Monday, August 29, 2011

Power Dive (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1941)

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

After Lawyer Man Charles and I watched Power Dive, a 1941 film (though we were viewing a reissue print for TV in the 1950’s with a redone title and end card that kept the association with Paramount, original distributor of this William Pine-William Thomas production, a deep secret) that was a good deal more clichéd than Lawyer Man and seemed redolent of every movie about civilian aviation ever made to that time. Richard Arlen stars as hot-shot test pilot Brad Farrell, who as the film begins is setting off on an attempt to break the cross-country speed record for his employer, Dan McMasters (Roger Pryor) — only the plane is stuffed so full of gas its engine can’t lift it off the ground, and while he’s futilely taxiing Brad ends up crashing it into a passing train and breaking his leg. While he’s laid up and unable to fly, his brother Doug (Don Castle) comes to work for the McMasters company. Brad has paid for Doug’s education as an aeronautical engineer and expects Doug’s aviation career to be spent entirely on the ground, but Doug has other ideas and wants to be a hotshot test pilot like his big brother.

Doug literally bumps into a woman on the McMasters field — she turns out to be Carol Blake (Jean Parker), daughter of a professor (Thomas W. Ross) who designed a potentially revolutionary plastic airplane but was then blinded in a chemistry experiment. Carol wants her dad’s design to be developed and produced, and that’s what she’s doing looking for Mr. Farrell on the McMasters grounds — and she assumes Doug is his brother and he’s so smitten by her he doesn’t disabuse her of the notion. The script — by Maxwell Shane and Edward Churchill based on a story by Paul Franklin, and directed by James Hogan, a hack but at least a solidly talented one — goes through the predictable motions of a romantic melodrama about aviation, with the expected romantic triangle between the brothers over the girl, and an obstacle in the form of Johnny Coles (Louis Jean Heydt — tall, blond, striking-looking and quite attractive, it’s a wonder this serious actor got stuck in the character salt mines and never got a shot at stardom), who brings a rival plastic-plane design to McMasters and tests it himself, with predictably fatal results — leaving behind a wife (Helen Mack) and son (Billy Lee). McMasters is sufficiently upset by this to put the plastic plane in mothballs, even though the Farrells and Carol try to convince him that the internal aspects of the designs are completely different, and there’s a parting of the ways between Brad and Doug when Doug thinks Brad has aced him out of Carol’s affections (he hasn’t; by then Carol has decided nerdy little Doug, not butch test-pilot Brad, is the Farrell she loves).

Ultimately the Farrells convince McMasters to take a chance on the Blake plane design — aided by interest from the U.S. army, who’s interested in it as a training plane (this film was released June 4, 1941, when the U.S. was doing a sort of clandestine preparedness even though most of the country still believed we both should and could stay out of World War II — had this been made after Pearl Harbor the role of the military would have been portrayed very differently) and whose officers demand to supervise the test flight of the prototype, telling Brad that instead of flying by the seat of his pants he’ll have Doug as a co-pilot and a full set of flight recorders and other instruments relaying information to the ground about how the plane is performing minute by minute. The flight is, of course, the big climactic sequence — and in one of the quirkier plot twists of all time, the flight recorder (this is probably the first film ever made that actually shows a so-called “black box” — and indeed, at least this early, that’s exactly what it was!) falls loose from its moorings and jams the controls, forcing Brad to cut the wires to the joystick, wrap each wire around his hands, and try to maneuver the plane to the ground that way. Of course, the test is declared a success, the Army buys the plane and authorizes production, Brad agrees to stop flying and run a desk job, Doug ends up with Carol and there’s at least a hint that Brad will hook up with the widow Coles and give her son a father.

Power Dive, produced by William Pine and William Thomas for Paramount release and an example of the kind of unpretentious entertainment they were good at, and which ultimately won them “A” assignments, is a decent enough movie but there’s not that much interesting about it; aside from a fight in a restaurant/bar between the Farrells (“You mean something exciting actually happened in this film?,” Charles joked), about the only truly thrilling scenes are the actual flight sequences, and even those are heavily, shall we say, filled out with stock footage. It’s an unpretentious movie and at the end one has the consciousness of having spent an hour and 10 minutes watching something nice and comfortable in its clichés — even though at several points in the 1930’s Warner Bros. did the same movie better, usually with Pat O’Brien in the role of the older man in the triangle!