Howard Hughes blew more than $4 million to create the ultimate Air Force-Cold War-romance kludge with aerial combat scenes reminiscent of Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930), only to have Jet Pilot shelved from 1953 to 1957. The film eventually emerged in theatres via Universal Pictures, who acquired the film's distribution when Hughes sold studio RKO after a tumultuous (and rather wasteful) period of ownership between 1948-1955.
Not long afterwards, Hughes bought back the film rights, and along with his other pet film, The Conqueror (1956), he reportedly hugged, kissed, slept with, and watched both films endlessly. Only when he died in 1976 and the mess of his estate was settled did the two films re-emerge in theatres, doubled-billed by Universal as some bad movie kitschfest, after which they slithered to TV, VHS, laserdisc, and DVD.
None of its incarnations were particularly flattering because Jet Pilot was filmed in the pre-widescreen ratio of 1.33:1. For the film’s first theatrical run, the film was released in the 2.0:1 Superscope ratio, cropping the image to a fairly tight frame that mucked up some of the striking Technicolor compositions. Universal's laserdisc transfer was apparently one of the rare times the film came out in its original 1.33:1 ratio, since subsequent Region 1 DVDs cropped the image to 1.85:1 - an acceptable compromise, but still tight for a film originally shot standard, with later reshoots reportedly designed for widescreen exhibition.
Enter KOCH of Germany, who went back and made a new transfer in 2007 from a 35mm negative for their Region 2 Special Edition, with a less severe matting of 1.78:1; it’s still widescreen, but more faithful to the visual design of original director Joseph von Sternberg. (See end of review for an A/B DVD comparison of the main transfers.)
Von Sternberg had spent about two years working on the film when it officially wrapped around 1950, but Hughes was picky about the airplanes, and ordered endless reshoots to keep the technology up to date - a herculean effort that was all for naught when the picture emerged in 1957: the jet gear was obsolete, the Cold War politics were facile, and the two stars - John Wayne and Janet Leigh - looking a lot younger than their 1957 selves.
(Leigh had made the film soon after appearing in MGM’s 1948 Cold War thriller The Red Danube, where she played a German-Russian refugee hiding out in Vienna. Amusingly, Leigh’s character was also called Olga, but for Jet Pilot, the actress didn’t have to fake a Russian accent, since her efforts in Red Danube were absolutely laughable.)
Screenwriter Jules Furthman took over some of the reshoots, and his efforts were maybe to keep some tonal balance in what's a dramatically wonky film in its final state. What begins as a riff on Ninotchka (1939) - Russian Commie babe is taught to find her inner emotional and consumer self (and laugh a bit) - swerves into a bizarre romance where the characters engage in air-foreplay, flying up and around each other, teasing and teaching each other tricks and combat techniques, and becoming emotionally connected as best as two hermetically sealed humans can.
The Cold War plot returns when pretty Olga (Leigh) is revealed to be a double-agent, and has been faking love and feeding info to her Commie superiors all along (“Love and religion are dangerous narcotics”). Wayne, however, is smitten by his petite busty blonde, and forcibly marries her, creating conflict between himself and the U.S. Air Force. The two lovers escape under cover of darkness to Mother Russia, where Wayne and Olga are set up in separate quarters. Furthman's Ninotchka riff returns again, and the film's tone goes back to lighthearted, with screwball banter that was utterly absent from the film's midsection.
Wayne pretends to give the Commies secret U.S. Air Force factoids until he realizes he's been doped up, and confesses some real secrets. Olga, in turn, starts to have second thoughts, and the couple re-vivify their marital vows and escape back to the U.S., where they can be married, and Jim’s “silly Siberian cupcake” can wear that hot green satin and white Arabic jammies outfit she likes so much.
Jet Pilot, for all it's great big flaws, is neither a disaster, dud, not unheralded masterpiece. It's clearly the product of Hughes' influence, wanting the best technical crew, the most dynamic actors, the most heroic music, striking cinematography, and boobies. Whereas von Sternberg focused his eyes on composition, extraordinary Technicolor lighting schemes, and saturating entire sets with rich primary colours, Hughes influenced the way Leigh was captured by her wardrobe, or lack of.
