In the tradition of Grand Hotel (1932) and more closely on the heels of Dinner at Eight MGM gets a bit stingier with their all-star casting in Clarence Brown's Night Flight.
Yes, they have packed the cast: John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, even William Gargan, are all here. But they are mostly paired off. Or better said, kept separate.
Thankfully we get a good deal of Barrymore and Barrymore. And Lionel spends a fair amount of time with Robert Montgomery. Myrna Loy doesn't see anybody but screen husband William Gargan. Helen Hayes doesn't have it so well coming no closer to hubby Gable than mooning over his portrait. Gable, for all the billing, really doesn't deserve much more credit than Leslie Fenton, ole Nails Nathan himself, whom he shares the Pantagonia plane with. Clark communicates more by written message than spoken line in Night Flight. Gargan manages a scene with both Barrymore boys, though Lionel is just an observer for that one. Hayes shares a big scene with John Barrymore, but when Lionel crosses her path it almost feels like a mistake.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Night Flight was adapted from aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novel of the same name, or Vol de nuit as it was titled in his original French. Published in 1931 it would be the book that first brought Saint-Exupery to prominence as a writer earning him the Prix Femina literary prize at home in France.
Night Flight was based on Saint-Exupéry's experiences as airmail pilot and director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline. Prior to this the pioneering flier had flown airmail routes across Europe and Africa. The Riviere character, played by John Barrymore in Night Flight, was based on the operations director of the Aeropostale.
Saint-Exupéry was later the author of the renowned Le Petit Prince, or The Little Prince, his posthumously published top selling book. It would be translated into over 250 different languages over the following decades.
His personal biography is the stuff of legend with the literary flier gone missing during a 1944 World War II reconnaissance mission. While a body was found it could not be identified. Still Saint-Exupéry was presumed dead at age 43. Not another clue surfaced until a bracelet was found baring his name in 1998. While the authenticity of that find was initially disputed, a plane was discovered in 2000; recovered in 2003; and confirmed as Saint-Exupéry's in 2004.
But that's another story.
What's It All For?
Towards the end of Night Flight Myrna Loy's character rushes to meet her husband, played by William Gargan, as he prepares to take off for Rio de Janeiro and beyond. Loy had previously been in tears after the call came in to rouse Gargan off to work earlier than expected.
As he readies to take off she catches up with him at the airfield and wonders, "What's it all for, just so someone in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday?"
After another hazardous flight Gargan lands in Rio with his wife's bitter words on his own lips. After a harrowing eighty minutes of film covering a day in the life of the airmail night service and its pilots MGM leaves no doubt. An unnecessary story about delivery of a polio serum has been attached to the front and back of Night Flight to provide it with a more definite beginning and an end.
So as Night Flight winds to its conclusion Gargan may be disillusioned but we know how important the mail is because we were shown a child (Buster Phelps) on his death bed with his worried mother (Helen Jerome Eddy) hovering over him at the beginning of the movie.
Once or twice in between we see the doctor at the Brazilian National Clinic (Irving Pichel) phoning in for a progress report on the serum just to remind us there is a reason for all our pilots go through.
It wasn't needed. It felt like something that may have effectively been tagged onto the ends of a one-reel short from twenty years earlier. Here, (pun alert) it doesn't fly.
What It's Really All For
Chop the weepy message stuff off of either side of Night Flight and we already have two interesting and star-studded plots to follow. One is in the air with very little said as our pilots make their daily trip across South America. The other is on the ground as John Barrymore's Riviere runs the whole show with heavy fist, and as we come to find out, heavy heart.
This is John Barrymore's movie. As Riviere he is subdued, tired, yet his character breathes fire as necessary. This Barrymore lacks humor. He's too driven to even roll out any hammy tricks. His character has been given a task and that task is more important than anything in his world. As far as we know, in fact, Riviere's entire world is managing the airmail service.
His Riviere is a machine. You get the feeling he's been working for weeks on end and won't be stopping anytime soon. He minces no words with either subordinates or superiors, his only goal it to make sure that night flying of the mail succeeds.
He reveals Riviere's character early in a conversation dismissing aging Roblet (Harry Beresford) from the company. Roblet is apologetic over a mistake he has made explaining that it had never happened before.
"Once is too much," Riviere replies. "You might have caused a crack-up. A couple of deaths. Loss of the mail. Disruption of the whole service." That seems stated in Riviere's own order of importance.
