MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.
The film is the tale of a French air mail company (thankfully, nobody bothers with a fake French accent) based in South America, which is trying to bring in night flights over the Andes in order to compete with its rivals – and putting the lives of pilots on the line in order to do so. Mountains around Denver, Colorado were used for location shooting. The movie was withdrawn from circulation in 1942 and unseen for more than 70 years because of legal issues. It was based on a book by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who is said to have hated the film and refused to extend the rights to show it. He then tragically disappeared while flying over the Mediterranean in 1944, presumed dead, which left the rights issue to this film in limbo. Because of its rarity, it built up a legendary status and there was a lot of excitement when it was finally made available again – even getting a full region 1 release on a proper pressed DVD rather than a Warner Archives DVR. After all the build-up, I must admit the film didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sadly, it feels rather episodic, and I must suspect its flow was badly damaged when a lot of footage was cut after its premiere, taking the running time down from two hours (I got this information from Cliff Aliperti’s Immortal Ephemera blog) to just 84 minutes. However, I am still very glad to have seen it and would say it is a must for anybody who is interested in 1930s aviation films or the Barrymores.
Aviation melodramas in the 1930s feature a host of breathtaking airborne stunts, bravely performed by pilots who probably didn’t even get their names in the credits. Yet somehow the acting honours are often taken by the man on the ground. Time and again, this type of film centres on an office, and a weary aviation boss barking out commands on the radio as he desperately tries to guide in a lost pilot, while rain, fog or darkness turns the skies into a danger zone. In Night Flight, John Barrymore is the man tied to the desk – and he gives a fine, driven performance which shows the way forward to his great role as an office-bound lawyer in his next film, William Wyler’s Counsellor at Law. He cuts a lonely figure as Riviere, the airline’s tough general manager who cuts himself off from the pilots he works with, refusing to be friendly or try to make them like him in case he has to order them to do something dangerous. If a man seems to be losing his nerve, he will goad him into another trip with a fine or an insult – anything to keep this show on the road, or in the sky.
Riviere does let his mask slip occasionally, though, when he is with his new sidekick, the equally lonely Robineau (played by John Barrymore’s older brother Lionel). He explains to him why it is important to stay aloof and why the meal he has just had at a restaurant with one of the pilots was a bad idea. The scenes these two great actors have together are definitely the film’s standout sequences. Robineau is afflicted with terrible eczema, so Lionel Barrymore plays most of his scenes with a hand inside his shirt or at the back of his neck, scratching grimly. “It’s only eczema,” sneers Riviere in one scene, at which Robineau admits “Sometimes I think I’ll kill myself if it doesn’t stop.” I was impressed that a film centred on the glamour of aviation also finds time to focus on a kind of suffering as unglamorous as a skin condition. However, the same scene also shows Riviere’s different kind of pain, as he jokes bitterly: “Stop? A friendship like that? I wish I had such a loyal companion.”
The lonely character of Riviere reminded me at times of Richard Barthelmess in Howard Hawks’ great First World War film The Dawn Patrol, so I was interested to learn that Selznick had brought in John Monk Saunders, the screenwriter of that film, for some uncredited work on Oliver H P Garrett’s script. However, whereas in a war film it is easy to see why a flight commander has to keep driving his men on to fly in impossible conditions, in a peacetime film it is sometimes harder to sympathise. Watching a film about air mail pilots, I often find myself wondering why, wherever possible, they don’t wait until the storm blows over or the fog clears before trying to make a delivery – especially since, if the plane is lost, the letters won’t get there anyway. Night Flight does voice this criticism, as the wife of one of the pilots, played by Myrna Loy, asks what it is all for – “so that someone in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday?”
However, there is more urgency than she knows, as her husband, William Gargan, is in fact making an urgent medical delivery, of serum for a young boy suffering from polio. (I have read that this element isn’t in the original book, where the motives for the flights are purely commercial.) The film begins and ends with scenes set in a hospital, where a mother is desperately waiting and hoping at the bedside of her sick young son, until the lifesaving supplies finally arrive. All the women in this story are left waiting on the ground, and the framing story of the mother is part of this, as her long wait fills the whole running time.
Although the scenes with the Barrymores work well, the other famous names in this film all get rather short shrift. Robert Montgomery has a good introduction as a womanising pilot, but then his character seems to fade into the background in the rest of the film, making me wonder if some of his scenes were cut. Helen Hayes plays Simone, the wife of another pilot, Jules Fabian (Clark Gable), but the two have no scenes together, with Hayes left to sigh over Gable’s photograph. There is one strange, stagey sequence where Gable fails to get home for a special anniversary dinner, so Hayes decides to go ahead without him and pretend he is there, pouring him a glass of champagne and having an imaginary conversation with him. This scene really doesn’t work – as the character herself recognises after a minute or two, cutting the whole thing short. Hayes’ role is rather too talky in general, whereas, by contrast, Gable hardly gets a word to say, and is too often seen writing notes to his co-pilot. His air sequences are spectacular and do have a haunting quality to them, but they feel spliced into the film.
There is a scene late in the film where Hayes forces her way into the airline office and starts melodramatically weeping and wailing as she accuses John Barrymore of caring only about the business. At this, his own emotions come near to the surface and he orders her out of the room, saying: “What do you think I am? I’m not made of iron. There will be no tears and hysterics here, either yours or mine.” I feel that it ought to be possible to sympathise with both characters equally in this scene, as they are each bound up in their own grief and terror, but somehow Barrymore is much more sympathetic here than Hayes – the man keeping a stiff upper lip while the woman breaks down – and the effect is rather misogynistic. Maybe part of the problem is that Hayes and Gable have never been seen together and so it is hard to believe in their relationship having any more reality than that imaginary anniversary dinner. Far more convincing is the relationship between unnamed Brazilian pilot Gargan and his wife, Loy, who worries over waking him up early to answer the phone and has a couple of swift, affectionate domestic scenes with him rather than any grand declarations of passion.
All in all, I did enjoy the film and especially the performances of the two Barrymores, but I would love a chance to see the original longer cut and find out what was lost. I bought the region 1 Warner DVD on import – many Warner classic film releases are region-free, but this one is coded for region 1 only. It has a good picture and sound quality, but sadly doesn’t include any extras about the film itself, though it does feature a cartoon and a short about a trapeze act.
For further reading, here are links to Cliff Aliperti’s wonderfully detailed piece about Night Flight at the Immortal Ephemera blog, and TCM’s article on the film, which amusingly recounts the efforts of the Barrymore brothers to upstage one another.