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When we think of movies about F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Lost Generation" our thoughts slide over to Ernest Hemingway adaptations with glamorous movie stars drinking and suffering in picturesque European capitals. The almost completely obscure 1931 Warner Bros. drama The Last Flight covers the same ground without overstating its case. John Monk Saunders wrote several WW1 aviations stories (Wings, The Dawn Patrol, The Eagle and the Hawk) but this tale follows what happens to four fliers after the Armistice.
Cary Lockwood and Shep Lambert (Richard Barthelmess & David Manners) crack up in a warplane. When they come out of the hospital Cary has stiff hands and Shep a serious eye tic. Uninterested in returning home after their war service, they gravitate to Paris with their buddies Bill (Johnny Mack Brown) and Francis, who has troubles with sleep disturbances (Elliott Nugent). They prowl the bars, basically trying to avoid reality and lose themselves in sensation. A doctor describes them as 'spent bullets' that have given all they had to give in combat. Shep and Cary can no longer fly because of physical ailments, but none of the four are interested in working. After what they've experienced, they're not even willing to face family back home.
At a bar they meet Nikki (Helen Chandler of Dracula), a rich girl escaping from family influences. She's just as directionless as the boys are and becomes their companion in drinking. Cary is insecure about his burned hands and has difficulty holding a champagne glass; Nikki's thoughtless remarks reveal that he has a thin skin. Shep's eye doesn't twitch when he's drunk, so his "cure" is to keep drinking. Bill feels the need to prove himself at all times -- he tackles a cart horse to the ground on the Paris street for no good reason, just to show off.
The pals makes light of all things but refuse to be cynical or sour, as if battling a group depression. Often tipsy as well, Nikki contributes some non-sequiturs of her own. The boys use the hotel elevator as a thrill ride and then invite themselves to Nikki's room, which turns out to be a lavish suite. Her closet is stocked with expensive clothes. Nikki keeps two pet turtles in the bathtub. Most of the boys decide to sleep in her salon, and she comes out and asks one of them to scrub her back. Their behavior is chivalrous, except for hanger-on Frink (Walter Byron), a civilian who has attached himself to the group in hopes of prying Nikki away for himself.
One very touching scene takes Nikki and Cary, two wounded souls, to a graveyard where they see the tomb of the tragic lovers Eloise and Abelard. After a rather touching intimate ceremony in which they exchange heart-shaped pebbles from the gravesite, Nikki makes the mistake of saying that she'll rename her turtles Eloise and Abelard. Cary overreacts.
The group moves on to Lisbon, just for the change of scenery. But a bullfight inspires Bill to pull off another reckless stunt, with tragic results. At a carnival shooting gallery, Frink threatens Cary with a gun ... and more violence ensues. The survivors decide to try to make a life together.
Without ever saying so, The Last Flight is really about the Death Wish. These boys are seeking oblivion in their separate ways, by withdrawing from life, sleeping their days away or drinking themselves to death. After a dynamic montage of WW1 action the movie finds its own rhythm of dialogue and gestures. Some of the line deliveries are stiff but other talking passages are much more progressive, as when the group exchange monosyllabic statements.
Of course, we wonder how these ex- flying officers are paying for their hotel rooms, handsome suits and all that liquor; they don't seem to be wealthy and whatever pay they drew can't last forever. It also seems a cozy fantasy that beautiful, rich and equally aimless American women would be available for companionship, but Fitzgerald and Hemingway were there and I wasn't. In any case, it certainly must have been liberating to be one of the walking dead of the Lost Generation living it up in Paris, with the idea that conventions and morals don't apply. It would also be nice to be able to drink 1/10th the liquor we see consumed here, and not be terribly sick from alcohol poisoning. I'll bet that in real life the Parisians had to deal with much less glamorous vagrant drunken Yankees.
The violence in Lisbon leaves three of the group dying in their own blood and forces one to disappear as a wanted murderer. When asked why his friend behaved in such a suicidal manner (no spoilers here), Cary says, "It seemed like a good idea at the time". That would later become a Steve McQueen joke line in The Magnificent Seven -- another movie about 'lost warriors' seeking a violent death.
With his melancholy eyes and mild behavior, Richard Barthelmess became a symbol of the psychic aftermath of the war, especially in the harrowing Pre-Code drama Heroes for Sale. Years later, Howard Hawks played against Barthelmess's screen persona by allowing him to redeem himself in the flying drama " - only Angels have Wings". David Manners (soon to be in The Mummy) had the perfect profile for the early thirties but is uneven in his acting; sometimes he reminds me of Ben Affleck. Beautiful Helen Chandler is hopefully supposed to have an alcohol buzz going during most of her scenes, because she's a bit slow and stiff. In fact, the pantomime that passes for people in different states of inebriation isn't easy to read here, as some of the actors are "theatrically drunk" and others don't show the liquor at all. But Ms. Chandler convinces us that she's simultaneously a free spirit and a lady, which isn't easy under the circumstances.
Alabaman college boy Johnny Mack Brown apparently didn't make the grade at the big studios. After just a couple of big parts, he stepped back a few notches and enjoyed a long career as a popular cowboy star, adored by young fans. The Last Flight appears to be director William (Wilhelm) Dieterle's first American film. Four years later he'd be a top Warners director helming the super-production A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Last Flight is a very clean B&W transfer of this interesting, obscure drama. Resource books describe it as having almost no life after its 1931 debut, which may explain why the film elements are in such good shape. Warners' audio recording is clear. No trailer is provided.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Flight rates:
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