13 March 2003 | max von meyerling
A must see for vintage aviation enthusiasts.
Not as bad as one has been led to believe. The strengths and weaknesses of this production are exactly those of the studio system. No expense or effort has been spared to make this film, yet it never really `sings'. The cast is one of the most spectacular rounded up for an 84 minute film. The photography has a black and white sheen, a luminosity, which must have been unspeakably spectacular in the original nitrate print projected on a silver screen. The sets, a rare non- Cedric Gibbons design at MGM (credited to Alexander Toluboff) are suitably jazzy. The first five minutes are a set-up for audience sympathy dealing with an emergency delivery of Polio serum. Corny but well done. The worst parts of the film are exactly where it cleaves closest to St. Expury's original. Characters stop and begin to expostulate with a touch of the Eugene O'Neill's. In this case poetry is better shown than expressed. One of the strangest phenomena of Night Flight is the fact that the legion of stars in the cast rarely, if ever, play a scene with one another. Helen Hayes is married to Clark Gable yet they never share the screen together.
The film is strangely like a series of monologues or at best two shots. All of the characters and the drama are supposed to be tied together by John Barrymore, the hard driving managing director of the Trans Andean European AirMail. The original novel was based on St. Expury's experiences as a flyer, and later, a manager, with Aeropostale, the pioneering French Air Mail line later merged into Air France. Using Buenos Aries as a center, Aeropostale developed South American airoutes south to Patagonia, to the oil fields near Tierra del Fuego. The chief of station and one of Aeropostale's founders, Didier Daurat, (Riviere in the film) became legendary for his single minded drive to get the mail through, an early example of existential ethics. Another route was forged north across the River Plate and Uruguay to and through Paraguay to Bolivia and another, most spectacularly, across the Andes to Santiago, Chile.
Heros were produced which electrified France and the world. Mermoz pioneered the Dakar - Natal route across the South Atlantic as well as the Buenos Aries to Natal route. Henri Guillaumet flew across the Andes 396 times. The Andes were too high to be overflown even by the latest improved models used by Aeropostale and pilots had to fly their way around and through the mountains rather than over them, something which is shown in the film. For enthusiasts of vintage aviation the film is priceless with maybe three quarters of the flying done for real. John Barrymore unfortunately has begun his decline by the time this film was made and does his `eyebrow' thing to excess, signalling that he was either unhappy with his role or his domestic arrangements or both. Gable, just beginning his reign as the King of Hollywood, is almost unrecognizable in his pilot's outfit. Robert Montgomery manages to have scenes with the most co-stars in the picture, except for maybe John Barrymore. Helen Hayes is effective as the wife as far as that goes. Myrna Loy has a role usually described as `thankless'. Produced by David Selznick, it never appeared on his extensive resume and now can be seen as a very atypical Selznick project, beyond the accumulation of the talent. Undoubtedly the literary inclined Selznick was attracted to the book's having won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1931, though he was more sympathetic to period pieces (Dickens, GWTW) then contemporary drama. Perhaps he had been thinking of his associate at RKO (King Kong) , Air Corps pilot and airline executive Merian C. Cooper. Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo, was one of MGM's most romantic directors, always setting an atmosphere where love either triumphed or ended tragically. One wonders what would have happened if a more consciously `machine age' director like William Wellman or Howard Hawks had shaped the material.
The worst that might be said about NIGHT FLIGHT is to lament what might have been. Narrative techniques common today (and, ironically, during the silent era) would have rendered a more interesting film, though not one suitable for audiences of the time. In other words, a disappointment but not a terrible film by any means. The real curiosity is why it's never revived on Turner Classics which presumably owns both a print and the rights. I suspect that there may be a question as to the underlying rights to St. Expury's Vol de Nuit that might be responsible.