Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Women in the Wind (Warners, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I finally got to be alone together I ran him Women in the Wind, a rather oddly titled 1939 Warners programmer that, according to Robert Osborne’s introduction on Turner Classic Movies, represented Kay Francis’s 54th film and her last as a Warners contract player (though she’d return to the studio in 1942 as a free-lancer for the film Always in My Heart). It’s pretty clear from the story — a woman aviator determines to win an all-female cross-country air race for the benefit of her sick brother, also a flyer, who needs a specialist with a four-figure price tag to save his ability to walk after a bad crash in the backstory — and the billing (Francis shares under-the-title billing on the title card with her leading man, the acceptable but colorless William Gargan) that Warners had about zero faith in her as a box-office attraction by then.

Surprise; Women in the Wind turns out to be a quite good movie, nothing special and at times almost a compendium of Warners clichés, but consistently fun to watch, with excellent special effects and none of the longueurs of the retread soap operas like Secrets of an Actress that were mostly what she was making at the tail end of her Warners career. Francis plays Janet Steele, who learned to fly from her pilot brother Bill (Charles Anthony Hughes) until a bad crash disabled him. Frantic to raise $4,000 for the operation he needs if he’s ever going to have any hope of walking, let alone flying, again, Janet learns of an air race for women from Burbank (probably not coincidentally the location of the Warners studio) to Cleveland, and she determines to enter it, win the $15,000 grand prize and use it to pay for her brother’s care.

The minor detail that she doesn’t actually own a plane doesn’t bother her; she determines to borrow the one her brother’s friend Ace Boreman (William Gargan) has just flown round the world on a record-breaking flight, and when she finally gets to him he agrees to lend her the plane and help her win the race. Ace also starts falling in love with her despite his playboy reputation and the inconvenient fact that he already has a wife, who was supposed to get a divorce in Mexico but has now decided to challenge the legality of it and claim she’s still married to him. Worse, Mrs. Frieda Boreman (Sheila Bromley) is a pilot herself and wants to grab Ace’s plane so she can enter and win the big race. Meanwhile, Ace’s record has already been broken by Denny Corson (Eddie Foy, Jr.) — a character whose resemblance to the real Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan was duly noted by the reviewers in 1939 — and, with Frieda Boreman in control of her husband’s plane due to California’s community-property law, Janet decides that the only way to beat Ace’s plane is to borrow Corson’s since it’s already proven its ability to go faster.

Needless to say, Janet is also really pissed at Ace for having neglected to tell her he was married — though he didn’t think he was still legally married to Frieda at the time he was romancing Janet so he’s in the clear ethically and according to the Production Code — and as if that weren’t plot enough for you, Frieda hires a saboteur to unscrew Janet’s gas cap at the start of the second leg of the race in Wichita — where Janet has already been delayed because her friend and roommate Kit Campbell (Eve Arden, given a nicely etched performance that makes one wish her role were larger), who was also in the race, crash-landed and Janet helped rescue her from the burning wreckage of her plane. Naturally, none of the obstacles can stop Our Heroine — not the sabotage (she coasts to a landing on a farm and buys gas from the farmer — which had both Charles and I shaking our heads because we thought planes ran on high-test aviation fuel, but maybe in 1939 even high-performance competition planes could run on regular automobile gas), not the delay to help Kit, not an accident to her plane in which one of its landing wheels was knocked off when she took off from the farm.

Indeed, at the end scenarists Lee Katz and Albert DeMond (adapting a 1935 novel by Francis Walton) even have Frieda turn into a good sport, giving up her own chance to win the race to point out to Janet that one of her landing wheels is no longer attached to her plane and therefore she’s going to have to do one of those fabled three-point landings — which she does. (At first I thought it was a stunt pilot but later I decided it was almost certainly staged with a model.)

The director is John Farrow (Mia’s father), and while his work isn’t particularly atmospheric (Farrow made back-to-back noir masterpieces, The Big Clock and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, in 1948 but most of the rest of his work, with the arguable exception of His Kind of Woman in 1951, is competent but undistinguished) it is exciting and rapidly paced in the best Warners manner, and he manages to get an intriguing performance from Francis that manages to convince us she’s an assertive woman without the relentlessness we would have got from Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck in the role. Women in the Wind isn’t a forgotten gem but it is a quite respectable piece of entertainment that succeeds on its own term, and as much as her last two years at Warners had been a “downer” it was an exit Kay Francis need not have been ashamed of — even if in later years she was convinced that One-Way Passage was the only film she’d ever made of which she was proud!