|Jules Fabian …
|Simone Fabian …
|Pilot’s Wife …
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Robert Montgomery’s character sure has a thing for prostitutes.
- “Aren’t you going to change your clothes?”
“A gentleman should always be properly dressed to meet his maker.”
“Meaning whoever makes you in Buenos Aires.”
Night Flight: Up in the Air
“You can’t stop all the clocks in the world from ticking!”
Unless you’re a devoted classic film buff, there’s probably a good chance you’ve never heard of Night Flight. Produced by David O. Selznick and starring the two Barrymore brothers and a number of other stars, Night Flight was made to capitalize on the success of Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight. With those names attached, it has all of the ingredients for a minor classic.
If that pedigree is all you need to determine whether or not to watch the film, then leave this review and go for it. But the reason you haven’t heard of Night Flight is because no one really wanted you to. Left on the shelf for 75 years due to a legal dispute, no one really felt the need to fight over the release of such a aimless, turgid melodrama for seven decades, no matter how bankable many of its stars remained. Which is saying something.
A drama about 24 hours in a Argentinian airmail service, the film assembles an all star cast and spends almost all of its time keeping them separate. To illustrate one extreme, Clark Gable spends the entire film in a cockpit, and has at most four lines of dialogue in the entire picture; Myrna Loy gets two scenes, and is credited merely as ‘Pilot’s Wife’ on IMDB. Here’s how I would recommend Night Flight: if you think 85 minutes of this shot sounds like a great time, go wild:
At the controls of the airmail company is Riviere, a middle manager who rules the company with an iron fist. Pilots who are late, even due to extenuating circumstances, are fined and berated. Good pilots who aren’t good enough are fired. And all the while, the airline’s owners are getting exasperated with him for insisting on flying at night, though he sees this as the only way for them to compete with trains and boats.
Essentially, John Barrymore is in the Warren William role for this go around as the hard assed boss with a heart of, if not gold, at least bronze. He never leaves his office, a room outfitted with a large map of South America and a light up path that looms over his every decision. Riviere often commiserates with his underling, Robineau, who is a rather unpleasant fellow with a skin problem. Together they must help each other to avoid any amount of empathy for the men they send into constant danger.
The three flights we follow all have different destinations and different troubles. Pellerin crosses the Andes mountains during the day and almost gets swept into a cliff face through the clouds. Fabian and his radio operator get caught in a squall while his wife waits at home for him with an anniversary dinner. There’s a Brazilian pilot whose wife worries about him flying at night. He seems to have little trouble, even if he doesn’t understand why he does it.
Speaking of not understanding, the threads that hold these stories together is a weak one. The film has a side plot about a vital serum making it to Rio de Janeiro to save a sick kid’s life, but none of the pilots are aware of the importance of the package. Their characters are muddied enough that we don’t really get a sense of why they do what they do; only Pellerin seems like a thrill seeker, while the other two are devoted family men that do the job simply because it’s a job to do. Nothing very compelling there.
Night Flight‘s other big problem, besides that it’s a film full of great actors who are almost completely cordoned off from each other in the midst of a rather tiresome plot, is that it’s top heavy with unmerciful amounts of footage of planes flying. The model work is well done, don’t get me wrong: but there’s a lot of long shots of just flying.
The themes seem pretty common of Depression-era money mythologizing, where good men do shit jobs because they must, and they only survive because a bullheaded man sits at the reigns rather than the lazy bourgeois overlords. Every flight is a fight for survival, something that must be done for both profit but for the good of the world. But none of the characters really know or understand this, couching their philosophical diatribes merely in their fears; this is certainly realistic, but their lack of motivations gives them the aura of idiots. And, in spite of a good soundbite or two, the writing does no one any favors there.
The longest plot is the story of Fabian in the squall. It’s a lengthy sequence where the men must confront losing their way in the storm and losing all communications. The film does a good job illustrating the perils of such a journey, even if it drags it out considerably. Fabian’s brief triumph when the clouds finally break is a highlight of a film full that’s more interested in kinetics than introspection.
Director Clarence Brown was one of MGM’s most famous, and here he tries to pull out every cinematic trick out of the bag to liven up the proceedings. Whip pans and cross cutting aplenty as the camera zooms around, desperately trying to find something new or exciting around every turned actor. It’s wearying.
The most interesting aspect of Night Flight might be in its outdated technology. As a seasoned plane passenger, it’s harrowing to watch how air travel used to rely on faulty radios, flaky devices, and poor weather predictions. The film is almost painstaking in its accounts of the risks of early air travel, and anyone who romanticizes such an era (and doesn’t feel like watching Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings) might enjoy indulging themselves on it.
Otherwise, Night Flight is a film about how no one appreciates or understands the dangers of overnight mail service, not even the pilots themselves. It feels like a half cocked film, a mess that has been rightfully forgotten, and a huge waste of precious materials.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Lou Lumenick in the New York Post lays out the film’s making of and back story in a fascinating piece. The movie was unavailable for 75 years due to the fact that the estate of the source material’s owner thought the movie wasn’t up to snuff. It had been completely removed from distribution in 1943, not to be seen again until shown on TCM in 2011.
- Speaking of, the book this was based on was written by famed aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery. He drew on his experiences flying mail in South America for the book. He is most famous for his kids novel The Little Prince.
- Lumenick’s article also points out that the subplot with the serum, which felt dreadfully tacked on, um, was tacked on. David O. Selznick felt that the overall storyline didn’t have enough tension, so they added those scenes in after the film was shot. Can’t say I’m super surprised by that. The original film’s length was also nearly two hours, and the version widely available runs a scant 85 minutes, so who even knows what this film is missing.
- Judy at Movie Classics uses the film to discuss early aviation films, and also about how Helen Hayes’ character seems like a complete loon (she does!).
- Dear Mr. Gable only has a few bits about this one, noting that MGM was disappointed with the film’s profit of $175,000, and that this was the first time Gable worked with Selznick. The two would, of course, later work together on Gone with the Wind.
- Noir and Chick Flicks uses this one as a springboard to talk about the lengthy career of Helen Hayes. Hayes won an Academy Award for her first talkie, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and had a very long and varied career on stage and screen. Definitely check out that last picture of her on the page– yowza.
- TCMDB covers a lot of identical ground with most of the other sources I’ve mentioned, but it contains a couple of wonderful bits, including this one that reveals a lot about two of the lead actors:
In her 1990 memoir My Life in Three Acts, Hayes recounted her trepidation over lensing her key scene opposite John Barrymore, when Madame Fabian confronts Riviere over the truth about her husband’s fate. “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.” The hard-living Barrymore was heavily reliant on cue cards by that point in his career, and while the crew had them ready, the take proceeded flawlessly. “Our director, Clarence Brown, was astonished,” Hayes recollected. “‘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.”
- Speaking of John, this was the last of five films that he and his older brother Lionel starred in together. Their other pairings include Rasputin and the Empress, Arsene Lupin, Grand Hotel, and Dinner at Eight.
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera hits the nail on the head with his review, which contains more quotes and a bit more background. If I allowed myself to just post a link and say “Here, just go read this” for my reviews, I probably would have done that this time.
Thanks to Lantern, there are hundreds of issues of fan magazine and industry journals from the pre-Code era available for free. Here are some related articles; click on the ‘View Full Sized Image’ in the bottom right to view!
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon and at Warner Brothers, and can be rented from Classicflix. As of this writing, it is also streaming via Warner Archive Instant.
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