Saturday, September 26, 2009

Air Hostess (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Air Hostess, an intriguing 1933 “B” from Columbia based on a story of the same title by one Dora Macy published serially in True Story magazine from October 1932 to February 1933. (Columbia had the movie out on January 15, 1933, just in time for the final installment of the serial to appear in print; now there’s synergistic marketing for you!) The opening title gives the locale as “Somewhere in France” during World War I, where an older man named Bob King is flying in the air corps along with another old guy, Pa Kearns (J. M. Kerrigan), younger pilot Ted Hunter (James Murray) and a guy named “Lucky.” King shows his fellow pilots a picture of his daughter, who’s still a child, and the other pilots joke about trying to date her when she grows up. All this happens while King is actually dying, shot down and lying in the wreckage of his plane after a battle.

The scene flashes forward to “Somewhere in the United States” — which turns out to be Albuquerque, New Mexico, the headquarters of TWA. That’s right; this is one 1930’s movie that uses the name of a real business, not a fictitious one — though at the time TWA stood for “Transcontinental and Western Airlines” and it wasn’t until Howard Hughes bought it that he changed it to “Trans World Airlines” and expanded its range to international flights. This incarnation of TWA is flying Ford Trimotor aircraft — the standard for commercial passenger flight in the U.S. until Douglas built the DC-3, a much larger and more comfortable plane that made long-distance air travel practical — and when we next meet Bob King’s daughter Kitty, she’s a grown woman (Evalyn Knapp) and working as, you guessed it, a TWA air hostess. Earlier she was stood up on a date by Ted Hunter — she waited inside a hangar until 4 a.m. to see him and all she got was a cold — and as a result the TWA pilots and mechanics have formed an informal gang that threatens to beat up any man who tries to date her or shows any romantic interest in her at all. Between them and her ultra-strict foster parents, Pa Kearns and his wife (Jane Darwell) — Pa continues to work in aviation even though he’s blind and therefore can’t fly anymore, because his hearing is so sensitive that when a plane comes in he can tell if it’s having mechanical trouble, and if so, precisely what — Kitty is feeling imprisoned, especially when a newly hired TWA pilot, Dick Miller (Arthur Pierson), offers her a date and then backs off rather than risk being beaten within an inch of his life.

Salvation of a sort comes in the form of Ted Hunter, who shows up at the Albuquerque airport in a barnstormer’s biplane, trailing a romantic past as a mercenary in Manchuria and Bolivia (we’re not sure ourselves how many of his stories are real and how many are made up, though he appears to have been covered in newspapers) and looking for a backer to help him build a new plane, with retractable wings, with which he hopes to fly nonstop across the Pacific and thereby make his name the way Lindbergh did by flying nonstop across the Atlantic. Hunter escapes the posse around Kitty by flying her across the border to Mexico for a wild night of gambling and drinking, though he stops short of actually having sex with her — later he asks her to marry him and she accepts, but since he doesn’t have a regular job and his typical 1930’s movie male ego makes him forbid her to work, they’re broke. Desperate, she insists on resuming her career as an air hostess (incidentally, there are very few scenes of her actually doing this work, but from what we see it’s clear that there wasn’t much an air hostess of the early 1930’s could do to make the passengers comfortable and give them refreshments in the cramped quarters of a Ford Trimotor) and runs into a passenger she sizes up as a potential backer, Sylvia Carleton (Thelma Todd, who’s billed fourth but only appears in the second half of the film).

Carleton is a gold-digger who’s accumulated a fortune from the four rich men she’s married and divorced, and as any moviegoer (then or now) over the age of about two could guess, she’s only pretending to be interested in Ted’s plane; what she’s really after is Ted’s body. Kitty is aware of this possibility but believes so strongly in Ted’s mission that he nonetheless encourages him to spend a weekend with her at her ranch estate in Albuquerque (on top of the homes she owns in L.A. and New York), and the inevitable happens and he ends up in Sylvia’s arms. Interestingly, the writers, Milton Raison and Keene Thompson blessedly avoid having Kitty actually catch her husband and Sylvia in flagrante delicto — thank goodness for small mercies — but she catches on when she sees the model of his plane in her living room with its wing broken off, she storms out in a huff and, to the consternation of Dick Miller — who flew her there and was clearly hoping to get her on the rebound — announces that she never wants to have anything to do with flying or flyers again and is going to take the train to L.A.

Then there’s a spectacular action climax in which Hunter and Miller both learn that the train is going to cross a bridge that is dangerously weak and will probably collapse, killing Kitty and everyone else on board, and both Miller in his TWA Trimotor and Hunter in his biplane try to intercept the train and get its engineer to stop. When all else fails, Hunter deliberately crashes his plane onto the railroad track ahead of the train, it stops in time and everyone is saved, and he and Kitty get back together — helped by the good news that another potential backer (a male one this time!) has come forward and it looks like he’s going to get to build his super-plane and try his record run after all.

Air Hostess isn’t exactly fresh drama — apparently Columbia’s executives thought that the sheer novelty of commercial air travel would give the movie unique appeal without needing to give it anything more than the simplest, most clichéd actual story (incidentally there seems to be uncertainty about the writer’s name — the American Film Institute Catalog says the original New York Times review listed the film as based on a story by “Grace Perkins,” a pseudonym of Dora Macy, while says Perkins was her real name and Macy the pseudonym) — but it’s one of those movies that’s redeemed by the personalities of the cast members as well as some surprisingly good special effects for a (then) cheap studio like Columbia (even though the train and the bridge, albeit convincing, are pretty obviously models).

Evalyn Knapp shines — a real surprise to me because the only two movies of hers I’d seen previously were Sinners’ Holiday (in which the leads, Knapp and Grant Withers, were inevitably upstaged by supporting players James Cagney and Joan Blondell) and Smart Money; somehow this film’s director, Albert S. Rogell, managed to get a tough, emotionally sensitive and utterly sincere performance out of her whereas her previous directors had just let her walk through her films. James Murray, remembered today almost exclusively for one film — King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) — isn’t exactly drop-dead gorgeous (one can only dream wistfully of what Cary Grant could have done with this part!), but he’s good enough to portray both his appeal to Kitty’s caged-bird character and the weakness that allows him to drift into the affair with Sylvia. Thelma Todd is perfectly competent, but her long association with comedians leaves us expecting Stan Laurel or Groucho Marx to appear just about every time she’s on screen. Overall, Air Hostess is a quite competent studio product, several cuts above the norm for independent films of the time and one that causes me to revise my opinion of Evalyn Knapp’s acting skills up a great deal!