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(This review refers to the English-language version of "F.P.1", which was made in simultaneous German and French-language versions with three different casts. The French-language version is presumed to be lost.)
"F.P.1" is of greatest interest as one of very few science fiction features made in the 1930s. Curt Siodmak's screenplay was based on his own novella, the story of Flight Platform 1, a huge aircraft refueling station in mid- Atlantic. Designed to aid transoceanic flight, it frustrates surface shipping interests, who connive to destroy it. Amidst the intrigue is a love triangle between the F.P.1's creator, his aviator buddy, and the shipping heiress who makes it all possible.
It's a great premise, with some unique model and effects work and moments of real adventure. However, there just isn't enough of them. It's not just that the airplane and action scenes are so brief (the German version included a good bit more.) It's that what is left over is so typically tepid and slow-moving - a real tragedy for a film with any pretense to futurism. Result: a muddle, though an intermittently entertaining one.
And what the heck is Conrad Veidt, that preening, sinister aristocrat of the B's, doing playing a daring round-the-world aviator? His Major Elissen spends more time in white tie and tails than in a flight suit, and his appeal to strongheaded heiress Claire (Jill Esmond, delectable in white satin evening dress) is hard to explain. Perhaps he slipped something into her drink. Veidt didn't yet speak English very well in 1932, and his performance is a bit off, leering and simpering over Esmond rather than enveloping her in suave allure. His sidekick "Sunshine" (Donald Calthorp), a shabby news photographer, could have been Veidt's comic foil if he weren't so very underplayed.
Claire eventually does throw Elissen over in favor of his best pal, straight-arrow Commander Droste (Leslie Fenton, "Nails" Nathan from "The Public Enemy"), designer-captain of the F.P.1. The romance angle recedes at that point. Droste is merely a stand-up guy, although he needs Elissen's help not just to build the F.P.1, but eventually to save it from the shipping cabal.
An actual floating soundstage was built in the Baltic Sea just off Hamburg for the F.P.1 sequences. It's fascinating to see, with its broad expanse of concrete flight deck, humungous ballast valve system, and chromium Art Deco chairs for Elissen to throw through windows during a gas attack. Yet Elissen's plane is an open-cockpit Junkers whose slab sides and corrugated aluminum skin give it all the grace and aerodynamics of a grain silo. And few other planes - except a derelict old crate - figure in the action.
The German-language version, "F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht" (F.P.1 Doesn't Answer) retains more of the techno-geek footage and is worth hunting down if you are curious. Not that it's much better in pacing or performance. Hans Albers and Paul Hartmann, the male leads, are way overage for their roles, and Albers is an awful ham even if you don't understand a word of German. But there's Sybille Schmitz as a strong and hauntingly sexy Claire, and Peter Lorre as the sidekick has a more substantial piece of the picture.
An aside in the narrative unintentionally calls the whole F.P.1 concept into question. Elissen at one point is said to be flying a new plane that can go around the world without refueling! You have to love a sci-fi flick where the key technology is already obsolete by the end of the second reel.
The real problem with "F.P.1" was beyond the director's or the studios' control. It should have been made by Frank Capra, then still in his Poverty Row adventure days ("Flight", "Dirigible"). It positively cries out for Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, a streamlined Lockheed Vega monoplane, and American-style snappy patter to leaven the love stuff. And what a formidable "Sunshine" Lionel Stander might have made...
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