Never mind that she has a seemingly endless supply of unwrinkled uniforms (formal, casual) and flight suits (green, and snowbird white). The first thing this Commie hussy does is strip down in the bathroom, and after a nice hot shower, dress in close proximity to her Yankee mentor, Colonel Jim Shannon (Wayne). Her top undies are snowy white, but just short enough to miss being tucked in, emphasizing the pontoon boobery Hughes slobbered to perfect in prior indulgences like Underwater! (1955) and The Outlaw (1943).
Wayne is clearly taken by her assets (“Lady you are the Peruvian donuts!”), as well as the challenge to examine a female Commie equal and learn some secret Soviet flying skills, and he seems to relish in the chiding by his fellow officers and superiors, so the mission to tease, learn, and report are just fine with Jim. In between their flying sessions is a short break in Palm Springs, where they're also joined by buddy Col. Matoff (Hans Conreid) and his own squeeze.
It's here that Jim learns a bit about fairness when Olga insists Matoff, the squeeze, and two stranded travellers bunk in the same hotel room - much to Jim's ire. Wayne and Leigh do have solid screen chemistry, so the Jim-Olga romance isn't improbable - just silly. Part of her 'American education' is shopping, dancing, drinking, and eating a big slab of meat - apparently an eye of round is something most uncommon in Soviet Russia. The actors' best scene is a simple seduction moment outside of the restaurant, where they smoke and eye one another under a dim, Technicolor blue lighting scheme.
KOCH's 2007 transfer is made from a fairly clean source, and the minor colour registration issues aren't as severe as in some of the straight DVD transfers made from old 3-strip Technicolor prints. Von Sternberg's use of close-ups forces the huge, attractive faces of the stars to fill the screen, and the clarity of the image and colours is almost hypnotic.
Unlike the 1.85:1 transfer on the 2000 Gootimes DVD with its fixed center framing, KOCH recomposed shots, adding more head or bottom room where necessary to ensure heads weren't cramped or hands weren't chopped off; both transfers were taken from full screen sources, but the frame details are more balanced in the KOCH version. Moreover, while the colours are more robust on the Goodtimes disc, there's less digital compression and dirt and scratches in the KOCH transfer. (The only oddity is the opening Universal International logo, which features the same text font, but the spiraling Universal globe is bigger in the Goodtimes version.)
Universal's John Wayne: An American Idol Collection replaced the old Goodtimes Video release in 2006, but neither contains any extras. KOCH has added a lengthy stills gallery featuring black & white and colour stills, as well as snapshots of the original U.S. and German campaign art. There’s also snapshots of the German promo book for theatre owners, but KOCH should’ve made them interactive, allowing us to zoom it and access a close-up of the images and text. Another great bonus would've been an isolated score of Bronislau Kaper’s rousing score, but perhaps that only exists as a music and effects mix, if at all.
There's also a 24-page booklet with German liner notes by Sascha Westphal who provides a precise chronicle of the film, the era in which it was made, Hughes' tenure at RKO, and the problem in finding the best ratio to present this much mucked up film. In terms of the best Jet Pilot DVD, this is the one to get, since it (for now) offers the best transfer of a film that Universal continues to treat like a Poverty Row B movie.
At 112 mins. (108 mins. in the PAL speed) it can become dull (the air flight seductions are interminable), but the film deserves a little respect. Air gear aficionados will also appreciate the improved clarity of the flight scenes which feature vintage planes, as well as modified test crafts like the Bell X-1, which was echoed in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983).
Screenwriter Jules Furthman would write one more script – Rio Bravo (1959) – before effectively retiring from film. He had previously written Hughes’ ridiculous Billy the Kid / boobery celebration The Outlaw (1943), but his best work includes the unsettling Nightmare Alley (1947), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), the wonky Come and Get It (1936), and Josep von Sternberg’s halcyon classics Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus (both 1932).
Director von Sternberg lost his creative mojo when he began working for Hughes. After delivering his own cut of Jet Pilot, he moved on to Hughes’ Macao (1952) and directed the little-seen Anatahan (1953) before similarly retiring from film.
This title was released by KOCH Germany in conjunction with Circus World / Held der Arena (1964), The Conqueror / Der Eroberer (1956), Hellfighters / Die Unerschrockenen (1968), Jet Pilot / Düsenjäger (1957), Seven Sinners / Das Haus der siben Sunden (1940), and The Shootist / Der Shootist – Der Scharfschutze (1976).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan