Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Notes From The Cutting Room Floor: The Last Flight (1931)

I've got a number of essays in the works—the best screenplay of 1931-32, a special Katie award for cinematography, another for short subject—but in the meantime, I chased down William Dieterle's The Last Flight, one of the movies that didn't make the cut come Katie nomination time. It has a high rating on the Internet Movie Database, ranking thirteenth among those movies released in 1931—undeservedly, as it turns out, but not bad either if you keep your expectations in check.

Another in a cycle of World War I flyer movies, The Last Flight follows four wounded pilots—"spent bullets" one doctor calls them—as they nurse their physical and psychological wounds by boozing their way through postwar Paris and Lisbon. (The screen shots are from the websites Shadowplay and Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide.)

Richard Barthelmess plays Cary Lockwood, a pilot with badly burned hands and an even more badly burned psyche. Trained for war, ill-equipped for peace, Cary and his pals remain in Europe, drinking to anaesthetize the pain. Pretty soon they're drinking because they can't do anything else.

Taking up with the boys is an eccentric American girl, Nikki (Helen Chandler), who drinks, collects turtles in her bathtub and is not the least bit apologetic about her turned-up nose—very much the kind of woman you'd fall for whether in a movie, in a bar or across your neighbor's fence. She seems to grasp that the boys are as ready to crumble as stale cake and she makes no demands of them other than that they scrub her back and listen to her goofy, elliptical stories.

She's especially drawn to Barthelmess's Cary, the most fragile of the bunch, and to the extent that this character-driven study has any forward momentum at all, the budding relationship between the dotty Nikki and the desperate Cary provides it.

"What are you changing your shoes for?" ask the boys as she readies to chase Barthelmess to his favorite bar.

"On account of I can walk faster in red shoes," says Nikki.

You betcha.

The Last Flight suffers from the problems characteristic of many of Hollywood's early sound efforts—wooden line readings, awkward pauses and portentous, stage-bound dialogue. A good example of the latter would be that "spent bullets" line I mentioned earlier, a nifty metaphor pounded into utter submission with the following speech, typical of some of the screenplay's clunkier efforts:

"Spent bullets. (pause) That's it. They're like projectiles (pause) shaped for war and hurled at the enemy. (pause) They've described a beautiful, high, arching trajectory (pause) and now they've fallen back to earth. (pause) Spent. (pause) Cooled off. (pause) Useless."

I expected something in there about how a factory in Detroit had been converted over to wartime production and maybe even the pilots' dog tag numbers, but I guess the screenwriter (John Monk Saunders, who the year before won an Oscar for another WWI flyer movie, The Dawn Patrol) didn't want to hit that metaphor too hard.

The real problem with the movie, though, is not that it's over-written, it's under-written. I like a languidly-paced character study as much as the next man if the dialogue is sharp and the episodes are illustrative of something, but there's nothing much more at work here than to repeat over and over again that these guys left the best of themselves on the battlefield, an insight firmly established early then never deepened or built upon. It's as if Saunders started reading The Sun Also Rises, fell in love with the drunk scenes and determined to rip off as much as he could—there's even a bullfight!

"Road to hell paved with un-bought stuffed dogs," you can almost hear Hemingway saying, "Not my fault."

"Gary" at "Booze Movies" opines that "The film would have likely been even more powerful as a silent." I think he's right. William Dieterle, who later directed such movies as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Devil and Daniel Webster and was nominated for an Oscar for The Life of Emile Zola, was an accomplished visual stylist whose pictures here almost overcome the limitations of the acting and the screenplay.

The movie catches Barthelmess in the middle of his long, painful transition from silent film star (Broken Blossoms, Way Down East) to forgotten character actor (e.g., Only Angels Have Wings, again as a pilot with burned hands). He often played his characters from a boxer's crouch—shoulders hunched, lips tight, eyes gazing into the distance like he's waiting for the next blow to land. Here his style suits the movie just fine.

Helen Chandler, who plays Nikki, was a highly-regarded stage actress who unfortunately never learned to dial it down for the movies and she overplays here. Still, she's adorable in a clumsy puppy dog sort of way and is the best thing in the movie. She left Hollywood in 1937, wound up in a sanitarium to treat an alcohol and drug addiction and was badly burned while smoking in bed. She and her lovely throat are perhaps best remembered now for playing Mina across from Bela Lugosi in the 1931 version of Dracula. (For a nice little biography, check out the TCM Movie Morlocks post "Lost in a Dream Sometimes.")

Of the other players, the less said the better. Johnny Mack Brown, a former running back at Alabama, made a sackful of B-Westerns that spanned nearly forty years. David Manners never found much success as an actor, spent less than a decade in Hollywood, then wrote novels until his death at the age of ninety-seven. Elliott Nugent worked primarily as a director, including five Bob Hope comedies.

The theme of men broken by war and lost in peace is explored to much greater effect in the novels of Ernest Hemingway and the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in such movies as The Best Years of Our Lives, Three Comrades, The Enchanted Cottage, Coming Home and Key Largo. Nor does The Last Flight measure up to the movies that I have nominated for Katie Awards in any of the various categories. But if you stumble across it on cable one day or otherwise can dig up a free copy, The Last Flight is worth a look.

Note: After the movie's release, a stage version of the story, Nikki, ran on Broadway. The production starred Fay Wray, and in the role of Cary Lockwood, a young actor named Archie Leach. Sometime after, Leach changed his name to "Cary Grant," moved to Hollywood and made some movies which I suspect we here at the Monkey will wind up talking about at some length.


KC said...

I've had this one on my list this year, but could never make much of an effort to track it down, because I suspected it wouldn't blow me away. I still really want to see it, but I'm glad to hear I won't be missing too much if I never do. I always love Barthelmess though--though he always looks so put upon, you never get the impression his characters feel sorry for themselves.

mister muleboy said...

she makes no demands of them other than that they scrub her back and listen to her goofy, elliptical stories.

the dream woman

Maggie said...

"On account of I can walk faster in red shoes."

I like that line. I would see the movie just for that.

Mythical Monkey said...

"On account of I can walk faster in red shoes."

Well, at least now we know why the angels want to wear Elvis Costello's red shoes.

Lupner said...

I agree with Thingy -- great line.

And one more reason to be rather fond of red shoes ...

Mythical Monkey said...

And one more reason to be rather fond of red shoes ...

I stopped the movie to write that one down. It so perfectly captured the character of Nikki.

Off the subject, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I went to D.C. today to see a revival of "The Solid Gold Cadillac" at the Studio Theater. Co-written by George S. Kaufman, who wrote among other things, Animal Crackers. My favorite line in the play was from a guy talking about his youth in the Klondike.

"I dug for gold with my bare hands!"

"Did you find any?"

"No, men with shovels got there first."