You are currently viewing Clark Gable and Lana Turner Topline HONKY TONK

Clark Gable and Lana Turner Topline HONKY TONK

Honky Tonk (1941) was the first of four MGM films teaming Clark Gable with Lana Turner, half his age at the time. The others: Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942), Homecoming (1948), and Betrayed (1954). Originally, the studio thought Miss Turner would be another Jean Harlow to Gable.

Honky Tonk was based on The Reign of Soapy Smith, about a real-life con man named Soapy Smith. But the studio couldn’t say so. Mr. Smith’s heirs tried to push Metro for more money on the deal than the studio was willing to expend. So instead, MGM assigned a pair of staff writers to concoct a variant of the story with plausible deniability, and Smith’s heirs got nothing. 

Honky Tonk was crafted, really, as a soap opera, set in the West, to exploit Gable’s Gone with the Wind (1939) persona, and in hopes he would click with a new leading lady. He did.

Years later, Lana Turner recalled making Honky Tonk. “I was terrified,” she said. “I was still in my teens and this was my first starring role. And to find myself playing opposite The King was most devastating. So I was nervous. But I wasn’t afraid of him. I was more in shock, as in ‘Is this really me?’ And, ‘Somebody pinch me’ kind of thing. But God bless Clark. I’m sure he could see me trembling. He was very kind and considerate to me. Whenever I fluffed a line, he’d say, ‘That’s all right, baby. Now don’t you worry about it.’ And you know what he’d do? He’d blow a couple lines just so I wouldn’t feel so bad. And he used to play practical jokes on me because, he said, I was a good sport.”

The picture was sold with ad lines including, “Every kiss a thrill!” “It’s big! It’s tough! It’s tender!” “She loved the toughest gent in the toughest town on earth!” “Let’s be specific, they’re terrific!” “The Lana Turner love scenes were what sold her pictures,” said Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production executive Jack Cunningham. “We knew how to promote Lana’s love scenes in a preview trailer and a sellout crowd would be created.”

From the trade paper Variety’s review: “Metro has parlayed a dressed-up horse opera with Clark Gable and Lana Turner into a chunk of boxoffice dynamite. It may rival the explosive power of San Francisco from a few years ago….Some salty dialogue must have just escaped the Hays Office…For men there’s a flash of Miss Turner in black undies and hose.”

There is plenty of fast-paced, uncomplicated action, with Gable as a slick confidence man slugging it out with adversaries, and there is more than one impetuous feminine characterization.

Honky Tonk turned out to be a great commercial product, if not a critical favorite. There were no Oscar nominations but on a negative cost of $920,000 the picture generated a worldwide gross of $4,180,000 to yield net profit to MGM of $2,045,000 or a whopping return on investment of 222%! Which beats the 3% someone could get at a savings and loan bank!