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Night Flight (DVD Review)

6 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 6/7/11
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy.

Even beyond the names listed above, how about a cast that also includes Lionel Barrymore and Robert Montgomery in a movie where the producer’s credit belongs to no less than David O. Selznick from his early MGM days? And yet, until the most recent TCM Festival in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago, there’d been no official showing of this early aviation drama in decades. Nor was it even included in the mammoth MGM package that regaled a generation of movie-seduced baby boomers when it was sold to television in the late 1950s.

Predictably, Flight’s previously unavailability has been due to another age-old rights problem involving a said-to-be “interior” source novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — the same guy who wrote The Little Prince (which had its own problems getting adapted to the screen in 1974). Flight’s inspiration was so interior, in fact, that MGM had to jazz the script up as much as possible to make it worthy of the studio’s then latest foray into the all-star extravaganza following the remarkable success of Oscar-winning Grand Hotel and Selznick’s own Dinner at Eight. So you can see why this DVD release is an official Warner title being made available to retailers and not just another new inclusion in its “on-demand” library, as exciting as that endeavor is.

The sad part of this release saga is that the picture just isn’t very distinguished, something I knew (in general) from a worn VHS copy I saw maybe 20 years ago. It is, however, somewhat more fun to watch than I recalled — which proves again that you can never underestimate what a good print can bring to the table. For one thing, you get a better feel for a set that has a real “mission central” dimension to it — the one for the office of a fledgling Buenos Aires airline’s director (John Barrymore as a “Riviere”) who’s struggling to stay above water in figurative terms (as his pilots do so literally).

This is a movie genre I love, starting with Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (my favorite movie of 1939 after John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln) but also Hawks’ Ceiling Zero and Ford’s Air Mail. Yet even at 84 minutes — cut down from a much longer pre-release version, lore has it — Flight isn’t nearly as tight or as compelling as those three, though I do like Barrymore’s performance as a boss-man who’s so demanding that he fines pilots for being a few minutes late in arriving despite flying over mountains in rain storms without even cover in the cockpit. The movie captures Barrymore in the final throes of his ability to cut a tough authoritative figure on screen the way he did in the wonderful and on-DVD Counsellor at Law, which was an early directorial triumph for William Wyler the same year. Not long after, the booze got to Barrymore, and he was relegated (though not reduced) to comic roles.

Another Barrymore (brother Lionel) plays John’s pushed-around subordinate, and it’s an interestingly fleshed-out character. First seen as an unpleasant underling ordered to push the pilots around, he is eventually seen as more sympathetic (the script gives him a bad case of eczema, an interesting touch). Playing a pilot who runs into perilous weather is Clark Gable, and he gets a lot more out of next to no dialogue than poor Helen Hayes does as his wife. Gable looks very much the dashing pioneer (kind of like an 8x10 glossy to come to life), but Hayes is saddled with (by far) the movie’s most overheated dialogue, and her screen emoting tended to be a little much in the first place. In Flight’s internationally exotic setting, Gable plays a “Jules,” and I suspect this is the only time where Robert Montgomery ever got cast as an “Auguste.” Just coming into her own, Myrna Loy has a brief role as the Mrs. of pilot William Gargan’s, and she said in her autobiography that few of the actors ever saw each other during shooting because few of them shared scenes.

The movie is obviously a strong curiosity but nothing much more than that. However, the recent TCM Festival also sprung 1943’s just-as-unseen The Constant Nymph from a long literary rights entanglement, and at some point, Warner will permit it to surface for the mass public. I once saw this teary Charles Boyer-Joan Fontaine charmer in a dupey print more decrepit than the old one I saw of Flight, but it was viewable enough to affirm to that the Festival audience raves were on the mark. Can’t wait.

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