Robert E. Sherwood won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his allegory-like satire Idiot's Delight. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the film rights to the play, and commissioned Sherwood himself to adapt his play to the screen. The result is this astoundingly poignant classic, which features Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in the third and last of their radiant screen pairings. Harry Van (Gable) is a vaudevillian touring all of Europe with his musical troupe `Les Blondes.' The group is forced to stay in an exclusive Alpine hotel when the European borders are closed due to the possible coming of war. A German doctor (Charles Coburn), a French pacifist (Burgess Meredith), an English honeymoon couple (Peter Willes and Pat Paterson), and an Italian officer (Joseph Schildkraut) are lodging in the hotel as well. And also checking in are munitions manufacturer Achille Weber (Edward Arnold) and a beautiful traveling companion of his named Irene (Shearer). Irene, it seems, reminds Harry of an old girlfriend of his, with whom he had shared a special relationship ten years before in Omaha, Nebraska. But she was a redhead, and spoke with no accent. Irene, however, is a platinum blonde, and has a very clear Russian accent. Still, Harry wonders if it could be the same woman. As Harry pursues Irene, probing her complex web of stories to find out about her past, the war develops rather suddenly. A nearby airfield sends out its bombers, and the garbled radio broadcasts carry the fearful news: war has already been declared. As quickly as the guests assembled, they must depart, as the frontiers are opened for perhaps the last time. But Harry is unwilling to go until he is sure, and Irene is unwilling to divulge
One of the countless films from 1939 to help it earn the nickname of `the greatest year in movie history,' Idiot's Delight is both acerbically funny and tragically distressing. Although the original 1936 play and the film version both predate World War II, the threat of war was a very real fear, a sentiment quite powerfully expressed via the disparate, sundry characters. It is startling and even more meaningful all these years after the war, as one can easily see how many of the unfortunate predictions came to glaring truth.
But aside from dramatic poignancy, the two lead performances catapult this film to first-rate status. Shearer is brilliant, quite plainly. She spoofs her number one rival Greta Garbo mercilessly, and uses her accent to its hilarious apex. When she tells her story to Harry, and he just gazes at her, incredulously staring, hilarity reaches its peak! She has turned in so many fine performances, that it is hard to single out any one as her finest (Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, the title role in Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, her Oscar-winning role in The Divorcée, and Amanda in Private Lives are all strong contenders), but her Irene is certainly amongst the competitors. Gable, in a role that requires quite a lot of singing and dancing, succeeds admirably. He is a perfect Harry Van, complimenting perfectly with Shearer. The two have fantastic chemistry, and this was the last of the three classics they starred in together.
****side note****respected Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert singled this out as his favorite of all of the star's pictures. In one vignette he illustrates in his biography of Norma Shearer, he describes an occasion where the actress herself invited him to a private screening of the film in the 1970s.