Roblet thrusts an old photo of himself into Riviere's hands. It's the first plane in the Argentine assembled by Roblet in 1910. "I've been in aviation ever since. You won't throw me out just for one mistake," the older man pleads even bringing his wife and kids into the conversation.
Riviere isn't having it: "If we weren't just starting night flying. Sentiment can't enter in." Seeing the writing on the wall, Roblet responds, "I've always done my best." Riviere answers as expected, by us and probably Roblet too, "Your best wasn't good enough."
Riviere offers no options to his boss, Daudet (C. Henry Gordon), when the President of the company worries over the risk of night flight. Barrymore's Riviere scolds him for previously being afraid to fly over the Andes until he insisted upon it. "You can't stop me now," Riviere declares. "If you even try it, I'm through with you. I'll resign, leave it up to you. See what you gentlemen can do. I've never made a failure yet."
The gentlemen are Daudet and his invisible yes men who are shown simply as shadows nodding in agreement to their benefactor. Daudet is conservative in not wanting to risk the perfect record of his company on what he sees as Riviere's whims.
But Riviere isn't operating on ego. "You can't stop all the clocks in the world from ticking," he says near the end: He's working for progress.
The lengthier than usual forward explains that until recently "the night was still a wilderness __ unknown __ uncharted." We're witness to a day in the life of pioneers. By modern comparisons their planes are beyond crude. Their instruments minimal. They pilot their course with their eyes and aid of wireless weather reports which may or may not be accurate.
Barrymore's Riviere spends all of Night Flight in his single control room and a good deal of that time standing before the towering map of South America on the wall. The map traces the route of each pilot and includes lights near each important landmark and stopover so through the magic of telegraphy their course can be visually charted throughout the day and now the night.
This is Riviere's world. He lays it out for us at the open.
From the Southern tip of South America the Pantagonia plane will take off from Punta Arenas and from there hug the eastern coast of the continent flying north over 1,500 miles through rough terrain to Buenos Aires. It must arrive by midnight. There is no compromise on that. Fines are administered for every minute late. That plane is piloted by Fabian (Clark Gable) with Ouimet (Leslie Fenton) assisting as radio operator.
Then, from the West Coast of South America, Pellegrin (Robert Montgomery) will cross the Andes in daylight but hit darkness soon after clearing the mountains. He too heads to Beunos Aires and he too must be on time. Both planes must reach Beunos Aires in time to clear their mail and hand it off to a plane flying north from there.
That last leg, plane #70 piloted by William Gargan, must depart Beunos Aires promptly at midnight and continue up South America's eastern coast to make connections with a French cruiser at Natal. From there the mail leaves their hands and is shipped across the Atlantic to Europe.
"Every pilot, mechanic, mail handler and clerk must be held strictly accountable for any failure in his work," Riviere says.
Lionel Barrymore as Robineau
It is Robineau's (Lionel Barrymore) job to enforce Riviere's penalties and generally browbeat the pilots into caring enough about the penalties to make good on their work.
The elder Barrymore presents the itchy Robineau as almost a split personality with touches of Grand Hotel's Kringelein adorning his real character as he protests Riviere's harsh policies or dines with the pilot Pellegrin. But once given his orders Robineau cracks the whip. He is shown earning the disdain of the Paraguayan pilot who calls him worse than Riviere. The insult causes Robineau to triple the original fine that Riviere had called for. He can be tough when he has to be.
Lionel Barrymore spends all of Night Flight with his hand tucked inside his shirt scratching.
"That's only eczema," Riviere tells him in John Barrymore's only light moment.
"Sometimes I think I'll kill myself if it doesn't stop," Lionel says.
"Stop?" replies Jack. "A friendship like that? I wish I had such a loyal companion."
And there goes any lightness as from the shadows of Riviere's office it is understood what a lonely position he holds.
It takes effort for Lionel's Robineau, a former policeman, to swing Riviere's ax as there can be no doubt he worships the same pilots whom he must enforce penalties upon. Pellegrin (Montgomery), having just landed after his treacherous journey through the Andes, laughs in Robineau's face as he tries to impose a fine on him.
