Night Flight (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

“What’s it all for? Just so somebody in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday?” ~ a pilot’s wife (Myrna Loy) in Night Flight

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Transcript from our screening on 4/10/14:

The Rediscovered is a film program about rediscovering lesser-known films and stars, but tonight’s cast needs no introduction. If I were to read you bios on everyone who is in this movie we’ll be here till tomorrow, so I will bypass that and cut to the chase. Not a lot of people have seen this one, and I’m sure those who skipped tonight’s film have no idea who’s in it. How can you pass up a movie with Myrna Loy?

Night Flight tells the story of the Trans-Andean Airmail pilots of South America. The film covers a period of 24 hours in their lives. These were the early days of night flying when pilots had to contend with fog, air currents, and mountains—and they didn’t have instrument flying. John Barrymore is Riviere, the managing director of the service. He’s a strict disciplinarian who has no room for sentiment. His pilots include Robert Montgomery as Pellerin, who quietly reflects upon a recent near-death experience, and Fabian played by Clark Gable, who is already in the air as the film begins.

The story is framed by a hospital’s need to get a polio serum to a sick child. Since the hospital is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the serum is in Santiago, Chile, a sense of urgency is immediately established. The film balances the danger of night flight with the human drama on the ground. Helen Hayes as Madam Fabian waits to hear news about Clark Gable, who is behind schedule, and Myrna Loy plays a young wife who wants to keep her pilot-husband (played by William Gargan) earthbound and close to her.

Those familiar with the studio system will recognize Night Flight as an MGM product. Since they were the studio that supplied us with more stars than there are in Heaven, you get John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and Myrna Loy among others. It’s an all-star, ensemble cast along the lines of Grand Hotel and the more recent Dinner at Eight. But comparing it to those earlier films is misleading because the actors in Night Flight are relegated to essentially bit roles. Unlike its predecessors, characters here rarely interact with the other stars of the film. In fact, the radio operator, played by Frank Conroy, probably has as much importance as some of the stars, which makes it feel like a level playing field in terms of performance. In many ways, this was a very odd film for MGM.

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If there’s one actor who holds it all together, it’s former film idol John Barrymore. His character’s life is dominated by the oversized map of South America with all its lights showing the flight routes. He’s determined to keep the flights on time and to preserve the company’s safety record as though he himself were operating as a mechanism of absolute certainty. He demands the impossible and expects to get it. He chain-smokes his way through the long hours, dealing with the pilots, the French board of directors, and the wife of a lost pilot, Madam Fabian.

Lionel Barrymore plays the middleman inspector who is always scratching himself. This would be his last film with his brother John. In The Motion Picture Guide, authors Jay Robert Nash, Stanley Ralph Ross, and Robert Connelly recount a story from on the set where the director, Clarence Brown, bet John Barrymore ten dollars that his brother Lionel would not be able to upstage him in the scene where Riviere criticizes the unfortunate Robineau. “When the scene was shot, Lionel stood mute, his face twitching, his eyes rolling, but the script had silenced even his notorious whine. He turned to go, but when he reached the door… he reached his hand behind him and scratched his bottom. Beamed John to Brown: ‘Now there, sir, is a brother to be proud of. Pay me the ten dollars!’”

Robert Montgomery has a very good scene in which he conveys what it feels like to be alive after coming so close to death in the mountains. It’s a rather mystical moment that captures some of the essence of the book the film is based on. Meanwhile, Helen Hayes looks out to the moon, an image that seems to unite all the characters in one way or another. Her thoughts are on her long overdue husband. Helen Hayes may have been the First Lady of the Stage, but in this film she unintentionally conveys emotional instability– talking to a husband who isn’t there at the dinner table and flying off into hysterics with Riviere.

