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Not as bad as one has been led to believe. The strengths and weaknesses
this production are exactly those of the studio system. No expense or
been spared to make this film, yet it never really `sings'. The cast is
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.
rare non- Cedric Gibbons design at MGM (credited to Alexander Toluboff)
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
film are exactly where it cleaves closest to St. Expury's original.
stop and begin to expostulate with a touch of the Eugene O'Neill's. In
poetry is better shown than expressed.
One of the strangest phenomena of Night Flight is the fact that the
stars in the cast rarely, if ever, play a scene with one another. Helen
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.
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.
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!
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.
... but interesting and worthwhile just the same. MGM gives this story
of early forays into night flight in South America the star treatment,
but unfortunately we don't get to see most of these stars do what they
do best - interact with one another. John Barrymore, as head of the
night flight operation, spends most of his time robotically barking out
orders or reproaches. Lionel Barrymore, as the inspector who gets no
respect, is very good here, gets quite a bit of screen time, and winds
up having a prolonged and interesting scene with Robert Montgomery who
plays a young pilot displaying that devil-may-care attitude he was so
good at in his early 30's films at MGM.
Helen Hayes, whose most famous film role as Madelon Claudet is no doubt destined to be ignominiously dumped onto DVD-R via the Warner Archive, has lots of screen time here as the wife of a pilot (Jules - played by Clark Gable) who is waiting on her husband to return from his first night flight for a late night celebration supper. As his arrival is delayed more and more throughout the night, so grows her panic.
The oddest thing here is the misuse - or should I say lack of use - of Clark Gable. Throughout the film he is stuck in a plane, mute and motionless. Except for a few log entries that he makes and some of his facial expressions we are really denied a performance here or for that matter, an idea of what is going through his mind.
I'd say it's worthwhile just because it's such an odd departure from what MGM generally did in the 1930's plus it's been locked in the vaults for 75 years due to rights problems. It's interesting to see how Warner Home Video has taken almost a film school approach to what they put out on DVD in the last couple of years. Practically all of their documentaries on film history wind up on pressed DVD, but some pretty entertaining precodes, noirs, and even more modern films such as "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" wind up in the Warner Archive on DVD-R, a medium that doesn't usually have a life span greater than a couple of years.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I remembered the title of this film, having read and re-read Bob
Thomas's biography of David O. Selznick when I was a kid, and I was
interested to see it, at last.
Unlike other M-G-M all-star pictures such as China Seas, Dinner At Eight, or Grand Hotel, it's somewhat hard to become involved with the characters, here, and they aren't too involved with each other. In Night Flight they tend to be less fleshed out. Most of the parts are cast with stars, but they needn't have been. It really could have been the story of one man - the John Barrymore character - and an airline.
Dinner At Eight (another Selznick production), beautifully directed by George Cukor, makes us care about all the characters played by the stars in the story. It doesn't even seem like an all-star film, just a wonderful comedy-drama with a perfect cast. Selznick's Night Flight, on the other hand, seems to be a film where a group of stars are stuck into a story to make it an all-star film. In some cases, they're even wasted (Myrna Loy).
But I still found a lot to enjoy.
Robert Montgomery made his presence felt strongly, as did the charming, naturalistic Helen Hayes (though here she is asked to make a pretty sudden dramatic transition which is slightly jarring). Clark Gable dominates the screen whenever he appears, almost unbalancing the film. He has such a strong presence that a supporting role in an all-star film seems wrong for him. One can easily picture him in the John Barrymore role. Though that would have deprived us of a great performance.
John Barrymore was terrific as the hard-nosed manager, essentially playing his entire role in one room with a spectacular, light-up map of the continent of South America. It's Barrymore who holds the story together and he makes the somewhat clichéd character dynamic and, ultimately, sympathetic. It was interesting to see Barrymore and Hayes, two giants of the Broadway stage, in a rare scene together. As well as the Barrymore brothers in their final appearance together.
I enjoyed the fatalistic tone of the picture, as well as the humanity of the characters in extraordinary situations. The stars were all good, as was William Gargan as another pilot, and Frank Conroy as the radio man on the ground.
It's a beauty to look at, too.
