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.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.