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William Wellman is the director to beat for earthy Pre-Code dramas. Central Airport is one of seven pictures Wellman had in release in 1933, including the impressive Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Here he returns to his favorite subject of aviation. What appears to be a stock love triangle drama soon goes off in its own direction. The situations may be clichéd but the resolutions are not.
Jack Moffitt's original story deals with the realities of work for 1930s fliers. Jim Blane (Richard Barthelmess) is booted from his job as a commercial pilot when investigators fault him for an airliner crash in rough weather. He meets circus barnstormer Jill Collins (Sally Eilers) just as her pilot brother crashes to his death, and becomes her partner both in the air and in bed. They check into hotels separately but always take adjoining rooms. Jim doesn't believe in marriage for fliers, and Jill soon takes up with his younger brother Bud (Tom Brown), also a pilot. And Jim's timing is also off ... although Jill loves him, she accepts Bud's offer of marriage. Jim takes off for dangerous jobs in parts unknown, but we know he'll have to come back to claim what's his.
Central Airport is an unappreciated little gem. WW1 flier William Wellman lends the production his usual accuracy in the aviation sequences. Impressive stunt scenes include a biplane buzzing a speeding train and the usual wild look-the-loops low over the runway. Flying pictures of this sort usually hang their plots on a contrived romance, and resolve conflicts with a big action scene and a sacrificial gesture. Wellman made his share of those but Central Airport uses its Pre-Code freedom to posit a frank and realistic love triangle. Jim and Jill risk their necks together in the air and naturally gravitate toward one another. All the movie has to do is show Jim opening the connecting door between their hotel rooms, and we get the picture. The film's woo-woo content is restricted to a shot of Sally Eilers in a sheer slip; Wellman respects their out-of-wedlock sex life and so do we.
The movie's air show daredevils are just normal people -- there's none of the psychological weirdness that crops up in John Frankenheimer's later The Gypsy Moths. Wellman works with Jill's moods to show that she wants marriage (she plays with a cigar band as a substitute ring) and is willing to settle for Jim's less mature and less interesting brother. And Wellman doesn't make a big deal out of Jill and Jim's reunion a year or two later. They meet when Bud is away and are soon doing what comes naturally. Unlike 99% of films after 1934, no moral judgment follows. Even a hint of adultery after Code Enforcement, and we know that one or both partners is facing a death sentence.
There is no "central airport" in Central Airport, although a Grand Central Airport shows up; the movie isn't about airports at all -- "Pilot's Hotel" might be better. Unlucky in love, Jim Blaine hires himself out to every dicey war front on the map. We hear that he helped "put down revolutions in Central America", but he also apparently flew for the Red Chinese. When he returns to Havana, his plane has Chinese symbols, a hammer & sickle and "viva la revolucíon" written on it. In what must have seemed aviator's humor, he also remarks that he "left a piece of himself" everywhere he went -- part of a leg here, a rib there. He walks with a limp and wears an eyepatch. Offhand, you'd think that good depth perception would be a prime requirement for a maverick biplane pilot, but Barthelmess does look good in that black eyepatch. In a way, Jim's coming home from the wars more or less like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers ... to see if he can't get his girl back from his younger brother.
Richard Barthelmess, once the gentle 'beautiful boy' of D.W. Griffith dramas, was at the end of his starring phase at this time. Wellman in particular used his weary face to represent the injustices of the Great Depression. The pilot in this film gets a bad break but accepts it as a fact of the business -- people don't want to fly with pilots that crashed and lost passengers. Howard Hawks' classic "-- only Angels have Wings" uses Barthelmess, by that time taking small character parts, as a disgraced pilot who gets a chance to redeem himself (and win back the love of his wife, Rita Hayworth). So Central Airport will have a nostalgic significance to viewers that interrelate actors and roles in different movies.
The big shock of the story is that the conclusion sets us up for a corny selfless sacrifice gag, a cheap way of eliminating one corner of a problem romantic triangle. But it instead works out a much more mature ending, with Jim teaching Bud a quick barnstorming trick to help save the day. You know, there are some people who can handle affairs of the heart without being automatically evil ... one of the qualities that make Pre-Code dramas especially interesting. Some Pre-Code pictures actually have characters that resemble real, imperfect humans.
Central Airport has great flying sequences and some pretty good model work. In one storm-at-sea sequence, a lightning bolt reveals the stage wall behind a studio tank. The movie has some notable walk-on appearances. Sharp eyes will catch Louise Beavers, Dick Elliott, James Ellison, Charles Lane, Fred Toones, Toby Wing and a young John Wayne as Bud Blaine's co-pilot in the final crash scene. The Wayne appearance is interesting, in that director Wellman helmed Wayne's overblown aviation suspense hit of twenty years later, The High and the Mighty. Both movies have similar scenes of an airport manager arriving to respond to news of possible trouble with a flight.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Central Airport comes from what appear to be perfect undisturbed film elements ... picture and sound are nearly perfect. As part of his bid for realism Wellman records live sound while airplane engines roar behind our heroes ... and gets audible dialogue for his efforts.
The billing block for Central Airport lists Glenda Farrell, but I didn't see her anywhere in the movie. Perhaps her scenes were cut out? More likely it's just some cast list typo that's been repeated through the ages.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Central Airport rates:
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