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In her autobiography, My Life in Three Acts, there is a great story Helen Hayes tells of working with Barrymore. This was at a time in Barrymore’s career when he relied more and more on cue cards in order to remember his lines. Apparently they were ready if he needed them, but the take went perfectly. Hayes writes of their scene together,

“John had a tempestuous personality and a well-deserved reputation for throwing people off, for unnerving even the most experienced actors… Determined to give him no cause to blow up at me if I could help it, I memorized my lines until I could say them in my sleep…. Our director, Clarence Brown, was astonished. ‘I can’t believe it, John,’ he said. ‘You didn’t need the idiot cards. What happened?’ ‘I was working with a real actress,’ said John. ‘I didn’t want to make a goddamn fool of myself.’ That, coming from John Barrymore, America’s great actor, remains my favorite notice.”

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Myrna Loy and William Gargan come across much better, each giving an understated performance which seems more natural. Loy is especially poignant when she tells her husband she will never be able to share in that experience he has in the air. As for Clark Gable, he does more writing than speaking while flying over the South American pampas, but the film’s most dramatic moments in the air are with him.

Some supporting actors I’d like to point out are Leslie Fenton, who plays Gable’s co-pilot. He was Ann Dvorak’s husband, and you’ll see him in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain for those who can make the April 23rd show at the Patio Theatre. Robert Montgomery’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film is Dorothy Burgess, who you’ll see next week in Black Moon. At one point Burgess was engaged to the film’s director.

Night Flight was helmed by Clarence Brown, a director of exceptional skill. He made several important pictures for MGM including Anna Karenina, which was one of the seven films he made with Greta Garbo. With this film, Brown fashioned a tense drama using a minimalist approach. Ironically, the film was originally previewed at two hours. This version is 84 minutes, so you wonder what they took out. Night Flight feels different than their other big budget films. It just has an atmosphere that doesn’t feel so studio-bound. Close-ups are effective when needed, and the action always seems intimate. The scenes in the line offices really stand out, depicting the men and machines that are always in motion.

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Night Flight has a strong sense of imagery. There’s a very dramatic shot in the movie where Gable’s Fabian, who is way off course, sends down a flare, and it’s frightening what that light reveals below. Throughout the film, we also see from above the lives of the locals as the planes fly over. These are done through interesting transitions– optical wipes that move across the screen to reveal the next scene. Adding to the film’s visual power is the musical score by house composer Herbert Stothart which is particularly dramatic during the flying sequences.

Night Flight was based on a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. His book won the 1931 Prix Femina award in 1931, which may have attracted the attention of David O. Selznick, who produced the film. Saint-Exupery was a former airmail pilot himself who became an author. He wrote about his experiences in the Argentinean commercial air service, and the characters in the film are based on people he had known. Saint-Exupery led a fascinating life which was cut short during World War II when his plane was shot down by the Germans. His best-known literary work is The Little Prince, which was published posthumously.

Night Flight had been long out of circulation since 1942 due to a legal issue involving the estate of Saint-Exupery. In the years since TCM premiered it in 2011, it’s received mixed reviews. Some critics feel it’s far from the lost masterpiece they were expecting, citing the lack of characterization– that there’s no one to care about. For instance, we don’t know anything about Clark Gable since he spends the whole film in the cockpit. Perhaps this is why the studio used the sick child we see in the beginning as a plot device to get audiences involved. This aspect was not in the original novel. Other viewers, such as myself, have a far different opinion of the film and its place in the aviation genre.

Some of the best films dealing with the dangers of early aviation came out in the 1930s. I’m reminded of another movie that hit theatres the previous year in 1932–John Ford’s Airmail starring Ralph Bellamy– a film I had played at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago. A superior take on this type of material is Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. Night Flight is not in the category of the latter. It is, however, the one film in this series which might fly in under your radar of expectations. I think it will surprise some—not just because of the cast– but because it’s an exceptional drama about the spirit of aviation. The aerial photography is stunning, but it’s a film that is more than that. It shows the dangers, but Night Flight also hints at the lyrical quality of flying itself. It’s an elusive experience which Saint-Exupery captured in written words, and which here is translated in visual terms through the power of the motion picture medium.

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