Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Night Flight (1933) dir. Clarence Brown
Starring: John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, William Gargan, Irving Pichel
By Greg Klymkiw
Night Flight was unseen for over 60 years due to MGM allowing a lapse in the rights to the excellent novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince). The book thrillingly fictionalized the author's experience as an airmail flyer in those dangerous days when night flying - due to a lack of radar, proper lighting and iffy radio communication - was, for the brave pilots who manned the controls, an act of taking one's life in one's hands.
I had never seen the picture and was more than delighted when TCM picked up the tab on the underlying literary rights to this historically important picture which then freed Warner Home Entertainment to properly release it on DVD. It's not a great movie, by any means, but is replete with enough engaging cinematic elements to merit a viewing or two. It's especially unique as it explores an issue that - when the film was made - was contemporary to the period and now sheds a fair bit of historical light on those early days of aviation.
Night Flight, produced by David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind), is an episodic, star-studded drama that takes place over a 24-hour period in the burgeoning days of air mail. Riviere (John Barrymore) is the tough-as-nails General Manager of a French aviation company in South America. He's out to prove that the danger inherent in night flying is a risk worth taking. On one stormy night, a package of serum for infant paralysis desperately needs to get over the Andes mountains, but oddly, what's more important to Riviere is that ALL the mail must get to where it has to be and ON-TIME!!! He will accept no excuses - none whatsoever - and threatens to severely fine any of the company's pilots if they fail in their respective missions. He's cold, callous and obsessed with the bottom line.
On this long, dark night, he's breaking in his new second-in-command Robineau (Lionel Barrymore, John's equally famous, brilliant real-life brother), an ex-cop who knows something about loyalty to men in the line of fire. Riviere has contempt for this and tries to drill the virtues of being a martinet into him. Robineau, afflicted with severe eczema, is constantly scratching his irritated skin - a physical reminder for him in his more humane instincts and his inability to successfully master the dubious virtues of heartless automatons. Hell, he even hits a club in Rio with a pilot for some steak and booze for which Rivière chastises him - fraternizing with hired guns does not a good martinet make.
In addition to the trials of these men behind the scenes, we follow the stories of three pilots on their dangerous air mail runs: a Brazilian (William Gargan), whose loving, happy-go-lucky and ever-so-sexy wife (Myrna Loy) waits to be reunited with him, the dashing girl-in-every-port Auguste (Robert Montogomery) who lives for adventure and fleshly variety and finally, the ace pilot Jules Fabian (Clark Gable) who flies with his eyes closed whilst dreaming of returning to his wife (Helen Hayes) who has a romantic dinner party just-for-two waiting in celebration of his making the first nighttime flight clear across the Andes Mountains.
And, let it be said, that Helen Hayes weeps enough buckets of tears in this picture to sink the Titanic.
Let it furthermore be noted that, in grand old Hollywood tradition, no attempt is made to saddle the American actors playing any character of the Gallic persuasion with fake French accents. This is a happy decision and one I wish more contemporary films would do.
The whole affair is compelling stuff and a good deal of the credit goes to the legendary studio director Clarence Brown who in previous lives before Hollywood, was one of the youngest men to earn a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering, the owner of a successful auto dealership and while on hiatus from movie making, served his country as an ace fighter pilot during World War One. (I suspect Brett Ratner, Michael Bay and others of the woeful contemporary ilk have little life experience to bring to their action pictures - resorting solely to whatever they were spoonfed in film school.)
On his background alone, Brown might well have been the perfect man for the job, but let's just add that he mentored as an assistant director under the pioneering filmmaker Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur) and once on his own as a solo director, generated as many hits for MGM "as there are stars in heaven" (to coin the studio's own phrase). In spite of generating over one hundred Academy Award nominations for those associated with his films, Brown never once copped the Oscar for Best Director and remains tied with both Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman in having the most directing nominations, but no statuette. Not that this should really mean anything, but I do think it's significant that Brown failed, in the loftiest of all peer-voted awards, to cop even a booby prize (as Martin Scorsese was finally tossed for The Departed on his sixth nomination).
What's great about Brown is not only his excellent work with actors (Garbo adored him), but his terrific eye and adherence to an expressionistic visual style that enhances his visual storytelling with considerable panache.
Brown also placed a great deal of value in the cinematic properties of monologues and Night Flight is replete with them. The best, of course are John Barrymore's rantings and ravings in his office (against the backdrop of a humungous deco-style wall-sized map of South America) about how the value of human lives pale in comparison to conquering the air of the night skies. He does, though, occasionally drop his guard and attempts to convince those who will listen (including himself) that he's human and DOES have a heart.
Brown also knows when to unfold the action without any dialogue. Many of the flying sequences capture the loneliness, claustrophobia and sheer terror in the cockpits of the pilots. The best sequences are those involving Clark Gable who utters few words and is masked with his flying cap and goggles as he alternates between fear, bravery, compassion, love and finally, grim acceptance of his fate. These are some of the most moving sequences in the film - due to both Gable and Brown.
One especially heartbreaking moment involves Gable writing a note for his co-pilot to broadcast to head office over the radio. The first few lines are all business until Gable pauses and begins to write: "Tell my wife how much I love her." He regards the words, then stalwartly crosses them out - not so much as an act of manliness, but because he needs to write and see the words himself.
Allow me to digress briefly and admit to the innumerable geysers of tears I spewed out over this scene.
The flying sequences are also superb. They're gruelling and suspenseful - especially Gable's. As his character is caught in a horrendous storm over the Andes - there's a great blend of stock footage and cockpit closeups with background process shots. Given the period, some of these effects seem clunky now, but it's a testament to Brown's brilliance as a director that we ultimately focus upon the characters themselves.
One of the most amazing things about watching this movie was seeing it with my 10-year-old daughter. She was absolutely riveted by it and the cockles of my heart are always warmed when she is gripped by movies sans digital effects and/or Miley Cyrus.
Two terrific things occurred during the screening. When the first process shot came on screen, she proudly beamed, "That's green screen!" I paused the picture and explained the difference between green screen digital effects and optical effects. That, was Homeschool Lesson #1. Even more important was Homeschool Lesson #2 when I needed to pause a few times and answer her questions about the beginnings of aviation.
This, of course, is why I urge all parents and/or parents-to-be to expose their children as early as possible to the oldest movies before tainting them with anything contemporary. It helps them learn so much about storytelling techniques, assists in their media literacy and offers ample opportunities to discuss any number of subjects in a historical context. My own child - having been exposed to thousands of movies from all periods of cinema (and the majority of them being pre-1940 titles when she was a toddler) has allowed to her to appreciate and learn from ALL movies. It also helped her realize - ON HER OWN - why most contemporary films are crap.
At the same time, it's not stopped her from enjoying Hannah Montana or, for that matter, Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Frankly, it seems lazy and pointless to me when parents subject their toddlers to The Lion King and/or Star Wars as entry-level viewing material when there's a hundred years worth of great work to show them.
Interestingly enough, Night Flight came at a perfect point in my daughter's life. If she'd seen it earlier, she'd have probably been bored, but because she already had a wealth of great films under her belt, she was able to appreciate the film for what it is, learn from it and be entertained all at the same time. (She even commented how she loved the optical effects because they were more like a fairytale than digital effects! Is this awesome, or what?)
The ultimate triumph was after Night Flight ended.
My little cherub beamed and said, "Wow! That was cool!"
Night Flight is available on DVD from Warner Home Entertainment in a decent official release (as opposed to an overpriced Archival DVD-R).