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I remember getting quite an education in Home Video realities back at MGM/UA home video in the 1990s. Letters would come in from consumers demanding to know why a popular picture like Annie Get Your Gun was nowhere to be seen, or why the Robert Mitchum western favorite The Wonderful Country could be seen on television, but not on VHS or DVD. As all of this subject matter contained privileged information, some delicacy was needed. Even when I learned an inside story or two the appropriate answer was always the frustrating phrase "legal issues". I think the reason that MGM hired me to answer mail on the original DVD Video Savant website was that I quickly got a handle on what I could divulge, and what I couldn't. (Gee, that's now fourteen years ago.)
I later learned that rights issues and ownership questions made many more movies un-viewable. I understand that a once-popular Joan Crawford picture called Letty Lynton can't be shown anywhere. The first film version of George Orwell's "1984" was withdrawn, and kept out of sight, as was Joseph Losey's remake of "M". Sometimes when a show hasn't been seen for a long time, it's unclear if it's blocked by a legal question or is simply being neglected by its rights owners.
This Spring we were hit by two announcements from Warner Bros. -- they'd overcome the barriers to showing two titles that have been MIA for decades. I'll be very interested in seeing The Constant Nymph when it surfaces (perhaps later this year?), as it contains Erich Wolfgang Korngold's most delirious romantic music score. I'm eager to find out how the swooping themes can possibly fit into a movie without overwhelming the action on screen.
The other picture is 1933's Night Flight, which we're told hasn't been seen anywhere since 1942, when MGM's license from its author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ran out. Both movies were given effective re-premieres at this April's TCM Classic Film Festival. Audiences were primed for Night Flight because of its rarity but also for its stellar cast: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, and Robert Montgomery. That kind of star-power is nothing to sniff at. Thanks to TCM cable, plenty of fans have found a way to see literally every film ever made by an MGM name like Clark Gable. I understand this enthusiasm from first-hand experience -- finally catching up with a rare or lost filmic item can be very exciting. I imagine a lot of fans of Myrna Loy and Clark Gable are literally scratching another name off their gotta-see lists. Night Flight certainly qualifies in that department.
The film's publicity likens it to Grand Hotel but the connection with Only Angels Have Wings is stronger. A pioneering French aviation company has linked most of South America with an air mail route and is pushing ahead with risky night flights in an attempt to consolidate the business -- as the tyrannical general manager Riviere (John Barrymore) states in his Buenos Aires office, the time the airline gains in the air over train and boat services by day, it loses at night. Pushing the limits of both his pilots and the available aircraft, Riviere takes the hard line that lives are less important than business success. Flying toward Buenos Aires from Patagonia is seasoned pilot Jules Fabian (Clark Gable), a man whose love affair with the sky is as important to him as his young wife (Helen Hayes). Coming from Santiago, Chile on the extremely hazardous trans-Andes route is the devil-may-care Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery), who leaves one lover (Dorothy Burgess) on the Pacific and expects to be sleeping with another on the Atlantic the same evening. Mail from both planes will be placed on a midnight flight from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. That leg of the relay will be flown by another dedicated pilot (William Gargan), whose wife (Myrna Loy) must do without him for five and ten days at a time. Progressive aviation makes cruel demands, as Pellerin's flight is trapped in treacherous downdrafts flying between Andean mountain peaks, and Fabian's plane runs into an unexpected violent storm that pushes him way off course. The relatively primitive state of aviation technology leaves these brave men unprotected when things go bad.
Night Flight impressive cast can't hide the fact that its real concern is flying - it's an aviation saga, not a romance or a mystery. The melodramatic complications are all linked to the cold equations of flying in those pioneer days. Navigation was accomplished by sight and radio communication, both of which are dependent on the weather. Any mistake or just bad luck could mean doom for the pilot and his radio operator. Back at headquarters, Riviere browbeats his staff, especially flight scheduler Robineau (Lionel Barrymore), who in Riviere's opinion is too friendly with employees that he may have to order to their deaths. Madame Fabian wails that it shouldn't be important if the mail gets there a day or two later, but Riviere demands that the schedule be kept no matter what. In typical '30s man-of-industry style, Riviere shouts down his own company superiors when they want to call off the night flights. Real men never back down.
Unlike movies of this kind being made over at Warners, usually starring Warren William, Night Flight pretends that destiny, not economics, is behind all the ruthlessness: there's a depression on, folks, even in South America and France. Jobs are scarce. Employees in risky lines of work from heavy construction to driving trucks to working on ships knew that they had no choice but to do whatever the company wants. Riviere and Robineau make a show of penalizing the pilots for petty infractions -- or just plain showing common sense -- but the motives are not spelled out. John Barrymore's Riviere therefore backs up the management-oriented MGM credo that Captains of Industry have a natural right to make things hard for their employees, who should be grateful for their miserable jobs.
Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a flyer from the 1920s, when the airplanes were even less reliable. The French aviator is the famous name behind The Little Prince, which if you'll recall, is about an idealistic flyer lost in the desert. At several junctures in Night Flight pilots and executives make poetic little speeches about the joy of flying and the heavenly feeling obtained by soaring high above the clouds under a bright moon. We're told that the screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett added the subplot in which the mail planes carry a desperately needed serum from Santiago to Rio, to save a sick baby. That emotional angle argues that the fliers are obligated to risk their lives for humanitarian reasons, even though the pilot and the airline are apparently unaware of the vital shipment. The "save the baby" gimmick became an ironclad cliché in 1930s aviation films, although it must have been invented long before. Night Flight producer David O. Selznick pretty much ruined his Made for Each Other six years later by jamming the exact same subplot into what had started as a light comedy.
The baby business was clearly added to introduce a human element outside the movie's concentration on the jeopardy of flying. There's nothing very Grand Hotel about the show, as the stars mostly remain very isolated from each other. John Barrymore stays planted in his office, and only sees his famous acting brother. Lionel Barrymore is given the very unpleasant "character trait" of eczema -- he's always scratching himself. he eats a meal at a restaurant with Robert Montgomery. Pilot Clark Gable is never seen outside of his airplane -- when introduced he's already in the air. Gable writes notes to his wife Helen Hayes and she prepares a dinner for him, but they have no scenes together. Myrna Loy sees exactly nobody except her husband William Gargan as he awakens to go to work. Night Flight is sort of a "Grand Central Station" picture -- lots of famous folk wander through, but few run into each other.
All this compartmentalized filmmaking indicates an economical production for MGM. Night Flight could very well have been filmed while its actors were working on other movies. Remember, the studio ran six days a week and sometimes 14 hours or more a day. Clark Gable could have been yanked from one sound stage to another, tossed into his flying gear and made to film his scenes in perhaps two days: the rear projection would have slowed things up a bit. The same goes for most everybody else. Myrna Loy was very busy, but William Gargan may have been kept on call, just in case of a break in her filming schedule. There's no guarantee that director Clarence Brown shot each and every dialogue scene. The movie's three credited cameramen are also evidence for a catch-as-catch-can production.
1933 was a Pre-Code year, but only a detail or two of Night Flight would attract the attention of the Production Code censors. Although Loy and Gargan embrace in a bed, I believe she keeps her feet on the floor. A little more dicey is Robert Montgomery's sexual dalliance with Dorothy Burgess, as the dialogue indicates that she's driven him to the airfield straight from her bed. The Pre-code looseness does enable a dramatic final comparison between pilots. One is seen in his pajamas in a room over a restaurant, presumably with his lover for the night. The other is represented only by a parachute left floating on the ocean. It's the luck of the draw -- their fates could have been reversed.
Under the circumstances none of the stars is given scenes that enlarge their legends. John Barrymore is more than a little overbearing, and his brother Lionel's constant scratching forms the bulk of his performance. When he shows Montgomery a picture of his wife, it is implied that their love life over the years has been her watching him itch. Gable is dashing, Montgomery is charming and Myrna Loy very attractive. Helen Hayes fans can finally see her in an early picture that's been well preserved -- most prints of both A Farewell to Arms and Arrowsmith look terrible, and were chopped up for re-issue during the prissy Production Code years.
Both the Santiago and Buenos Aires airdromes appear to be played by the Burbank Airport, with the same hills visible behind the runways as seen in pictures like Casablanca. Savant jumped at the very first shot of the movie, which uses a very familiar Hancock Park mansion to represent a children's hospital in Rio de Janeiro. I've been driving by it twice a week for thirty years. I'm like many Californians in that anything local over seventy or eighty years old seems like a relic from ancient history.
Warner Home Video's DVD of Night Flight makes us wish that the original elements for all Hollywood movies could have been locked away under perfect conditions for 78 years -- the picture looks brand-new. The MGM production people pack the show with decorative wipes and transitions, opticals that all come off very cleanly. The audio is also without audible flaws -- every dialogue line is clear, every music cue free of distortion. We even hear pilot-to-radioman dialogue during the big storm scenes. The video comes with English subs, an 'extra' becoming scarce in these times of MOD discs and downloads.
The disc comes with two extras, but no piece on Night Flight's restoration or rarity. When the Cat's Away is a Harman-Ising cartoon (in two-strip color?) in perfect condition. Its highlight is a fairly funny rendition of the song "Little Brown Jug". Swing High is a well-made, authentic-looking short subject about a family of trapeze aerialists. The original poster art on the disc package is attractive, but even after staring at several of the faces pictured, some of them still don't resemble the corresponding stars. Myrna Loy's nose is unmistakable, however.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Flight rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.