Valerie Bertinelli is Florence 'Pancho' Lowe Barnes, a pioneering female aviator from Pasadena, California. Leaving an arranged marriage with Reverend Rankin Barnes (James Stephens), Pancho takes an interest in flying light planes in the 1920's, and soon rivals Amelia Earhart (Nance Williams), breaking world speed records. Pancho is hired by Howard Hughes (David Kockinis) to do stunt flying for his film Hells Angels, instigates the formation of the Motion Picture Pilots Assocation, is a WW2 Air Force Civilian Pilot Trainer, establishes the Happy Bottom Riding Club as a mess hall for pilots and ex-servicemen.
Looking thin, Bertinelli wears her long hair in buns and snoods in the 1940's rolled style but earlier it is short and triangle-shaped. Pancho's boyishness is expressed in her masculine clothing, at one point she has a cigar, and when she leaves Rankin and ships to Mexico, she disguises as a boy. This androgyny fits Bertinelli's spunky persona well, though she is framed beautifully after the death of her mother (Cynthia Harris) standing in front of red curtains wearing a black dress. We see Pancho riding a horse, driving a truck, frolicking in the sea clothed, in her wedding dress, with dirt on her face, and dancing with Gene. Bertinelli twists her mouth to show how bored she is at a Reverends wives convention that leads to her sea frolicking, but although she has multiple suitors, isn't presented as a romantic figure.
The teleplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Blue Andre and David Chisholm, introduces Florence as a tomboy with `few social graces' who `everytime I put on a silk dress, it rips', defying her mother to ride in a hot air balloon. The name Pancho is given to her by Roger Shute, who befriends her on the ship to Mexico, as he sees himself as Don Quixote and thinks she is more Pancho than Sancho. Hayes has Pancho describe flying as to `dance with the angels' which makes her later rationale for quitting `I loved flying. I just didn't love myself' a huge disappointment, and a seemingly anachronistic `Get stuffed'.
The narrative gives her nothing to do once WW2 begins, apart from play barmaid, which works against Bertinelli, since she isn't the passive type, though the bars use of `hostesses' implies something that isn't revealed. There is also a morally dubious glorification of war and bombing raids as an extension of the love of flying, and thankfully evidence of the danger with several pre-war deaths and war fatalities.
Director Richard T. Heffron uses news footage of the war, subjective camera, creates laughs from Pancho's first flying lesson via the grimacing of her teacher Ben Catlin (Geoffrey Lewis), frames a car being parked with a stained glass door, and makes the image of pilots boarding their planes at sunrise in silhouette beautiful. The sentimental music score of Allyn Ferguson is used subtly, except in the I-didn't-love-myself scene where it whines melodramatically.
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