Sunday, June 26, 2011

Skyway (Monogram, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled in for the night and I ran him another download from Skyway, a 1933 production from first-iteration Monogram that, though it wasn’t as good as Jane Eyre, The Phantom Broadcast or Sensation Hunters, was certainly a capable and entertaining piece of work even though its script by Albert E. Demond is little more than a grab-bag of clichés. The title Skyway obviously heralds a movie about aviation, though there’s surprisingly little flying in this film (probably because a Monogram budget couldn’t pay for much of it; a long-shot that supposedly represents the central character’s stunt flight might well be a stock clip from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, for years a prime source for producers needing scenes of World War I aircraft in action and not having the money to stage them themselves), and it seems to have been Monogram’s attempt to do their own version of a James Cagney movie.

Robert “Flash” Norris (Ray Walker, top-billed) is a pilot for an airline that flies mail deliveries for the U.S. Post Office in World War I-era biplanes. He’s also an Irish-American hothead with a penchant for getting into fights whenever any fellow male, no matter his age and state of health, gets in his way or says something even remotely insulting. Walker doesn’t do this sort of character as well as Cagney did — who could have? — but within his limits he’s quite good and fully credible at portraying both the character’s hot-headedness and his underlying decency and charm. He’s arrested after having knocked out an old man at a carnival, and when he comes into court he meets spoiled heiress Lila Beaumont (Kathryn Crawford, attractive but surprisingly zaftig for a female lead in a movie even by 1933 standards, let alone by today’s!), daughter of Second National Bank president John Beaumont (Claude Gillingwater). Robert and Lila start dating — it’s one of those typical 1930’s movie courtships that begins with them insulting each other and thereby lets us know they’re supposed to be together — and eventually they decide to get married.

Her dad isn’t upset about her marrying “beneath” her social class — though his assistant has been after her for years and is disappointed she’s found someone else — but dad is concerned about having a son-in-law pursuing such a dangerous profession as aviation. So he offers his son-in-law-to-be a job at the bank, and Robert starts work and rises quickly — not because he’s that good, but quite the opposite: every department that employs him gets so sick of his mistakes so quickly they end up promoting him until he’s finally working in the investment department under his fiancée’s former boyfriend. Robert gets contacted by George Taylor (George Hayes), his old boss at the airline, who needs $25,000 in venture capital to start a service using amphibious planes to take mail deliveries off ships and fly them into cities well before the ships dock. Neither John Beaumont nor his assistant Baker (Jed Prouty) wants to invest money in anything as chancy as airplanes, and Robert quits the bank in disgust and is hired back to his old job as a pilot. Then Baker comes to Robert and offers to invest $10,000 in the air mail project — and he gives Robert the money in cash and suggests he deposit it in another bank.

We have it figured it out well before the characters do: Baker is an embezzler and he’s decided to flee to South America (he’s told his bosses he’s going there to liquidate some shaky bonds from the local governments the bank is holding — plus ça change … — but he’s really fleeing with a vampy blonde who spends the cruise laying about in a couch in their stateroom, smoking cigarettes from a long holder and inquiring about how much Baker still has in his bankroll); he’s really stolen $400,000, but he’s decided to plant $10,000 on Robert to make it look like he’s the embezzler. Robert seems like he’s on the hook for the frame until Beaumont’s other (honest) assistant realizes that the shortages started two years earlier, well before Robert started working at the bank. Robert offers to take one of his airline’s amphibious planes, fly it to South America, land it alongside the ocean liner and literally kidnap Baker off of it, then fly back to New York so he can be brought to justice and the bank can recover his loot (fortunately he and his vamp have only run through a few thousand dollars of it) — and the whole incident convinces Beaumont that the aviation industry is worth backing financially after all. The film ends with Robert and Lila taking one of the airline’s planes from Los Angeles (where most of the film took place) to Yuma, Arizona, apparently because Arizona law allowed people to marry immediately. Skyway isn’t much of a movie, but it’s a good solid time-filler of the period, and while it doesn’t have the sheer weirdness of something like Air Hawks it’s also at least based around the sorts of crime one can imagine real people committing!