Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dated: Clarence Brown’s Night Flight

Within the ongoing blizzard of DVD/Blu-Ray releases for the latest blockbusters, I'm happy to see that some of the major companies still feel the need to open their vaults to artifacts from a bygone era. They root around and pull out a film from a dusty corner, clean it up and put it out into the world. Such is the case with Warner Brothers who a couple of weeks back released the MGM-produced 1933 film Night Flight. Sometimes, however, these films are generally forgotten for a variety of reasons and, if I'm being honest, Night Flight probably should have been one of them.

In fact, if not for its pretty amazing cast – John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy and Helen Hays; the director Clarence Brown, who made several Garbo flicks in the silent era and the 1930s, plus the '40s family classics National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946); not to mention, the author of the source material, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince) –  this one probably would have stayed put. 

John & Lionel Barrymore
The premise is built somewhat like Grand Hotel, released the year before, except instead of being centred on unrelated characters in various hotel rooms, the focus is the cockpits of three separate bi-planes. Night Flight takes place in an era when it was considered dangerous, if not suicidal, to fly at night. In South America, an upstart airmail company – the Trans Andean-European Airmail Service – decides to push the odds and get the mail to its destination faster than any other means available at the time. John Barrymore plays the boss who insists on this endeavour. His number two, a kind and well-meaning Lionel Barrymore (yes, Mr. Potter from It's A Wonderful Life playing a good guy!), is always trying to persuade him that this action is folly. But he insists. Three planes will fly at night. One from Santiago, Chile, over the Andes to Buenos-Aires; the second from the southern tip of Argentina to Buenos-Aires; and then once those two arrive, the third plane will collect their mail and fly it to Rio de Janeros. The mail bags contain more than just simple postcards. A vital package, containing vaccine to cure an unnamed infantile paralysis disease wreaking havoc on the children of Rio, is in the bag from Chile. There's also a ship waiting to take other mail to Europe.

With the head office in Buenos-Aires as the centre, the three stories follow a similar line. One talented, but reckless, pilot leaves or is heading towards a loved one. Two of the three hit bad weather in one form or another. There is a grief-stricken lover or a wife fretting and awaiting their landing or awaiting word of the worst kind. The intercutting between the three threads is often choppy and abrupt suggesting a longer film may have once existed (it's only 84 minutes long). That's basically it.

Helen Hayes & Clark Gable
There are some pluses. Visually, the film is pretty spectacular. They really did fly bi-planes over mountain ranges of some sort (I doubt they went to the Andes, but a second unit might have) for this film, and the footage is out of this world. The acting, thankfully, lacks the over-emphatic hamminess that hampers so many early '30s Hollywood efforts. And since Helen Hayes spent most of her career on the stage, it's nice to see her in a younger film role (she was 32 when she shot this). My memories of her are in such things as the lead 'snoop' in the TV movie/series The Snoop Sisters (1972-1974) and Airport (1970) when she was in her 70s. And it's also a pleasure to see Lionel Barrymore walking (he suffered from severe arthritis and by 1938 did all his acting in a wheelchair). And yet, except for John Barrymore, the rest of the cast is more 'famous in the future' performers appearing here in early roles. They're all fine, but none, not even Myrna Loy who one year later would star in the first Thin Man movie, are memorable, just like the picture.

What is memorable, for many wrong reasons, is one of the two shorts from that era that Warners put on as support material. A short film, Swing High (1932), is a brief documentary that looks at the efforts of the Flying Codonas circus aerial troupe. The short, with rather irritating narration, takes us through one full act by these trapeze artists. Or at least, it focuses on one of them, Alfredo Codonas, as he goes through his routine. The shooting is imaginatively handled with shots from below, the side and directly over top as Alfredo spins and pirouettes through the air from aerial bar to aerial bar. What is even more intriguing is the expert use of slow motion to show how he did his routines. The film itself is well shot, but generally innocuous. What isn't innocuous is Alfredo's story in the five years after this was shot.

Alfredo Codona & Vera Bruce
Aerial artists were thrill-seekers and envelope pushers, not unlike the flyers in Night Flight. Death and serious injury was often right around the corner for them every time they took to the air. Codona's first wife, Lillian Lietzel, died in a fall during a 1931 aerial act. He married Vera Bruce a year later (Bruce appears in the short as the woman high on the perch helping him back to his start point). A year after the short was released, Alfredo had a serious fall and, after an attempted comeback, retired from the trapeze in 1934. After confronting his inability to return to the thing he loved, plus his unresolved grief over the death of Lillian, he fell into a depression. He divorced Bruce, but on July 30, 1937 went to her home shot her and then shot himself.

When men (it's usually men) who thrive on high-energy adrenaline rushes such as flying bi-planes or swinging on a trapeze bar can no longer do the thing they love, the results are often not dissimilar to what happened to Alfredo Codona. What Night Flight doesn't do is show what happens later on to those reckless pilots, and the women they love, when they can't be reckless anymore. I'm glad that Warners keeps unearthing lost treasures like this, but there's another film waiting to be made that looks at men like those in the film and Alfredo Codona after their thrill years are long gone. It would be great drama. But it sure wouldn't be pretty.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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