8 May 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Which way did he go, George?
Douglas Corrigan was an early example of the '15 minutes of fame' phenomenon. A working-class Texan from a family with strong Irish-American roots, Corrigan bought a junked aeroplane and fixed it to his own satisfaction - some parts literally held on with baling wire - and in 1938 he flew cross-country from California to New York, intending to do a Lindy and fly solo across the Atlantic to Ireland. In New York, flight officials refused to certify Corrigan's airborne jalopy as airworthy for the transatlantic flight, and he was ordered to turn round and fly back home. (The certification standards were laxer for an overland flight, for reasons which I assume are obvious.) Corrigan agreed to fly west from New York, and was cleared for take-off. Straight away he was in the air, Corrigan volte-faced as his 'plane did an about-turn and flew east. Several thousand miles later, when he landed, he affected to be greatly surprised that he was in Ireland rather than California ... claiming that he had flown above cloud cover for the entire trip, and hadn't realised he was flying over ocean instead of land! He also claimed that his instruments were defective (I believe *that* part), so he'd thought he was flying west instead of east! Corrigan was promptly nicknamed 'Wrong Way' Corrigan by an affectionate public who knew damned well he was lying, but who admired his brass-bottle gumption. To this day, one continues to encounter the nickname 'Wrong Way Corrigan' hung on anyone who proceeds in the wrong direction.
'The Flying Irishman' is a quickie film, cashing in on Corrigan's exploit and starring himself in the lead role. A sizeable number of the supporting roles in this film are played by veteran character actors, which in this case is a disadvantage: we're supposed to see this film as a factual enactment of real events, but the presence of familiar faces Robert Armstrong, Paul Kelly, Donald MacBride, Charles Lane, Frank Faylen, &c, constantly remind us that we're watching a movie. Corrigan is no actor, so his interaction with these old pros is jarring. He does nicely enough in a brief scene with blonde Joyce Compton as a blowsy waitress.
The film attempts to tell Corrigan's entire life story up to his wrong-way flight, depicting his early days and his relationship with his brother Henry. None of this material is very interesting, especially as it appears to be the usual Hollywood bio-pic confabulation. We're really here to see Corrigan's flight and what happened afterwards. Since I already knew Corrigan's story before I saw this film, there were no surprises for me here. When this movie was made, in 1939, practically everyone in America knew Corrigan's story ... so, my criticism on that point is valid. Still, modern viewers - who have heard of Corrigan but don't know anything about him - might enjoy watching this movie. Also, I admire Corrigan for his real-life nerve (risking his life to prove he was right and the aviation officials were wrong). I admire him for breaking the rules in a context that jeopardised no-one but himself, and I admire him for getting away with it afterward. I wish that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had spent more time writing movies like this, and less time in some of his other activities. (Guess which ones, comrade.) I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10. Cleared for take-off!