Saturday, August 11, 2012

Night Flight (MGM, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the TCM showing of the 1933 film Night Flight, a movie far less well known than it deserves to be because Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the novel on which it was based, hated the movie so much that when the rights reverted to him in 1942 (like Rafael Sabatini with Bardelys the Magnificent, he had merely leased, not sold outright, the film rights to MGM), he refused to renew them, so the film remained in legal limbo until recently (though for a movie that supposedly couldn’t legally be shown for decades after it was made, it certainly has a lot of reviews on — 12, the earliest dating to 2003 — and it’s marked as “Print Viewed” in the American Film Institute Catalog). David O. Selznick, recently arrived at MGM after he’d walked out of his job as RKO studio head because of interference from the radio executives at RKO’s parent company (and, since he was married to Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, he had to face all the usual nepotism jokes, of which the most famous was, “The Son-in-Law Also Rises”), had just produced the all-star extravaganza Dinner at Eight as his first MGM film and had a major hit. So he decided to do another all-star production — a kind of movie that was actually quite practical under the studio system because the various actors could shoot their scenes for it in between work on other films — and use Saint-Exupéry’s 1931 Prix Femina-winning novel (a fact that needless to say did not go unmentioned in the titles!) as the basis for one, with the result that we get images of the major stars in the film — John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy — even before the main title (and when the main title comes on it’s made to look like it’s been skywritten). Robert Osborne, in introducing the TCM showing (which he said was the film’s world television premiere), said that he couldn’t think of an instance in which a writer had publicly said he or she actually liked a film based on one of their works (I can: Annie Proulx on Brokeback Mountain in 2005), and admitted that a film that’s been unseeable for years because the author of the source material hated it is going to go back into the world with a strike or two against it. Surprise: Night Flight is actually an excellent film, suffering a bit from a certain stiffness in the execution but overall a gripping piece of drama, expertly directed by Clarence Brown, ably written by Oliver H. P. Garrett (not a specialist in aviation films, though one writer who was famous for movies about flying, John Monk Saunders, did some uncredited work on the script, as did Wells Root) and shot by cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh in a surprisingly dark, chiaroscuro style for an MGM film, especially an MGM film made a decade and a half before the heyday of film noir.

The plot revolves around the recently formed Trans-Andean European Air Mail service (based on Aeropostale Argentina, the real South American airline Saint-Exupéry had flown for, which eventually merged and became part of Air France) on the day it starts flying by night — a long-time dream of its general manager, Riviére (John Barrymore in an astonishing performance quite different from his norm — he’s neither a romantic leading man nor a monster, but a neurotically driven CEO who’s determined to make the night flights a success no matter how high the cost in human lives or equipment), who argues that air mail loses its speed advantage over trains or ships whenever the sun goes down because those conveyances travel by night and planes don’t. (The opening credits make a big deal of the fact that the action of this movie takes place over a single day: not many producers in 1933, or since, have ballyhooed their scripts’ adherence even to one of the Aristotlean unities!) Among his pilots are Jules Fabian (Clark Gable), Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery) and someone identified in the cast listings simply as “Brazilian pilot” (William Gargan), who shows up for his first night flight already drunk and nearly loses his plane when the effects of the alcohol start catching up with him in mid-air. Lionel Barrymore plays the so-called “inspector,” Robineau, who thinks Riviére is driving the pilots too hard and wants him to ease up and act more human — apparently there was a good deal of real-life antagonism and jealousy between the Barrymore brothers (Lionel envied John’s matinee-idol good looks and successes with women, and John envied Lionel’s reputation among producers and critics for being the more “serious” actor of the two — Boris Karloff, who worked with both Barrymores, told one biographer that Lionel was “a much better actor than his brother John”) that producers and directors eagerly tapped in their films together — and the two women are involved in the action through the men: Helen Hayes plays Fabian’s wife Simone, and Myrna Loy is married to the Brazilian pilot played by Gargan but also works at a bar as a “B”-girl and, it’s strongly hinted in that sly way of the so-called “pre-Code” era, a prostitute who, in the film’s most sexually audacious scene, picks up Pellerin as one of her tricks. (But he’s called away to the airport to start a flight before anything down-’n’-dirty can happen.)

