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Convention May: Key to the City (1950)

It is May, convention month, time to anticipate our pending event. This month we watch movies featuring conventions.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Key to the City is the story of two small town mayors who meet up at a convention for mayors in San Francisco. Loretta Young is Clarissa Standish, a sort of uptight mayor from Wynona, Maine. Clark Gable is Steve Fisk, a former longshoreman turned politician from a Pacific coast town called Puget City. They both have very different tactics regarding how they govern their small towns, but they both share a desire to serve the people of their cities in an honest manner. Standish shows an intense frugality, very concerned of any waste among the citizens of her city. Fisk ran on a reform ticket, rallying against corrupt building practices and graft. As one would expect in a convention setting, antics and parties take place, culminating in a battle between Fisk and a corrupt city councilmember portrayed by Raymond Burr.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Loretta Young and Clark Gable had a long history. They worked together in 1935 on Call of the Wild, and during shooting Young became pregnant with his baby. She was a Catholic woman who didn't believe in abortion, so she took the arduous path that many unmarried women took in those days. She went on hiatus to the country where she had her baby and put her up for adoption, but unlike many women, Young adopted her own child. Judy was raised in a loving home, but Young was very sensitive to her resemblance to her parents. She quickly got her daughter's crooked teeth fixed, which she inherited from mom, and later arranged surgery to alter Judy's ears which stuck out like her father's. Gable observed from afar, only meeting his daughter once or twice in her lifetime, but the girl's paternity was whispered about in Hollywood and eventually word got around to her. In her senior years, Young often watched Larry King Live and first heard the term "date rape." She discussed the meaning with her daughter-in-law Linda and told her that was what happened with Clark Gable. Knowing this history and the discomfort that must have existed between them makes this movie all the more difficult to watch. Oddly enough, the two "wrote" (likely a ghostwriter wrote and they approved) articles about working together in Call of the Wild for the February 1950 issue of Screenland. He said what a good sport she was, and she talked a lot about the dog.

RB: I spent the entire film thinking about how uncomfortable this set must’ve been. That said, there is a professionalism on the part of the stars that is nothing less than admirable, though I spent a lot of time wishing that Young had never had to endure being assigned this lackluster script and potentially traumatic experience at all. The film has all of the trademarks of an MGM movie, down to the glossy sheen and handling of traditional values. While it’s admirable to see Young portray a well-educated career woman, it’s not terribly surprising to see her eventually be willing to give it all up to marry a rough-around-the-edges, bombastic “he-man”.

SG: Their chemistry is non-existent. Gable's character is mean, teasing and taunting Young's throughout the film. Her character is conservative but kind with a real desire to excel in her job as mayor, careful not to overspend taxpayer dollars and to serve the public. His responds by pressuring her to attend a dinner at a sexually charged nightclub, making dirty jokes and comments full of inuendo, and making her the outcast of their table. Later in the film when a man approaches them on the street and asks, "Little girl, is this man bothering you?" I wanted to scream, "Yes! Take him away!"

I found the costume sequence where Gable is given a little boy's short pants costume against his will and Young is dressed like Little Bo Peep uncomfortable and strange.

RB: I don’t know that I found it uncomfortable, but what I certainly did find strange was that nobody seemed to recognize either of them in their costumes. I don’t get this at all. Even for the purposes of comedy, it doesn’t work. You have to completely suspend belief to comprehend that plot-point. The supporting cast, however, is really great. Frank Morgan is here in his final film role (he died before the film was released), but you’d never know it here. There’s as much gusto and energy here as you’d expect at any point in his career. Also worth mentioning in a standout role is Marilyn Maxwell, in a good turn as Shiela the “Atom Dancer”. Maxwell is usually really good, and she is here too. She often got the short end of the stick during her years for MGM, literally appearing as just a pretty face much of the time. However, in this film, she starts out that way but winds up having a pivotal part in the climax of the film. While we don’t see it here, she had a lovely singing voice and flair for comedy (appearing on radio in The Abbott and Costello Show, Beat The Band and Stars Over Hollywood among many others) which was honed during countless USO tours both during and after the war, often accompanying her longtime partner Bob Hope.

SG: The cast in this movie is outstanding, which makes the fact that it isn't any good all the more disappointing. Marilyn Maxwell does a balloon dance at the nightclub which is kind of cute, but she mostly exists as eye candy and a rival for Fisk's affections. Lewis Stone is Mayor Standish's wise old uncle who is shocked by her announcement of her pending wedding and for some reason delighted by it. James Gleason is the policeman who continually has to free Mayors Fisk and Standish who keep getting themselves arrested. Raymond Walburn is another one of the mayors in town for the convention. Raymond Burr is great as the menacing gangster trying to get Fisk to endorse graft, but he is out of place playing his part so sincerely in what is clearly a ridiculous comedy.

Gable was a pallbearer at Morgan's funeral. Young said, "The loss of Frank Morgan was another severe blow. I remember that I came home from a radio broadcast, bubbling about some of the minor miscues that sometimes occur over the air... Clark and several others were to be our dinner guests that night, so Clark was sitting on the terrace with Tom, my husband, and one or two others... 'Frank died this afternoon,' [Gable] said quietly. I simply stared at him. 'Frank who?' Not for an instant did it occur to me that it was Frank Morgan. I had talked to him the previous day, and he had been full of plans for the future."

The Chinatown scenes were shot on location in San Francisco. The little boy peddling Chinese Lychee Nuts is a cute runner which makes me want to try this snack. It is a running gag in And Baby Makes Three and ever since I've been curious. Have you ever had them?

RB: I have not, but it may be worth seeking them out on the next trip to Jungle Jim’s… Most of the San Francisco scenery was just based on stock footage, but as you point out, there was a small amount of location work that really added to the flair.

SG: Helen Hendricks wrote for Screenland magazine, "Gable was never better, Young never prettier, and a picture never more welcome."

Focus Film Review wrote, "This is a well worked out comedy with plenty of amusing situations and plenty of laughter. Clark Gable and Loretta Young have no difficulty in keeping the ball of fun rolling. However, there are bits, in bad taste, which could have been left out."

Red Kann for Motion Picture Daily said, "There is little that is sensible about Key to the City, nor is it likely that there ever was very much intended."

RB: If you love character actors like we do, there’s definitely some work here to enjoy. Unfortunately, that’s all there is here. Loretta Young and Clark Gable waste any potential that they have as they’re saddled with a hamfisted script that makes little sense. They can’t all be five stars, and this one definitely is not. Two stars for this dud.

SG: The beginning of the movie is strong. It was fun to watch the various mayors checking into the hotel, mostly men taking advantage of the chance to interact with women in scanty outfits selling various things including a state-of-the-art fire engine. As soon as the romantic angle is introduced, it falls downhill and fast. Two annoyed stars.

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I've often wondered if this had been designed as a Tracy-Hepburn vehicle and they both passed. The characters certainly seem to fit their established personae, and they certainly would have made it a much better picture.


Marvin Kaplan remembered working on this movie on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal podcast. On Gable: “I wandered into his dressing room by mistake. I didn’t know where I was going and I saw this man without his piece and I started to laugh and then I had to do a scene with him. Well, he hated my guts.”


“I remember Mr. Morgan, we were rehearsing and he had a line, ‘Who me?’ That’s all he had to say in the scene, and he said it and the guy working with him cut it too short. He wanted to put in a little laugh after ‘Who me’… He said, ‘Please I have very little to do in this movie. Don’t…

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