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"Thirteen Hours by Air" is a fun little movie that's quick, surprising, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Mitchell Leisen, an underrated director, is usually associated with screwball comedy or romantic melodrama, and there's a little of each in this film, but it's a pleasant surprise to see that he can handle a brisk thriller as well. Like most movies featuring airplane trips, it includes a hodgepodge of characters involved in separate plots, but they blend together nicely, and the script includes a few neat twists that are bound to surprise anyone expecting the usual cliches. MacMurray and Bennett make an appealing team, ZaSu Pitts is, as usual, a joy, and the various airports are designed in an eye-catching art deco style. It's not a classic, but it's certainly a much better film than I expected, and it deserves to be rescued from whatever deep, dark closet it has been hidden in for too many years.
I've a soft spot for this one it was one of the first films I saw on
my brand new cable TV in 1993, and was unexpectedly impressed with it.
However it's essentially primitive set aboard a primitive "aeroplane"
and some would say with primitive acting too. Youngsters might also ask
based on this how did powered flight ever take off? But it's still
engrossing and I think surprisingly satisfying bearing in mind all the
United Airlines pilot Fred Macmurray is looking and chasing after blonde with a secret Joan Bennett - while minding his own business - partly to win a bet he made partly because he has the hots for her. She has to get to San Francisco asap for some flighty reason and some other guy's trying half heartedly to stop her, while doctor Brian Donlevy and a dodgy character make evil eyes at each other and a spoilt brat and his keeper Zasu Pitts slapstick about. Take my word for it that the dialogue is snappy and almost screwball, of the time and occasionally hilarious why can't modern movies have endless clean smart ass one liners like this one? Why can't the heroes in modern movies be too gentlemanly to utter the word "toilet" to the heroines like in this one?
It's a well scripted inconsequential little melodrama and if you can get past it being a whodunit set on a papier-mâché plane and with cardboard sets you should have a very pleasant 77 minute journey.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
O.K., so that is 2016 flying time, but it's neat to see how they used
to do it. A kid with a jack knife, a mobster with a gun. No TSA in
sight. Snowstorms, frantic nannies and wisecracking stewardesses.
"Mayday! Mayday!", pilot Fred McMurray declares, and of course, I
interject, "Why, that's the Russian new year!" A series of serious
airplane disaster films and a hysterical spoof that is now a classic
have added parody to the serious scripts of any film set on an
airplane, and this is one of the earliest.
Seeing beautiful blonde Joan Bennett getting ready to boars a plane he'll be flying later on, MacMurray vets stewardess Ruth Donnelly he'll get Bennett to accept a date with, but it won't be easy. Also in board is bratty Benny Bartlett who causes havoc with his mischievous ways, his worried nanny Zasu Pitts, and gangster Fred Keating whom Bennett is desperately trying to prevent his having a meeting with her sister. The mixture of comedy and melodrama keeps this moving at the most furious of paces, an early example of why disaster films continued to be so popular for decades afterwards.
With air travel so completely different 80 years later, this classic (directed by rising director Mitchell Leissen) shows a simpler but rougher time. The mixture of different types if characters and a wonderfully witty script is like a perfect blend of peanut butter and jelly. At one point, Pitts claims to be scared out of her skin, and pilot MacMurray promises to make her a rug if she does. Veteran "it" girl wanna-be Marie Prevost had one of her last film roles in a rather large bit as an airport waitress. The conclusion was most likely nail biting in 1936, and remains gripping today as well.
The title 'Thirteen Hours by Air' seems vaguely science-fictionish,
because in 1936 it was simply impossible for an airplane to cross the
United States in 13 hours. (Sixteen was more like it.) But this movie
seems to be presenting itself as cutting-edge rather than futuristic.
Fred MacMurray, slightly less bland than usual, stars as the pilot of the fastest transcontinental 'ship' available. He's heading from New York to California, and he's all set for chocks-away when along comes blonde Joan Bennett as an heiress who's eager to hop aboard. She hasn't a ticket, so she hands him a diamond ring the size of a doorknob.
All the passengers aboard the flight are very obvious 'characters', ranging over a wide gamut of types. This sort of thing works very well if the film is a murder mystery, and we've got to guess which of these suspects is the killer. (In fact, an airplane in flight would be the perfect setting for a 'locked-room' mystery: Agatha Christie used this in one of her novels, but has anyone ever used it in a movie?) There is just a touch of a mystery here, but it isn't a murder. After the 'plane is in flight, MacMurray learns that some jewel thieves are on the lam: a blonde and her two henchmen. Could Bennett be the blonde? It would explain how she got that diamond ring.
Among the passengers aboard the flight are a bratty little boy named Waldemar (whom I was hoping would turn out to be a midget police officer, working undercover) and his nursemaid, played by ZaSu Pitts. I can tolerate Pitts in small doses, but in this movie her character gets airsick in flight ... giving Pitts an excuse for an overdose of her annoying fluttery gestures. I was hoping MacMurray would throw her out of the 'plane over the Rocky Mountains.
Oh, yeah. Among the merry passengers is a gun-toting European nobleman, played by Fred Keating with a bad accent. There are no end of high-flying high jinks along the way, some of them more plausible than others. There's an exciting sequence in which the 'plane makes a forced landing in a blizzard. MacMurray's beleaguered pilot gets some help from an unexpected source ... although, if you read this review carefully, you'll know who I'm talking about. Ruth Donnelly is quite good, as usual ... but there ought to be a law against Brian Donlevy and Dean Jagger ever appearing in the same movie. Both of these actors had about as much screen presence as a block of wood. Put them both in the same movie, and they resemble the Petrified Forest. 'Thirteen Hours by Air' is about as implausible as 'Airport', but -- like that extremely manipulative movie -- it manages to be quite entertaining without ever being realistic. I'll rate this movie 8 out of 10, and I enjoyed the flight.
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