Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Last Flight (Warners as “First National,” 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Last Flight, an intriguing 1931 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag, with a screenplay by John Monk Saunders and Byron Morgan based on a novel by Saunders called Single Lady — which would have more accurately reflected what the film was about. The director was William, née Wilhelm, Dieterle, who after a career as an actor, later rising to director, in German films in the 1920’s (he played the role of the poet in Paul Leni’s Waxworks and both starred in and directed the marvelous 1928 film Sex in Chains), was brought to the U.S. to star in simultaneously filmed German-language versions of Warners’ English-language films (according to Robert Osborne, he played John Barrymore’s role as Captain Ahab in a German version of the 1930 Moby Dick), and he ended up assigned to direct The Last Flight after Howard Hawks, who had just done a World War I aviation film, The Dawn Patrol, based on a Saunders script, had a run-in with Jack Warner and/or Darryl Zanuck and got fired from it. (Hawks stayed at Warners for the time being, though, and in 1932 directed a smash hit for them, Tiger Shark, which they regularly remade thereafter.)

According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the Saunders novel was actually a compilation of short stories revolving around a character called “Nikki” (played in the film by Helen Chandler), a Frenchwoman living by her wits in Paris and attracting attention from various Americans. The film was Dieterle’s first directorial effort in English, and one wonders whether he had an astrologer cast charts for himself and the principal actors in his cast to determine the most propitious time to start shooting, as became a trademark of his during his glory years as a director in the late 1930’s. The film begins during the last stages of World War I, with Cary Lockwood (Richard Barthelmess, top-billed) and Shep Lambert (David Manners, reunited with his Dracula cast-mate Chandler) flying in a plane together. When their plane is damaged by German fire, Cary guides Shep down to a more-or-less successful crash landing: they survive, but Cary’s hands are badly burned while Shep develops a tic in one eye. They end up in a military hospital, and they’re released just after the war ends (shown by a dissolve between a plane propeller stopping and a clock striking 11) but told they will never be able to fly again.

They decide to stay in Europe and hook up with two other recovering pilots from the hospital, Bill Talbot (John — later Johnny — Mack Brown) and Francis (Elliot Nugent). All of them settle in Paris and spend most of their time drinking — one starts to wonder how, with no apparent source of income, they can keep covering their bar tabs — and they meet Nikki, natch, at a hotel bar they frequent. The film is considered historically important as one of the earliest cinematic treatments of the so-called “Lost Generation,” the Americans who lived in Europe for all or much of the 1920’s, and since the major novels about the Lost Generation by the names most usually associated with it — Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald — either hadn’t been written yet or had been written but not filmed — that may be right; certainly the characters seem “lost” in the sense that they do almost nothing of importance — they just drink, play jokes on each other and try to protect Nikki from the unwelcome advances of yet another American in Paris, Frink (Walter Byron, co-star with Gloria Swanson of the ill-fated Erich von Stroheim film Queen Kelly), a foreign correspondent for a New York newspaper. (This does begin to sound like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story; Frink, the villain of the piece, is the only character who actually has a job!)

In the film’s most bizarrely moving scene, Cary takes Nikki to the Père Lachaise cemetery and points out the graves of the luminaries buried there, including Chopin and Balzac (40 years after this film was made, Père Lachaise would become even more internationally famous as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, who died in Paris) and the two of them pick up heart-shaped stones which are supposed to be eternal tokens of love; miffed by a quarrel between them later on, he throws his out but she keeps hers. Just when it seems like this plot could be kept going forever without any real resolution — I didn’t know while I was watching the film that it was based on a series of short stories, but I should have been able to guess — Saunders has the put-out Cary decide to move from Paris to Lisbon and the other principals, including Nikki and Frink, all crash his train compartment and go there with him. Once there, they attend a bullfight (which is represented by horribly mismatched stock footage; the problem is that the stock was shot during the silent era at the then-standard 16 frames per second, and no one in Warners’ post-production department used any way of slowing down the apparent speed of the action — with the result that the fight, shot at 16 frames per second and projected at the sound standard speed of 24 frames per second, looks unnaturally fast and one wonders if both the toreros and the bulls are on speed) and Bill, out of a combination of drunkenness and idiot bravado, decides to leap into the bullring with the bull in full charge and wave his jacket at it like a cape. Needless to say, he’s gored and his injuries prove fatal.

Frink, who previously attempted to rape Nikki and got pulled off by Cary, confronts Cary with a gun he picked up from a shooting gallery at a carnival-like midway attached to the bull ring. Frink is about to shoot Cary when Francis, holding his own gun, saves Cary’s life by shooting and killing Frink, and then disappears into the dark (a liberty that marks this as a so-called “pre-Code” movie; after 1934 they would have to have him pay for his crime) — only Shep is caught in the crossfire and has a finely honed, moving death scene in which he compares his imminent demise to what happened to them when their plane crashed during the war. So Cary and Nikki end up a couple simply because they’re the only two principals left alive at the end. The Last Flight is an interesting movie, stylishly directed by Dieterle and unusually visually rich for a Warners film of its vintage, though it’s not all that well cast (Cary Grant, using his original name of Archie Leach, played in a stage version produced on Broadway right after the movie came out and one aches for the thought of him in the film as well even though having one future superstar in the cast might have thrown the ensemble out of balance).

While Saunders was clearly more interested in the men of his story and the bonding between them than he was in creating a coherent female character, Helen Chandler acts the part of Nikki surprisingly well — anyone who knows her primarily as the almost unimaginably stiff female lead in Dracula will be surprised by her work here, and while this film would have been even stronger with (dare I say her name again in a context like this?) Barbara Stanwyck in the role, Chandler is quite good, nailing the character’s transitory emotions and quirks and still making her come across as a credible human being. The Lost Flight is one of those really odd movies that doesn’t seem to have generated many imitators — at least partly because stories set in Europe quickly became unfashionable thanks to the twin whammies of sound and the Depression — though Dieterle’s visually rich style, and in particular his love of elaborate montage transitions, did leave their mark on the Warners house style.