“All you care about is planes, motors, schedules. When they land, when they take off. Just a map with a lot of lights on it. You never think about those men, the pilots. What it’s like to be lost up there in a storm with no place to land. And their wives, and their homes. The dinner all ready, the bed turned down, the flowers in the window waiting for him to come home.” --- Helen Hayes gives it good to John Barrymore.
Pretty much rescued from oblivion as well as anonymity, MGM’s 1933 film version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s second novel Night Flight / Vol de nuit (1931) boasts an all-star cast and plenty of prestige, but time hasn’t been all that kind to an extremely peculiar production with a blurry moral stance about greed, self-aggrandizement, insane fidelity to regulations, and the value of a human life – particularly a pilot’s.
Oliver H.P. Garrett’s script may have been faithful to the tone of de Saint-Exupéry’s novel and its tragic finale, but he either struggled to inject cinematic motion into what was a novel packed with philosophical chapters on flying, or distilled characters and plot strands into an easy to digest and thickly marinated melodrama running no longer than 85 mins.
The film’s central character isn't a pilot but operations manager Riviere (John Barrymore), a stickler for the rules, and a slave driver determined to have three connecting flights deliver mail ‘so someone in Paris gets their postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday.’ He orders his hatchet man Robineau (Lionel Barrymore) to fine pilots for tardiness, but Riviere fires men himself for singular mistakes because pilots are apparently childish barnstormers who need to be whipped daily in order to remain virtuous, selfless workhorses of the Trans Andes European postal airliner.
The goal is to make sure the mail isn’t a minute late on the debut of brand new night flights, and Riviere spends a full 24 hours with his eyes glued to a giant 2D relief map of South America, watching blinking lights demarcating each pilot’s progress, and muttering efficiency mantras at every turn. His character has some measure of depth, but it’s shocking how the pilots – headed by Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and William Gargan - have none, and their wives are weeping Nellies. Helen Hayes goes through an imaginary dinner without her husband before cracking up, and Myrna Loy does much tearing, and she laments the wide gap between her devotion to her pilot hubby, and the wonder, peace, and passion he exclusively shares ‘up there in the skies.’
It’s hard to tell whether the film, executive produced by David O. Selznick, was designed as prestige entertainment, or just a quickie to make use of idling stars. John Barrymore pounds his desk now and then to illustrate he does indeed share the pain of the pilots flying through deadly fog canyons and over the misty ocean, and he's often framed below his massive blinky-lighted map; Lionel Barrymore scratches himself because his character’s chief trait is bad eczema that may be a physical manifestation of serious job stress; and Gable has less than a handful of actual dialogue, since the character of Jules Fabien is consistently flying a biplane in bad weather. Although Gable removes his goggles and headpiece to admire the riveting moonlit sky several times, one suspects it was purely for the fans who would’ve rioted if the lead star was constantly trapped under facial flying gear.
Director Clarence Brown (Anna Karenina) may also have realized the script was severely undercooked, so he adopted a visual style where cameras track & push in towards static characters about to deliver their dialogue, and he uses optical panel wipes in montages to impart the travelling progress of the pilots as they pass over villages, nursing mothers, and city squares.
The effects sequences are quite detailed, and aviation fans will relish some of the close shots of Robert Montgomery’s biplane as it struggles to maintain a stable flight path over the Andes, but neither writer Garrett nor director Brown does much to invigorate the flight sequences; more often then not, they’re designed to chop up the creaky dramatic strands of worried wives, a weakening Robineau being chastised by Riviere, and stark visuals that tend to goose the film’s ongoing bathos. (In one shot where the company’s owner chides his Yes Men, the latter are seen in a stark cartoonish silhouette; and to create an impression of tonal variation within same-sounding text, John Barrymore’s rants are delivered in different corners of his office with shifts in lighting design.)
The film opens with scenes of a little sick boy – the immortal ‘poor Timmy’ cliché – in need of medication that can only be delivered overnight by air, and Brown repeats shots of the idling mailbag bearing his meds to ensure some continuity at the end, when an ambulance comes to the airport and delivers the goods to the tiny tot. That feel-good strand is supposed to justify the ego that drives Riviere to launch the night flight program, and the film is also bookended by crawling text that tries to assert that the many men who lost their lives to keep the mail going weren’t sacrifices for capitalists, but noble souls for the betterment of social and economic progress.
Night Flight isn’t a particularly great movie, but it’s a fascinating snapshot of how a major studio and its creative team tackled a challenging philosophical novel for the masses. The in-flight procedures of communicating with airports (radio and wireless) and between pilot and radioman (using pencil and paper) are equally striking, and indicative of the bygone procedural details woven into the film.
Warner Home Video’s print source has seen some rough times, but the image is crisp, and there’s been no digital scrubbing for the film’s grainy sequences. The audio mix is in surprisingly excellent shape, showing off the superb sound effects for the planes, and Herbert Stothart’s score is a rich, exciting mix of original and classical themes that keep the film moving at a cracking pace.
In addition to the gorgeous original poster art used for the sleeve, the DVD includes two shorts: “Swing High” (1932), where humourist Pete Smith provides cheeky commentary on ‘are-ee-all’ (aerial) acrobatic team The Flying Codonas, seen performing their dangerous high-wire moves up in the “ozone” level of the tent in real-time and detailed slow-motion segments; and the Harmon & Ising musical cartoon “When the Cat’s Away” (1935), featuring happy mice overrunning the kitchen after the house kitty’s been locked out.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan