Night Flight (1933)
By on September 24, 2013
||Night Flight (1933)
| Run time:
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Oliver H.P. Garrett
John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable
Release Date: 6 October 1933 (USA)
Not as bad as one has been led to believe. The strengths and weaknesses of this production are exactly those of the studio system. No expense or effort has been spared to make this film, yet it never really `sings’. The cast is one of the most spectacular rounded up for an 84 minute film. The photography has a black and white sheen, a luminosity, which must have been unspeakably spectacular in the original nitrate print projected on a silver screen. The sets, a rare non- Cedric Gibbons design at MGM (credited to Alexander Toluboff) are suitably jazzy. The first five minutes are a set-up for audience sympathy dealing with an emergency delivery of Polio serum. Corny but well done. The worst parts of the film are exactly where it cleaves closest to St. Expury’s original. Characters stop and begin to expostulate with a touch of the Eugene O’Neill’s. In this case poetry is better shown than expressed. One of the strangest phenomena of Night Flight is the fact that the legion of stars in the cast rarely, if ever, play a scene with one another. Helen Hayes is married to Clark Gable yet they never share the screen together.
The film is strangely like a series of monologues or at best two shots. All of the characters and the drama are supposed to be tied together by John Barrymore, the hard driving managing director of the Trans Andean European AirMail. The original novel was based on St. Expury’s experiences as a flyer, and later, a manager, with Aeropostale, the pioneering French Air Mail line later merged into Air France. Using Buenos Aries as a center, Aeropostale developed South American airoutes south to Patagonia, to the oil fields near Tierra del Fuego. The chief of station and one of Aeropostale’s founders, Didier Daurat, (Riviere in the film) became legendary for his single minded drive to get the mail through, an early example of existential ethics. Another route was forged north across the River Plate and Uruguay to and through Paraguay to Bolivia and another, most spectacularly, across the Andes to Santiago, Chile.
Heros were produced which electrified France and the world. Mermoz pioneered the Dakar – Natal route across the South Atlantic as well as the Buenos Aries to Natal route. Henri Guillaumet flew across the Andes 396 times. The Andes were too high to be overflown even by the latest improved models used by Aeropostale and pilots had to fly their way around and through the mountains rather than over them, something which is shown in the film. For enthusiasts of vintage aviation the film is priceless with maybe three quarters of the flying done for real. John Barrymore unfortunately has begun his decline by the time this film was made and does his `eyebrow’ thing to excess, signalling that he was either unhappy with his role or his domestic arrangements or both. Gable, just beginning his reign as the King of Hollywood, is almost unrecognizable in his pilot’s outfit. Robert Montgomery manages to have scenes with the most co-stars in the picture, except for maybe John Barrymore. Helen Hayes is effective as the wife as far as that goes. Myrna Loy has a role usually described as `thankless’. Produced by David Selznick, it never appeared on his extensive resume and now can be seen as a very atypical Selznick project, beyond the accumulation of the talent. Undoubtedly the literary inclined Selznick was attracted to the book’s having won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1931, though he was more sympathetic to period pieces (Dickens, GWTW) then contemporary drama. Perhaps he had been thinking of his associate at RKO (King Kong) , Air Corps pilot and airline executive Merian C. Cooper. Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo, was one of MGM’s most romantic directors, always setting an atmosphere where love either triumphed or ended tragically. One wonders what would have happened if a more consciously `machine age’ director like William Wellman or Howard Hawks had shaped the material.
The worst that might be said about NIGHT FLIGHT is to lament what might have been. Narrative techniques common today (and, ironically, during the silent era) would have rendered a more interesting film, though not one suitable for audiences of the time. In other words, a disappointment but not a terrible film by any means. The real curiosity is why it’s never revived on Turner Classics which presumably owns both a print and the rights. I suspect that there may be a question as to the underlying rights to St. Expury’s Vol de Nuit that might be responsible.
If you don't like this film you just don't like or understand early 1930s films! This is big budget, state-of-the-art, film making in EVERY department. The aviation footage is stunning. Unfortunately some miniatures were required and are more obvious today than then. But even these are about the best for their time.
What may seem conventional today, these elements were new in 1933. The use of silence – a ticking clock at a dramatic moment. A wonderful score, exceptional photography in the air and on the ground. The texture of rich background characters and extras. Exceptional editing! Death in the air is made so beautiful, romantic and horrifying all at the same time!
It's easy to laugh, but these were the days pilots were ALLOWED to bring alcohol along in the cockpit! This was little understood risky and dangerous work. And not only shown from one perspective. Each character has his own.
Reviews at the time noted all I've said and the public appreciated this and ate it up!
So if you can rise above your modern day aesthetics, I think you'll discover and amazing 1930s film! You know, they ain't making them anymore!
Night Flight which for so long was unseen due to copyright complications is finally out on DVD. It's considered an 'all star' picture, but in plain fact the brothers Barrymore do the heavy lifting in this film.