The pilot, who had moments before taken good care to make sure his feet were firmly back on the ground, catches Robineau in a weak moment and tells him, "You're not half bad. You're all right. You just won't let yourself be." Robineau sheepishly asks Pellegrin to dinner, where Pellegrin turns down his favorite prostitute, for awhile at least, preferring to unwind in the presence of the more appreciative Robineau.
Later Riviere will explain to Robineau, Barrymore to Barrymore, why it is dangerous to form friendships with the pilots:
"Do You think I don't want them to like me? They hate me worse than they do you. But it's part of our job to accept that. Anyone of them's worth more than you. More than me. Admire them if you want to. Love 'em even. But never let them know it."
Robert Montgomery, as Pellegrin, gives one of Night Flight's better performances though he has more to work with than others, notably Gable, do.
A society boy who's dropped off at the air field by his fur clad girlfriend (Dorothy Burgess) after a night of partying, Pellegrin pulls his pilot suit on over his tux and is soon up in the air. He's flying alone, so Montgomery doesn't have much to do but entertain us with a series of concerned expressions, but his flight through the mountains is one of Night Flight's most gripping moments even if our eyes are glued to Pellegrin's plane and not necessarily focused on Montgomery's acting skills.
On the ground Montgomery is extremely effective as he reflects on his flight. A mechanic gives him a cigarette and he slouches back in his plane to enjoy it, savoring that cigarette as much as any man spared from death row could. Feet firmly on the ground the mechanic asks him if he had a hard time, perhaps ran into a storm.
"Storm's nothing. Keeps you too busy," says Pellegrin.
The mechanic, surveying his plane, says, "Nothing did plenty of damage"
"Air current," Pellegrin says. Montgomery's face turns expressionless as he recalls, "Dropped me into a canyon. Just missed the rocks. What comes before is worse. Everything's so quiet. It's as if the mountains were crouching, ready to spring at you. I never saw the air so clear. Rocks. Snow. Stuck out at you. Not a thing moved. It was almost too quiet, it was as if something secret ..." He catches himself, smiles at mechanic. "Sounds silly I guess."
Not so silly because we were there with him.
Fear cannot be recognized, never mind tolerated. Part of Riviere's job is to fight fear, a labor he accomplishes as directly as he handles all tasks. No kid gloves. It's best illustrated by the arrival of William Gargan's pilot to his office.
Riviere has the Gargan character in to reprimand him about a recent flight. Gargan offers excuses. Blames it on the plane. Says it had engine problems. Riviere tells him no, "We checked it over after you got back. it was in perfect order. Every pilot thinks his engine's acting up--when he's afraid. Too much imagination, that's all."
Gargan exits leaving the brothers Barrymore together. John says to Lionel, "As a matter of fact he's one of the best pilots we got. Plenty of guts too. He did quite right to turn back." He pauses. "Anyway, I stopped him from being afraid."
The pilot Jules Fabian seems a very strange role for Clark Gable. He was by then already a top star at MGM, but had no more to do on Night Flight than to show up and sit in a plane passing notes and the very occasional line to Leslie Fenton. Even producer David O. Selznick realized that Gable was wasted explaining in an undated note to Nicholas Schenck that "the major mistake which I must share blame for is the casting of Clark Gable" (Behlmer 97).
Even so pilot Fabian, despite being mostly muted, is a part of Night Flight's most treacherous journey and responsible for almost all of its suspense as we pull for him to get his plane back on course before running out of fuel. An unknown actor might have found a big break in the role of Fabian. With Gable it is impossible not to wonder when he'll have a chance to do something more substantial than grit his teeth or smile into the sun.
The Women of Night Flight
There can be no doubt that Riviere knows how to handle men. Women are another story.
When the Pantagonia plane piloted by Gable winds up off course and lost in dangerous weather he does all he can to avoid Madame Fabian (Hayes).
When she confronts him in one of Night Flight's tensest scenes on the ground her tears finally show us the side of Riviere that he's been trying so hard not to show. "I'm not made of iron," he declares, ordering her from his office. "I'm not going to have tears and hysterics here, either yours or mine."
It's a verbal splash of cold water for Madame Fabian who calms herself at her exit. "I'm his wife. I love him," she says in one final deflated plea. "Can't you see that's of no importance," Riviere says. Adding, "When there's work to do. When lives depend on it."
The women of Night Flight each illustrate another side of the pilots.
