Idiot's Delight - Clarence Brown - Clark Gable - Norma Shearer - Harry - Irene - hotel

Idiot’s Delight
1939, directed by Clarence Brown

It’s no secret that Idiot’s Delight anticipates World War II, which broke out in Europe barely seven months after the film’s premiere, but the movie’s prescience is not remarkable. Signs of impending war were in plain sight, and if Hitchcock’s spy thrillers had been warning the British since 1934 about dangers brewing on the continent, it’s not extraordinary that even Robert Sherwood’s 1936 play of Idiot’s Delight should have predicted WWII. What’s harder for modern audiences to pin down is exactly what the movie says about the upcoming war.

It’s certainly not patriotic propaganda, and it would be too soon for that anyway. The opening scene punctures the jingoism of the first world war – not only are wounded and maimed soldiers unjustly denied their share of recognition, but the parades are exposed as a lie, promoting an impression that victors suffer no consequences. Nor is the movie a pacifist or isolationist call to stay out of the war. It doesn’t give a good face to militant pacifism, and at any rate Sherwood would soon become a speechwriter for President Roosevelt, opposing isolationism and calling the United States an arsenal for democracy. And unlike so many anti-war movies, Idiot’s Delight does not even try to analyze the causes of war. When Clark Gable’s character Harry Van wonders who could be responsible for so much cruelty, he’s not content to give Achille Weber or even “a million like him” sole credit, nor is he satisfied with Captain Kirvline’s answer that war starts like an avalanche, triggered by some tiny crack somewhere. “This avalanche isn’t made of ice,” Van replies, “it’s made of flesh and blood and brains.”

Idiot's Delight - Clarence Brown - Clark Gable - Harry - piano - hotel - Alps - mountains - windows

Audiences of 1939, accustomed to MGM’s egalitarian, pro-democracy, and socially cohesive messaging, aligned by and large with the ethos of Roosevelt’s policies, would have been readily attuned to the movie’s actual purpose. Idiot’s Delight means to remind us to hold onto our humanity in the face of war, as our values and better natures will be tested to the extreme. Today we’re accustomed to firm answers from all directions about the pros, cons, and causes of big problems like war, so a message about guarding our humanity might seem lightweight or platitudinous; but we would be wrong to think so. Idiot’s Delight shows an uncommon wisdom about life in chaotic times, and the hatreds in our present world show that we have much to learn from this movie.

Just as the opening scene exposes the falsehood behind victory celebrations, we can see in Achille Weber the big lie behind preparation for war. He claims war won’t happen because the great powers are “much too well prepared”, armed to the hilt with his weapons – but as soon as war breaks out he unashamedly rushes off to triple production. The movie returns again and again to questions of truth and falsity, but even on this subject, as on war itself, the movie’s position looks hard to pin down. Sure, it condemns the lies that enable war, but it doesn’t exactly condemn Harry and Irene, the two lead characters, who are both, to a certain degree, frauds – he with his elixirs and mind-reading act, she with her fake Russian aristocratic persona.

Idiot's Delight - Clarence Brown - Clark Gable - Harry - Omaha - mind-reading act

On the topic of truth, however, the movie tips its hand. Harry Van reads from a presumably fictional encyclopedia: “Truth is the ideal of perfection for which all artists, scientists, and philosophers have striven.” By acknowledging that truth is an abstract ideal, the movie also acknowledges that good people will not fully live up to this ideal. Harry and Irene spend their lives reaching perpetually higher, but their dreams are battered by the harsh realities of life, and that humanizes them.

What complicates Idiot’s Delight more than anything is that it has two villains – and they’re on opposite sides. One has a total disregard for truth, never even bothering to strive for the ideal. The other villain, oddly enough, always speaks the truth, believing he’s found the ideal. Of the first, Achille Weber, the movie has little to say. We all know such characters exist, and the movie engages with him no more than Harry Van does, wordlessly exchanging dirty looks on his way out of the hotel. The second villain is Burgess Meredith’s character, Quillery, the self-righteous pacifist who keeps popping up until he is arrested; and on his type the movie has plenty to say. It certainly pays a high price for introducing him – not only does he repeatedly throw a wrench into the drama, bringing good times to a halt and spoiling the musical act, but by characterizing a pacifist so unfavorably Idiot’s Delight asks us to navigate a degree of nuance that makes many viewers uncomfortable.