The story is based on a novel written by Antoine St. Exupery and the plot is similar to what American aviator and writer Frank Wead wrote in Ceiling Zero. The location in Wead's play is strictly American whereas this film has a French aviation company located in South America.
If you read what I wrote about Ceiling Zero it did not transfer well to the screen. But having not been a play on Broadway Night Flight did not have that burden to overcome. The air scenes are much better done here and filled with romance. There is also a paucity of dialog in those air scenes, it was almost like a return to the silent screen.
Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery's roles for the big name stars they were at the time, are rather small. Gable barely speaks at all. Montgomery only has a couple of scenes, including one with Lionel Barrymore after a tough flight where they're partying. William Gargan has a bit more dialog with wife Myrna Loy. Helen Hayes is married to Gable, both women sit on pins and needles waiting for their men to come home.
John Barrymore is the martinet general manager of the air company who I think goes overboard. I do not believe an American company would for one minute tolerate his methods. Brother Lionel with qualms is the man in charge with enforcing John's strict edicts. The film is mostly carried by the brothers.
Night Flight wears better than Ceiling Zero, but not nearly as good as Only Angels Have Wings which has a similar location and plot. Night Flight goes overboard into the melodramatic, but still holds the interest. And the special effects with the air scenes are still breathtaking. The highlight of the film shows the tragedy that unfolds for one of the fliers and is done without words, but with a great music score by Herbert Stothart, MGM's house composer.
Delivery of mail for those of us who use it in these days of the personal computer is taken for granted. Back in the days before advances in navigation and safety, before instrument flying, taking to the skies could be dangerous, but it was romantic in those days. An American pilot named Charles Lindbergh got his start flying in planes just like the ones seen here delivering mail. This review is dedicated to all those brave pioneers of aviation that you see depicted here in a story written by one of them.
Billed as the Grand Hotel of the air and out of circulation since 1942, MGM's lavish 1933 production Night Flight oozes prestige but never quite works as either a schlockbuster too classy and low key or as a dramatisation of pioneer aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery's now-forgotten bestseller about the early days of airmail flights over the Andes. As a manly adventure it's ground that Howard Hawks would cover much better in Only Angels Have Wings while as a multi-character melodrama uniting an all-star cast through the running thread of a possible air disaster, Airport would use its template much more effectively (and nab one of its female leads, Helen Hayes). Best known today for his semi-autobiographical fantasy The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery's novel was about the curious relationship between pioneer pilots who put up no resistance to the men on the ground who would push them to risk their lives to prove that commercial mail flights were profitable and reward them by fining them for not taking stupid risks. Mixing the reverie of flying with the succeed-at-any-cost commercial realities, its conflict has been watered down and given the MGM treatment while trying to maintain a more sober tone, leading to a strangely undramatic film that's neither entirely serious highbrow drama or all-out entertaining melodrama.
There are hints at what the novel was getting at in Robert Montgomery's playboy pilot, who comes down to Earth after a turbulent flight with something like a glimpse of the infinite, to which his only response is to go out for dinner with a man he doesn't really like (Lionel Barrymore's middle manager) before retiring upstairs with a prostitute. Yet his revelation doesn't carry as much weight as it could because, like so many of the characters, he's barely introduced and then largely forgotten until his big scene, then all-but forgotten again. While there's something intriguing about a big commercial picture from a major studio in the 30s taking a low-key, almost minimalist approach and showing people going about their work in this case the first dangerous night mail flight and only gradually revealing hints of character as the situation worsens, it doesn't work very well for the first half hour. Too often it feels like we're expected to care just because they're played by the likes of John Barrymore or Clark Gable, and you can't help feeling that former aviators-turned-filmmakers 'Spig' Wead or William Wellman could have brought them more vividly to life without any special pleading from the script. As it is only Myrna Loy's wife really makes an initial impression with her sad confession that her husband's love of flying and need to risk his life to pursue it is a part of him eternally shut off to her, something she can neither understand nor share.
The lack of someone or something to care about is something you suspect the studio were all too aware of once the film previewed. Whereas in the novel the potentially fatal flight was purely commercial "Just so someone in Paris can get a letter on Tuesday instead of Thursday" here it's bookended by Irving Pichel's doctor in Buenos Aires desperately needing a shipment of serum from Chile to save a child's life. It does feel like a post-production addition and doesn't compensate for the lack of drama any more than former pilot Clarence Brown's often striking but only sporadically effective direction does. The special effects are genuinely impressive though not too showy, though curiously the most striking and memorable aspect of the flying scenes are the slow travelling shots of the people along the flightpath below, a unique approach that gives the film a sense of the scale of the unfinished journey, though the final shots of a ghost squadron flying into the sunset seem like a botched attempt to copy the final shots of All Quiet on the Western Front without ever earning the audience's emotional involvement enough to work. It certainly picks up in the second half and there's a lot that's intriguing here, but it never quite makes it to its preferred destination.