Aviation movies have long held a fascination for me, but I haven’t seen many featuring female aviators — and most of those I have seen are a disappointment. For instance, I was recently excited at the chance to see the German silent film The Ship of Lost Men (1929), starring my favourite actress, Marlene Dietrich, as a pioneering pilot, but sadly she is only seen in the air for a second or so before landing in the sea, and the film as a whole isn’t very memorable. Dorothy Mackaill, another fine actress, plays a spoilt rich girl playing at being a pilot in the pre-Code Love Affair (1932), the film which features Humphrey Bogart’s first romantic lead role, but, again, she spends very little time in the air and the film doesn’t really live up to its great cast.
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.
It’s been a while since I did any full reviews of William A Wellman movies here, but I have been watching more of his work in the meantime and have updated my Wellman page with brief details of all the films of his I’ve seen so far (40-plus.) I do also have a couple more of his films which I haven’t got round to watching yet, and there are a few more available which I haven’t bought yet, so I will carry on updating, and hopefully review some more of them too.
Anyway, I’m delighted to say that my page is already getting out of date, because Warner Archive has just announced that it is releasing three more of his titles on DVD. I’m especially excited at the release of his great pre-Code Safe In Hell (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill in a brilliant performance as an ex-prostitute who runs away to a Caribbean island after killing an ex-boyfriend.
The other two are later titles, which I haven’t seen as yet. One is My Man and I (1953), starring Shelley Winters as an alcoholic bar girl befriended by Mexican farmhand Ricardo Montalban. The other is Wellman’s very last film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958), starring Tab Hunter and David Janssen, and with a small part for Clint Eastwood. This returns to the theme of the director’s first big success, Wings, by focusing on First World War flyers. I have seen an interview with Wellman where he talks about this film and about how upset he was by the studio changing his ending and also imposing a title – he had already had a lot of interference with many other films, but you get the impression this one broke his heart. (He himself didn’t fly with the Lafayette Escadrille, as usually stated, but with the Lafayette Flying Corps.) Anyway, this film is already available on a French DVD from Warner, but this is said to be a remastered edition, so I’m not sure which would be the better buy. The French DVD is probably a pressed one rather than a DVR, but maybe this is a better print?
It’s also good to hear that classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March, is being released by Kino on both DVD and Blu-ray on December 20 in a new “authorised edition from the estate of David O Selznick and the collection of George Eastman House). Should be much better than all the faded public domain copies on the market!
I’ve watched a few little-known pre-Codes lately which aren’t masterpieces by any means, but are still interesting. I thought I’d post a few thoughts on them before they fade in my mind completely, starting with this early Bette Davis comedy-drama from Warner Brothers. Davis is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve been trying to watch as many of her movies as possible, so that’s why I tracked this down, though it isn’t on DVD as yet. There may be a hope that it will turn up in Warner Archive in the future.
I was especially intrigued by this film because of the title, since I am a fan of 1930s aviation dramas and recently reviewed Wellman’s Central Airport, also made in 1933, which features a woman parachutist. Sadly, however, Bette isn’t the parachute jumper in this one, staying firmly on the ground throughout! In fact it is top-billed star Douglas Fairbanks Jr who does the jumping, though he doesn’t do very much of it.
Central Airport is yet another of William Wellman’s lesser-known pre-Codes – but the good news is that this one is available on DVD, released as one of a batch of Warner Archive features starring Richard Barthelmess. It’s not one of Wellman’s very greatest, but it is still highly enjoyable – and highly characteristic of this director, packing in a lot of breathtaking aviation stunts and following people who travel from town to town as part of an air circus. In his pre-Codes, Wellman always has a feeling for wanderers, and for people who have to put on a performance to earn their livings.
It is also a characteristic role for Barthelmess, who plays an aviator in several of his greatest films – so, watching him as a death-defying pilot in this, I found myself often reminded of his roles in movies like The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Only Angels Have Wings. The first time I watched this movie, I assumed his character was also a First World War veteran, as in the classic movie he made with Wellman a little later the same year, Heroes For Sale – but, watching a second time, I failed to spot anywhere where this is stated outright, though I think it is suggested at one point.
I’ve been meaning to post briefly about an early Humphrey Bogart movie I saw recently. The pre-Code romantic drama Love Affair is in fact his first lead role, although he gets second billing to Dorothy Mackaill. Bogart is one of my all-time favourites, and I’d also count myself as a fan of Mackaill after being impressed by her in Wellman’s Safe In Hell, although I still need to catch up on her silent roles. I quite enjoyed this film, because I love the period, but, although it is only just over an hour long, it feels quite slow and stilted, as with many early 1930s movies. Watching films made by lesser-known directors such as Thornton Freeland, who was at the helm for this one, makes me realise once again just how good the likes of William Wellman, John Ford, William Dieterle and Howard Hawks really were.
Now that I’ve seen two great William Wellman silent films, Wings and Beggars of Life, I’d love to see the rest. Sadly, I can’t, and I won’t be able to see all his early talkies either. Some of his early movies have been lost (along with an estimated 90 per cent of all silent movies), while, perhaps more infuriating still, others do exist but aren’t available to see.
The lost film of his I’m saddest not to see is The Legion of the Condemned (1928), which starred Gary Cooper and Fay Wray and was another aviation melodrama based on a story by John Monk Saunders, also writer of Wings and The Dawn Patrol. It was based on the fliers who signed up for the Lafayette Escadrille, a French squadron largely made up of Americans, in the First World War – a subject which had personal resonance for Wellman, as he served with the French himself, and which he was to return to in his last film. This movie apparently showed its heroes as motivated by a death wish, with various reasons for wanting to die in battle. Cooper, who had just a small part in Wings but made a strong impression, here played a daring pilot, with Wray as the spy he had to take over enemy lines. I found a review from the New York Times which is patronising and makes fun of the apparently far-fetched plot, but still to me gives a feeling that this must have been a powerful movie. It would be great if a print did turn up one day.