Night Flight (1933)
*** (out of 4)
This MGM film features an all-star cast that includes John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy and it's these stars that make the film worth viewing. The story centers on the true story of the Trans-Andean European Air Mail service, which broke grounds by doing the dangerous practice of running flights at night. The story centers on a demanding boss (J. Barrymore) who will stop at nothing to have his men in the air and this here leads to a pilot (Gable) getting caught out in a dangerous storm and not being able to land while his wife (Hayes) waits for his return. NIGHT FLIGHT was unavailable for viewing until recently when the rights were finally cleared and Warner was able to issue it on DVD. Many of the people who had gotten a chance to view the movie over the past several decades called it a major disappointment and this is true to a point but at the same time it's still a lot of fun seeing this great cast in one picture. I think the biggest problem is that the screenplay really isn't all that impressive and most of the drama never comes because the story never builds up any emotional connection to any of the people we meet. The Gable character is meant to be the backbone of the drama yet we never get to really meet him and we certainly never get to know him as all of his scenes are in the air and he's given very little dialogue. We view the wife as she worries about him but most of her dialogue is so poorly written that again you really get no connection. Another problem is that the story is all over the place in terms of what it's trying to do. On one hand it's a character drama but we don't get to know the characters. The next minute it's an aerial picture and this is where the movie really takes off but there's not nearly enough scenes of the men actually dealing with the dangers of flying at night. The best moment in the film happens early on when a pilot gets lost in some fog and ends up having to fly through some mountains to reach safety. There's plenty of drama in this short sequence and there's some minor drama at the end but not enough to really carry the picture. As I said, the main reason to watch NIGHT FLIGHT is for the all-star cast even though many of them are wasted. I found Hayes to be pretty bland in the picture and Montgomery really doesn't get much to work with either. Gable is good in his part but he really doesn't get much to do either except look brave while flying. John Barrymore chews up the scenery as only he can while brother Lionel has a few funny bits in his part. Still, it's fun getting to see the two of them act together. The rest of the stars never share any scenes together, which will come as a disappointment to many. NIGHT FLIGHT pretty much disappeared for seventy-years but thankfully it's gotten a wide release so more people can check it out but it's best not to expect a masterpiece.
This is quite possibly the least known and seen all-star cast film in film history. But deservedly so. At the time it was made, films about airplanes and pilots were all the rage. Unfortunately, the source material (the Saint-Exupery 1931 novel of the same title) has been closely adapted; a rare thing for Hollywood, but not a good one in this case. As in the novel, much is made of the sensual thrill of being up there in the clouds, so we get lots of awestruck words and reactions from the Barrymores, Gargan and Montgomery. It's all very dated now, with a simple story of flyers delivering mail across South America at top speed, through treacherous conditions, whipped onward by company boss John Barrymore. Barrymore is strong, as usual, but his older brother Lionel, as a foreman, is so hunched-over and drab that he brings the picture down in every scene he's in. And the disconnectedness of the characters is noticeably bad for a major studio film. Gable and Loy are husband and wife, but they never have a scene together. In fact, Gable is never seen outside of his airplane's cockpit! Montgomery's part is even smaller. A shocking waste of talent. The only element not in the novel but added to the film is actually the best thing in it: A sick child's need for medicine that only the speed of an aircraft can bring in time.
Have you ever wondered who flies the mail from place to place? Or, how it actually gets to its destination? Did you ever think that the transport of mail would be the driving plot of a movie, and would actually be exciting? Well, this film answers all of your questions in a first-rate production with excellent actors. John Barrymore is the supervisor who pushes everyone to get it there quick, no matter the cost. But then there's fliers who risk their lives over treacherous mountains and through bad weather conditions. What makes this film and story different and compelling is that it shows us the first night flight. Fliers Robert Montgomery and Clark Gable are great in their roles, as the mail goes from place to place. And, the black and white cinematography was outstanding. The flying scenes were thrilling and at times were quite beautiful. It was amazing to me just how much I enjoyed this film. The viewer is completely there and involved, with the fliers as they risk life and limb. The cast also includes John Barrymore's brother Lionel, Helen Hayes, and Myrna Loy. And while they all shine, it's really John Barrymore's film. I would so far to say it could be one of his best forgotten performances; his passion and conviction of his role were on spot and absolute. You really felt he was the character. The film may appear to be dated compared to today's technology, but the production and performances are so first rate that I would say this has to be one of the best of the forgotten films of the 1930s ever. It comes on TCM. Find it and watch Night Flight. That's an order straight from John Barrymore.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I just watched this on TCM, and I am glad I did. Almost anything with John Barrymore at his peak is worth watching and this is no exception. Spoilers: The best scene in the film involved Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery) flying thru the Andes and barely making it. I think the aviation sequence is outstanding. The worst things were Helen Hayes's Madame Fabian, she was cringe worthy, as was Robineau (Lionel Barrymore), always scratching himself, that was unneeded to say the least. Finally, there was not enough Clark Gable. With the exception of the scene with Montgomery, and a tiny bit by Myrna Loy as the wife of a Brazilian pilot (William Gargan), the whole film was Barrymore. Spoilers: Barrymore's Riviere was a character who was extremely tough because he had to be, and as he pointed out, "Lives Depend on it" (Which is true because one piece of mail that had to get through was a package that included medicine for a sick child in Rio). He also had to deal with owners who were reluctant to fly at night, because of a fear of failure. Riviere was very much like a football coach knowing what buttons to push (Like with Gargan who got through and delivered the needed package). Riviere was a person who knew what the future was and did the tough things necessary to do it. Interestingly enough, Gable, Loy & Lionel would be back in another aviation film called "Test Pilot" which is a much better film, and the obvious inspiration for "Top Gun". To a large extent, Lionel plays a version of Riviere in "Test Pilot" (Although he is MUCH better in that film, he cannot top John here). But "Night Flight" is John's film and he is the reason to watch.
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