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.
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.
It is amazing to me to realise that this haunting and dazzling silent epic was so nearly lost forever, despite being winner of the first Oscar for best film. It had been thought that no copies of William Wellman’s early masterpiece still existed, until a print was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris and quickly restored. Watching it and seeing how powerful the imagery and acting are, with great performances by Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, plus a memorable cameo by Gary Cooper, it makes me wonder how many other great movies have indeed been lost to us.
Although this film does survive against all the odds, and has been shown in a few cinemas with an organ accompaniment, it hasn’t as yet been released on DVD, except as a video transfer on the “grey market” and on a Chinese DVD, which I believe has subtitles that can’t be removed. After watching it twice in a good unofficial copy, I’d love to see it fully restored. According to the article on it at Wikipedia, which includes a good clear plot summary, the original release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen format, as well as some prints having synchronised sound effects. A special edition DVD could try to re-create all this, and have a commentary from a film historian – I’d rush out to buy it! However, even a DVD without all those bells and whistles would be very welcome.
Just a short review today as I don’t have time for one of my epics, you may be relieved to hear! In all honesty, I also don’t have all that much to say about Devil Dogs of the Air, which is a light comedy-drama, though it does feature some spectacular aviation footage. However, I thought I’d write something about it before it fades in my mind.
On the face of it, there are quite a few similarities between this movie , directed by Lloyd Bacon, and one of my favourite James Cagney films, Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, made later in the same year. Both see Cagney playing a daredevil pilot, and both team him with Pat O’Brien as a long-suffering old friend in a position of command. (They are mail pilots in Ceiling Zero, fleet marine force aviators here.) Cagney even makes almost the same entrance in both films. In each case his character has had quite a build-up before he appears, and is first seen in a plane doing daring aerobatics, before cheekily throwing himself into a dismayed O’Brien’s arms on landing.
Yet the two movies feel very different to watch – partly of course because Devil Dogs is mainly comedy and Ceiling Zero mainly drama, but also, I think, because Hawks’ film gives so much more complexity to the characters. In Ceiling Zero Cagney’s character, “Dizzy” Davis is in his mid-30s (with a thin moustache to make him look a little older and more dashing), getting rather old to fly and also finding his life of womanising starting to wear thin.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Howard Hawks’ first sound movie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), a powerful tale of a group of British First World War pilots waiting in their small, temporary HQ near the frontline in France, to be sent off in batches to an almost certain death.
Since then, I’ve found myself often remembering the film, and have been curious to see the 1938 remake, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Errol Flynn and David Niven as Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott, the roles played by Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the original.
I’ve now managed to get hold of a copy of the remake, and watched it – then went back to the earlier version to see what the differences were. The thing that struck me most of all was just how similar they are – in many scenes the scripts seem almost identical, while a lot of the flying footage is clearly taken from the earlier film and sandwiched into the second version, with just Flynn’s dirty face in goggles substituted for that of Barthelmess.
This is another contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema blog – and, sorry, it’s a bit of an epic but I’m somewhat obsessed with this movie at the moment
One of the greatest First World War films I’ve seen is All Quiet on the Western Front , which I reviewed here a while ago, and which shows the conflict in agonising and sometimes gory detail. Howard Hawks’ early film The Dawn Patrol is quite different, tighter in its focus and leaving more to the imagination – but it’s equally intense and harrowing, and deserves to be much better-known than it is. I’d say it is also equally anti-war in its emotional message.
Most of its action takes place in the small, claustrophobic setting of the few rooms near the frontline where a group of British pilots are based. This restricted set gives the feeling of a stage play, although in fact it’s due to the limited scope of early talkies. In any case, the narrow focus becomes a strength of the film, giving a sense of just what the pilots’ lives have been reduced to – how all there is now is flights and the space between them. Ed Howard has written about the advantages of the limited sets and pared-down feeling of the film in his review.
Although the movie is based on a story by pilot John Monk Saunders, Hawks, who was also an air force veteran, says in Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies that he himself wrote the film’s story. Clearly he shaped the screenplay to fit his own key themes and preoccupations, with the focus very much on male bonding and sacrifice – and on the tensions of a small group of people forced together under an impossible strain, something also at the heart of two other early Hawks films about flying, Ceiling Zero and Today We Live.
For much of the film, the pilots, led by embittered veteran Dick Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) and his best friend Doug Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) mill around waiting for their next flight. They share endless drinks at the makeshift bar (there seems to be no shortage of alcohol to numb their pain), and join in maudlin songs, always about death. Names of the flight members are written in chalk on a blackboard, then rubbed out as they die and are replaced.