The star cast isn’t always deployed as well as we might expect — for some reason (possibly due to the fact that the film was previewed at 112 minutes but cut to 84 minutes for release) William Gargan gets more screen time than either Robert Montgomery or Clark Gable, and Gable is virtually unrecognizable because all his scenes take place inside the cockpit of a plane (he’s supposedly married to Helen Hayes but we never see them together) and he barely gets any dialogue beyond a few terse instructions to the radio man Guimet (Leslie Fenton) who’s flying with him, which he has to grunt over the noise of the plane. (Myrna Loy, in her autobiography, said she never met Gable, Hayes or John Barrymore on the set, and she rebelled at being given yet another role as a woman of loose morals — her regular typecasting until she got Louis B. Mayer to cast her as William Powell’s wife in The Thin Man and thereby got re-“typed” in the salty but decent good-woman roles she wanted.) But what’s wrong with Night Flight pales by comparison to what’s right with it: Brown’s direction is utterly gripping, the aerial scenes (particularly one in which a pilot has to maneuver his plane through a mountain pass) are astonishing, and the visual atmospherics are properly dark and brooding. A number of the reviewers negatively compared this to Howard Hawks’ film Only Angels Have Wings, made six years later and also about an airmail line in South America (and with Cary Grant, of all people, cast in the equivalent of John Barrymore’s role here), but though Hawks (as usual) gives stronger roles to the women in his cast (Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth), he also saddles the story with his penchant for Hemingwayesque depictions of “grace under pressure” that takes the edge off the visceral thrills. At least one reviewer faulted the addition of a plot line in which a (typically obnoxiously cute) movie kid is dying of polio in a hospital in Rio and his survival depends on the night-flight airline getting a serum there from Chile before noon — which took the edge off one of Saint-Exupéry’s more cynical lines, to the effect that the pilots were running all these insane risks just so a Frenchwoman could get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday — but I thought that plot device worked and underscored the importance of the main action and the fact that advancing humanity’s reach in the skies really did matter.

Night Flight suffers from Helen Hayes’ overacting — it’s true she’s playing the wife of a pilot who gets killed during the course of the story, and it’s equally true that after The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Arrowsmith and A Farewell to Arms Hollywood thought of her only in tear-jerker roles (here her big scene is she prepares a lavish dinner for her pilot husband, planning to serve it when he arrives home, then freaks out when she realizes he isn’t coming back on time, then goes to the airport when she realizes the odds are all too good that he isn’t coming back … ever), and Brown either couldn’t or wouldn’t turn down her relentless assault on the tear ducts the way her previous directors Edgar Selwyn, John Ford and Frank Borzage had (within two years Hayes would quit films and return to the stage, where she could get away with this sort of scenery-chewing far more easily) — but when it’s in the air, or it’s on the ground with the Barrymore brothers, the board of directors running the airline (who want Riviére to pull back on the night flights lest too many disasters give aviation in general a bad name) and the people working the radio and trying as best they can to keep track of where the planes are and where the storms they need to avoid are as well, Night Flight is absolutely gripping drama and well worth seeing. If nothing else, it viscerally demonstrates just how preposterous flying was in those days, especially in those crude biplanes that were basically giant kites with motors, propellers and ailerons stuck on them (it’s not clear just how much control the pilots really had over them, or whether “flying by instruments” — relying on one’s dashboard gauges to determine where one is without being able to see where one is going — was even possible back then given how primitive the available instruments were), and how much vision it took to realize that someday those crude contraptions would be succeeded by the sleek airliners of today, which have made night flying as routine and unexceptional as night driving.