The story of flyer Amy Johnson who won the hearts of the British public in the 1930s with her record-breaking solo flights around the world. Her marriage to fellow aviator Jim Mallison was ... See full summary »
The story of flyer Amy Johnson who won the hearts of the British public in the 1930s with her record-breaking solo flights around the world. Her marriage to fellow aviator Jim Mallison was less noteworthy. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
As the British film business hit its all-time height of popular patronage, Anna Neagle overtook Gracie Fields with productions such as 'They Flew Alone'. For seven years Neagle would be the country's favourite female star. Today, a century after she was born, we may well wonder why.
Neagle is not so "fratefully refained" that she cannot be watched without wincing, but she is neither restrainedly sexy like Greer Garson nor noisily gamesome like Jessie Matthews. Anna's bony, handsome features rarely modulate much further than well-bred puzzlement or amusement, ideal for stiff upper lip roles but hardly electrifying: Graham Greene compared her to 'a mechanical marvel from the World's Fair'. Perhaps her soothing reliability suited the national mood between tense wartime and shabby peace.
Few husband/wife partnerships were more fruitful than Herbert Wilcox's with Anna. As a producer-director with ambitious plans and a taste for spectacle, the Irishman resembles Korda. But this Svengali did more for his Trilby than Korda for Merle Oberon.
Anna looked nothing like the gallant lone flier Amy Johnson, but having already played Nell Gwynn, Peg Woffington, Queen Victoria (twice) and Edith Cavell, she exercised a prescriptive right to impersonate British heroines. This flagwaver was her first British picture since returning from Hollywood, anxious not to be tarred with the same unpatriotic brush as Gracie Fields.
Accordingly the script fades up the topical echoes from Amy's exploits a decade or so earlier. She speaks to Australians about air-minded youth binding the Empire closer together with airplanes, as the Royal Navy had done with ships. Memories of the Battle of Britain and the current area bombing of Germany would be on the original audience's minds. Amy is shown as a visionary of the strategic importance of air power.
For modern viewers the feminist angle is more intriguing. The film is dedicated to all women 'who have driven through the centuries of convention.' Amy is a rebel who refuses to wear a straw hat at school, is tutted over and will 'never amount to anything'. She graduates from university and is bored by office and shop work. Only two years after her generation of women were given the vote, she becomes the first female to fly solo from London to Australia, months after getting her pilot's licence. Many other records fall to her Yorkshire grit. Robert Newton, not yet the eyeball-rolling ham of 'Henry V' and 'Treasure Island', discreetly assists Neagle's virtual one-woman show as her husband, Jim Mollison.
The movie emphasises her triumphs and failed marriage with fellow-flyer Mollison more than her early struggles. There are endless montages of telegrams and newspaper headlines, fake radio and newsreel commentaries, stock shots of far-flung places. The few scenes on aircraft are obviously back-projected. Nonetheless, the spills which punctuated the Mollisons' career are not glossed over and the film zips confidently along, as smooth as a Hollywood biopic but laced with snatches of British understatement:
'There's nowt much wrong wi' them' (Amy's dad on the Royal Family after the King gives her a medal).
'What happened, Jim?' 'I crashed.' (Mollison, rising from wreckage.)
'We'll have to take a chance. Are you scared?' 'Yes.' 'So am I'. (The couple, caught in more wreckage.)
Amy Johnson was killed in January 1941 on active service in the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying a new Airspeed Oxford. She was 37. Her body was never recovered, but the 'stringbag' Gypsy Moth biplane in which she first flew to Australia is preserved in London's Science Museum.
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