Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Men Against the Sky (RKO, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Men Against the Sky, which I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies during a recent evening tribute to its star, Richard Dix, who by the time it was made — 1940 — was on the downgrade. RKO was mostly using him in “B” rehashes of his great successes from earlier in the 1930’s, in films like The Arizonian and Reno that were basically reworkings of Cimarron and The Conquerors (a title that just says “banking,” which is the subject of the movie) and in stuff like this, an aviation movie that blatantly rehashes much better films Dix had made before it, The Lost Squadron and Ace of Aces, which TCM showed immediately after Men Against the Sky. Basically, Men Against the Sky is a pretty standard aviation movie which begins in a carnival, with Dix as barnstorming stunt pilot Phil Mercedes (his last name, incidentally, is pronounced “MER-suh-dees” instead of “Mur-SAY-dees,” like the car), who takes people up for $10 a pop (a pretty dated plot point in 1940 when commercial aviation was sufficiently well developed that anyone who really wanted to fly could do so in the comfort and relative safety of an airliner) until one of them gets out of the plane, complains that the pilot is drunk, and tells the waiting crowd that if they want to continue living the last thing they will do is get in that plane. Phil is fired on the spot, and responds by stealing the plane, doing some spectacular stunt flying (the great Paul Mantz is credited as technical adviser but I suspect he did most of the spectacular piloting seen in the film) and crashing the thing into a nearby barn. As a result, the Civil Aeronautics Board (remember the Civil Aeronautics Board? No particular reason why you should, except that it was dissolved during the Carter administration, a reminder that the deregulatory mania of the 1980’s and 1990’s was bipartisan) “grounds” Phil — i.e., takes away his pilot’s license — for one year, and Phil’s sister Kay (Wendy Barrie), with whom he lives, gets a job as draftsperson for the McLean aviation company.

The owner, Dan McLean (Edmund Lowe), is attempting to build a prototype for a new fighter plane so he can win a contract being offered by unspecified foreign powers for a plane with which they can shoot down bombers — an odd plot device reflecting that this film was made after World War II had started but before the U.S. was in it. He’s also being distracted by a mistress, Miss LcClair (Jane Woodworth), but oddly little is made of that — in most aviation movies the mistress would turn out to be an industrial spy for a company competing for the contract with McLean, but writers John Twist (story) and Nathanael West (screenplay) — yes, that Nathanael West, author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust — tap into a lot of aviation-movie clichés but don’t do the vamp stealing industrial secrets and/or taking McLean’s attention away from the contract and thereby allowing a competitor to win. (We are told that the initial seed capital for McLean’s company came from the rich woman he married, which makes it look even sleazier that he’s having an affair on her.) Instead Kay — using the last name “Green” so she won’t be linked with the once-honored, now-disgraced pilot who’s her brother — gets a job in the office of Martin Ames (Kent Taylor), McLean’s chief designer, and she sneaks some suggestions for the new plane’s design to Martin, not telling him that they’re actually the work of her brother. When a model of the plane is tested in a wind tunnel (a piece of hardware that’s basic to actual airplane manufacture but hardly ever appears in a film about aviation) and its wings shear off, Phil figures out how to fix the problem: by putting little flaps on the wing that will be up when it takes off and lands but will close for a smoother wing surface during actual flight. Alas, when the full-scale prototype is ready for testing, the test pilot, Dick Allerton (Donald Briggs), has a jealous hissy-fit when he makes a pass at Kay and Martin, who predictably has progressed from hate-at-first-sight to love of her, punches him out.

Allerton gets his revenge by refusing to do the nine-G dive that was part of the contract specs (depicted in the film by the plane heading straight down at a chilling 90° angle to the earth’s surface) and reporting that the plane is unsafe. Phil, who’s on the ground watching the test, immediately goes up to prove that the plane is safe, violating his one-year CAB suspension. Alas, the plane really isn’t safe — it crashes, Phil bails out and the plane emerges a flaming wreck, and by flying in violation of his suspension Phil gets grounded for life. (At this point one wonders why he doesn’t go to South America and fly mail planes under a false name à la Only Angels Have Wings.) Phil figures out what’s wrong with the plane — one of the flaps was cut across one of the wooden spars used as a frame for the wing, thereby weakening the spar and causing it to shred in mid-air — and, with the financial support of an unscrupulous backer (Granville Bates) who gives McLean venture capital on such tough terms he seems like the prototype for Mitt Romney, they build another plane and a U.S. Navy pilot, Captain Wallen (Lee Bonnell, who was the co-winner of that talent contest with Gale Storm which won them both RKO contracts, but who’s barely in the film except inside a dummy cockpit), comes out to test it. The plane passes all its tests but its landing gear gets stuck, half-down and half-up, and though McLean and Martin Ames plead with the U.S. Navy that’s supervising the test that the landing gear are a standard component and all the new stuff in the plane has worked, Navy Captain Sanders (Selmer Jackson) insists that the plane cannot be allowed into production unless it lands safely and in one piece. Accordingly, Phil Mercedes rides to the rescue again, intending to go up in another plane (with someone else actually flying it so he doesn’t break his CAB “grounding” again), push the landing gear open manually, and parachute to safety — he fixes the landing gear but the parachute shreds on the little wheel at the end of the plane, so Phil falls to his death, though as if he were an operatic lead he holds on long enough to bless the union of his sister Kay to Martin Ames before he expires. (I can think of at least two operas about aviation: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight and one Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht came up with, originally called Lindbergh’s Flight in honor of what they thought was a major triumph of the 20th century, only later in a typical political snit Brecht changed the title to Ocean Flight after Lindbergh became an apologist for Nazi Germany.)

The final scene is a knockoff of the ending of The Lost Squadron, in which Richard Dix is seen as a ghost, flying the new plane off into the skies, represented by negative film to indicate that he’s dead (in The Lost Squadron both Dix and Robert Armstrong, representing burned-out World War I pilots reduced to working for mad moviemaker Erich von Stroheim, fly across the sky in negative film to indicate that the “lost” squadron is still together even if two of its members are dead). Plotwise, Men Against the Sky is pretty much a rehash of the Aviation Movie 101 clichés, though with just enough variations to make it interesting, and the most fascinating factoid about it is what plane “played” the McLean prototype: the H-1 Racer, designed, financed, built and flown by Howard Hughes in 1935. The H-1 was the first plane ever built with retractable landing gear (which may explain why they look so crude on screen), and Hughes also invented a system to make the rivets holding its metal skin onto the frame flush so there wouldn’t be rivet heads sticking up, offering wind resistance and slowing his super-plane down. Indeed, the film apparently contains stock footage of Hughes’ actual flight in the H-1 in 1935, during which he flew cross-country across the U.S. faster than anyone had before (thereby breaking a record Hughes had set himself flying in the other direction in someone else’s plane). The fact that Howard Hughes appeared — albeit by proxy — in an RKO movie eight years before he bought the studio himself adds to the ironic appeal of Men Against the Sky.