This rarely screened early talkie was recently dusted off and shown as part of a three-week retrospective of movies directed by William Wellman, held at Film Forum in NYC. "Wild Bill" Wellman, who was a fighter pilot during the First World War, returned to this milieu on several occasions in his films, most memorably in the famous silent drama Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Young Eagles isn't in the same class as Wings where filmmaking is concerned, but it does offer two great flying sequences that are worth seeing. These sequences were not faked with rear projection screens or toy planes; it's apparent that the two male leads actually went up in those rickety-looking aircraft and performed their flying scenes for real, as in Wings, and the results are exciting. It's also interesting to observe that, in these sequences, Wellman relied on superimposed titles to explain the action, a technique that plays like a quaint but surprisingly effective holdover from the silent days. Unfortunately, once the actors are on the ground and called upon to deliver their dialog, the excitement generated by the dogfight sequences wanes.
The film's plot centers on the relationship between an American pilot, Lieut. Robert Banks (Buddy Rogers), and his German opponent Von Baden (Paul Lukas), a formidable flying ace who seems to be loosely based on the real-life Baron Von Richthofen. Banks shoots down Von Baden's plane but the latter survives unharmed, and is taken prisoner. When Banks is granted leave as a reward he intends to go to Paris and see his girlfriend Mary Gordon (Jean Arthur), and enjoy a bit of R-and-R, but, in a highly unlikely twist, his superior officers order him to take the prisoner along. The idea is that if Von Baden is permitted to relax and let down his guard, he may spill crucial military secrets. Needless to say, events do not unfold according to plan.
In addition to the flying sequences, Young Eagles offers several players of interest. Buddy Rogers, puppy-ish as ever, gives a typically affable performance. (Buddy's fans will want to know that he appears nude in this film, in a carefully photographed shower scene in the barracks.) Paul Lukas makes a dignified Von Baden, and it's rather touching as the enmity between the German officer and his American counterpart evolves into an attitude of mutual respect. It's a rare treat to see Jean Arthur at this early stage in her career. She's quite pretty, and the distinctive voice is there, but she's not really "Jean Arthur" yet. Her ingénue role in this film could have been taken by just about any starlet on the Paramount lot. Still, Jean makes an impression in an unexpected way, when she turns up in a very slinky, low-cut evening gown, quite unlike the sort of outfits she would wear for Frank Capra and George Stevens in later years. Not that anyone is likely to complain, I should add.
Comedy relief, generously defined, is supplied by Stu Erwin as Buddy's pal Pudge. Frankly I've never cared much for Erwin, and his work in this instance didn't make a convert out of me. But the film's humor content improves when the scene switches to a raucous party in Paris, and good ol' Jimmy Finlayson turns up, fitted out with a kilt, playing a Scottish officer named "Scotty," of all things. Fin eschews his familiar mustache here but there's no mistaking him. He makes his first appearance dancing vigorously with Virginia Bruce, and later shares a moderately amusing drunk scene with Erwin. Fin's best moment comes when, at the end of his dance with Miss Bruce, she kisses him on his bald pate and he exclaims: "Hoot mon!"
A few years ago, Wellman's namesake son wrote a book about his father and his famous silent classic called The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture. In this book Wellman Jr. confirms that Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers actually learned to pilot their own aircraft for that film. Arlen already had some flying experience, but Rogers did not. Buddy hated flying, and every time he came down after those scenes he'd vomit, but he nonetheless logged over ninety-eight hours as a pilot while making Wings, and earned his director's respect. And three years later, when Young Eagles was produced, Buddy was somehow persuaded to do it again! Perhaps the deciding factor was that Wings had turned out so well, and boosted the careers of everyone involved. It's also reported in the book that Wellman was unhappy at Paramount, and left the company in the early '30s because he was dissatisfied with the quality of the scripts they were handing him, including Young Eagles. In an interview towards the end of his life the director called this film "frightful." While it's true it isn't the greatest flying ace movie ever made, that judgment seems a little harsh. The two dogfight sequences and the engaging cast make Young Eagles worthwhile for buffs, and for undemanding viewers who enjoy early talkies. Even allowing for its faults I'd call it a good rainy afternoon popcorn flick.
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