reference to the game was part of Irene's response to the armaments industrialist Weber after she berates him for his contribution to the war, to which he replies:

WEBER: I am but the humble instrument of His divine will.

IRENE: We don't do half enough justice to Him. Poor, lonely old soul. Sitting up in heaven, with nothing to do, but play solitaire. Poor, dear God. Playing idiot's delight.[11]

In the film, though, the short phrase "idiot's delight" is mumbled by Capt. Kirvline (his name changed from the Italian-sounding Locicero in the play) when Harry asks him about the reason for the war.


In the play, the curtain goes down on Harry and Irene as they sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while bombs are exploding outside, leaving their survival an open question, but both versions of the film's ending show the couple to be safe and happy after the air raid. The international film version featured the hymn "Abide with Me". The domestic version replaced the impelling "Onward, Christian Soldiers", and its militant imagery, with a more demure supplication.

Clark Gable, song and dance man

According to “This was the only film in which Clark Gable performed a dance number. He spent 6 weeks rehearsing the steps with the dance director, George King, and practicing at home with his wife, Carole Lombard. Because of his fear of messing it up during a take, the set was closed during the filming of this sequence. When Gable had to sing ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ he actually had to be carried off by Les Blondes, so they saved that [scene] for last in case he was injured. On the day of the shooting Carole Lombard came to watch and was amazed that it only took one take.”[12]


Norma Shearer's elaborate hairstyle in this film was copied from the hairstyle worn by Lynn Fontanne when she played the same character in the Broadway production of the stage play.


Main Cast[13]

Box office

According to MGM records the film recorded a loss of $374,000 - the only film Clark Gable made at MGM to lose money apart from Parnell and Too Hot to Handle.[2]


  1. Glancy, H. Mark "When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945" (Manchester University Press, 1999)
  2. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  3. "Idiot's Delight (1939) - Notes -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-11-18.
  4. Schallert, Edwin (1939-02-02). "Clark Gable sparkles, Norma Shearer Picturesque in Screen 'Idiot's Delight'". The Los Angeles Times.
  5. Coe, Richard L. (1939-02-17). "Sherwood Film Continues at the Palace". The Washington Post.
  6. Staff, Variety; Staff, Variety (1939-01-01). "Idiot's Delight". Variety. Retrieved 2019-11-18.
  7. Spicer, Chrystopher J. (2002). Clark Gable: biography, filmography, bibliography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-1124-4.
  8. Black, Gregory D. (1991). "Movies, Politics, and Censorship: The Production Code Administration and Political Censorship of Film Content". Journal of Policy History (3, April).
  9. Black, Gregory D. (1994). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-45299-6.
  10. Bell, Nelson B. (1939-02-08). "'Idiot's Delight' Still Delights the Sapient". The Washington Post.
  11. Sherwood, Robert Emmett (1936). Idiot's Delight. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  12. "Idiot's Delight (1939) - Trivia -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-11-18.
  13. "Idiot's Delight Movie Detail". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
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