Idiot's Delight - Clarence Brown - Richard Skeets Gallagher - Clark Gable - Burgess Meredith - Charles Coburn - Donald Navadel - Harry - Quillery - Doctor Waldersee - hotel terrace - airfield

Quillery is a necessary character because in the real world there are so many like him – people whose arguments may sound progressive, but who ignore the complexities of reality and comport themselves in a way that harms their cause. His words speak of compassion for the victims of war, but when he stands on the hotel terrace surveying the airfield below, he inflates himself with a sense of importance that glories so much in being right that his motives look suspect. He claims to be a pacifist, but in fact he’s invigorated by warfare. To compensate for this he overextends himself, railing at hotel guests for daring to continue their normal lives. He tells them, “I have hatred for certain things. You should hate them too. They are the things that make us blind and ignorant and dirty.”

This type of person is no less common today than in 1939. Utterly certain of their beliefs, they reject political solutions for fear that compromise would corrupt them. Their absolutism and impatience makes them vulnerable, as much as profiteers like Achille Weber are, to enabling authoritarianism. The point is not that Quillery is evil, but that he’d rather play God than seek politically practical ways to avert war. Captain Kirvline almost regretfully arrests him, and later Weber mentions that he’s been shot. The movie doesn’t endorse his execution, but any other end for him would have sugarcoated the reality of 1930s Europe.

Idiot's Delight - Clarence Brown - Edward Arnold - Norma Shearer - Achille Weber - Irene - hotel

With its assortment of humanity, the alpine hotel in Idiot’s Delight is a microcosm of the contemporary world like Rick’s nightclub in Casablanca. Most of the common people, like Harry and Irene, Dr. Waldersee, Mr. and Mrs. Cherry, and Dumptsy, are foils to the twin dangers of Weber and Quillery. They represent the humanity we’re supposed to hold onto so dearly, especially in case of war, and the way they get along so beautifully in spite of their differences is a model for a functioning world. Harry Van is characterized as a common man of uncommon courage, a war veteran who feels no self-pity even when blocked from the hospital by a victory parade he’s not welcome in. He finds himself unemployed (“at liberty”) countless times, but he keeps picking himself up again with unwavering spirits. The movie enlists Clark Gable’s considerable star power to dignify the character, making him a persuasive model of all-American humanity at its best.

Given the memory of World War I, Idiot’s Delight could hardly espouse warfare, but given the fascist threat in Europe and Asia it could scarcely espouse blind pacifism either. Instead it rejects absolutism on either extreme, calling us to find our common humanity like the international medley of guests and staff do at the hotel. At the end a few characters mournfully acknowledge the need to serve their countries in war, but the movie never loses sight of peace. Rather than letting Quillery monopolize that ideal, Sherwood gave Norma Shearer’s character the name Irene, which means “peace” in Greek. The movie is more than an allegory, but Irene’s name adds an allegorical touch that clarifies the movie’s purpose. Harry Van is a common American in love with peace, even when she’s been false to him. Achille Weber uses the image of peace as long as it gives him cover, but as soon as war is declared he leaves her to her own devices.

Idiot's Delight - Clarence Brown - Clark Gable - Norma Shearer - Harry - Irene - ending - airplane - piano - hotel - mountains - war - Alps

Like the song “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca, the Russian song “Kak Strana” (“How Strange”) bridges Harry and Irene’s past and present, spanning twenty years from Omaha to the Alps. The song defines the movie as much as the famous song defines Casablanca, reminding the couple of their earlier love while also going straight to the point of the movie. How strange that Harry and Irene should meet the way they do, carry their love hidden, and reunite by chance so far away under such unexpected circumstances. It’s strange, but thinking of its strangeness heightens not only their love but their humanity, expressing the wonder of existence and confirming how lucky they are to be together again. The movie itself is strange, with Norma Shearer’s unconventional performance and Clark Gable playing a song-and-dance man, not to mention the odd set of characters and the leap from Midwest vaudeville to a central European ski resort – but it’s knowingly strange because life itself, when fully appreciated, is so wondrously strange.


The Lady Vanishes – Anticipation of WWII; international rail travelers stuck in an Alpine hotel

La nuit fantastique – Character named Irene who represents peace

Casablanca – Chance reunion of couple in wartime; theme song that bridges relationship; assortment of characters representing humanity

The Hand of the Devil – Character named Irene who represents peace

Nostalghia – Madman admonishing the world while acting superior to it