But the presence of the respected Hayes pads up Madame Fabian's part more than necessary in an attempt to give the revered actress some meaty scenes. She comes off as a bit deranged attempting to carry through with the dinner she'd planned to have with her missing husband, but is admittedly quite effective in the late scene with John Barrymore. She's trying too hard before that and I could have easily stood her Madame Fabian being chopped down to that single scene with Barrymore.
Myrna Loy is much more effective in her bedroom scene with husband Gargan. She takes the call ordering him in early to the airfield and stands over him bedside doing her best to restrain herself from actually waking him. He's all confidence when he wakes up chattering on about his love of flying. Despite his strong front she knows how dangerous his journey is and winds up collapsed across their bed in tears.
Loy is given the line you remember from Night Flight when she wonders if it's all just to speed up the delivery of postcards to Paris. Just the two scenes for her and the second one is quite brief.
Dorothy Burgess, girlfriend of Montgomery's Pellegrin, has even less to do than that. Just one scene before anyone is even off the ground. She accuses Pellegrin of wearing his evening clothes underneath his uniform for the women waiting for him on the other side of the flight. But knowing the danger of his profession she doesn't seem to begrudge him those dalliances all too much. She's last seen waving goodbye to Pellegrin as he takes off to cross the Andes.
Each of these three women were important to the world of Night Flight in humanizing their opposite halves. While Hayes is too much for me, Gable's Fabian especially needs someone to do this for him since he spends most of the movie quietly making fearsome faces.
Big Stars, Big Production
The aerial shots of Night Flight are phenomenal, especially those of Pellegrin's plane swooping over and through the Andes. The dramatic action is largely downbeat with Clarence Brown aided by great Barrymore performances that, despite Lionel's attention grabbing scratching, are more complementary than competitive. He fails to keep Helen Hayes from over the top theatrics and while Robert Montgomery was excellent on the whole he does take his reflectiveness a notch too far once or twice after landing.
Produced by David O. Selznick Night Flight was set as the first vehicle for John Barrymore under his new long term contract with MGM signed in March 1933.
According to the AFI notes Selznick brought in Oliver H.P. Garrett, who had adapted Howard Hughes' hit flying movie Hell's Angels in 1931, to write the script. Selznick thought Garrett's draft left too much of Night Flight on the ground so he brought in John Monk Saunders to beef up the action in the air. Director Clarence Brown was dissatisfied with that so Selznick finally called on Wells Root to tighten up the final draft.
The same notes also state that Night Flight ran over two hours at its first preview but was cut down before general release. Thank goodness because even at just 84 minutes I could imagine another ten minutes or more cut with improvement (the infantile paralysis scenes, Helen Hayes dining alone), but can't possibly picture what extra may have been taken away!
Both Barrymores and Gable were quickly put on the project with Myrna Loy soon added as well. Other names found themselves cast for a good part of the pre-production period including Nils Asther, Franchot Tone, Ben Lyon and Frank Morgan. In late March MGM was trying to secure Adolphe Menjou for a featured role and word at one point had Jean Hersholt replacing Lionel Barrymore. MGM tried signing German actress Wera Engels for one of the roles and Grant Mitchell was announced as an addition at one point as well.
Helen Hayes was called back early from a European vacation with her husband and the Thalbergs and then had a two day period where she balked at the part because she didn't like the role. I'm imagining the dinner scene was added for her at that point to the detriment of all. Leslie Fenton was a late addition leaving me to wonder if Tone, one of the last names to drop off early lists of cast members, was originally intended to be seated behind Gable.
On June 17, 1933 the Hollywood Reporter announced that the title of the film had been changed to Dark to Dawn. Just eleven days later the same publication carried the story that after having fooled around with about a half dozen different titles it was back to being Night Flight.
Recommended with Reservations
Night Flight is action in the air and intensity on the ground. At least when John Barrymore is on camera.
Progress must be had at all costs. Whether that be money from Daudet's pocket or the blood of his pilots, Riviere is hellbent on success. There is no room for empathy, it stands in the way. Even if we know he hides it in his own heart.
Star-studded as Night Flight is that is all a bit of a cheat. Like other aspects of the movie it was not necessary. Other than John Barrymore's scenes, his scenes with brother Lionel and the single scene pairing him with Helen Hayes, it's all just extra trimmings.
Night Flight plays more as a slice of history than anything else today. In 1933 it showed you, yes, what went into getting you your postcard two days early, but also why it was worth the expense and the risk. While the polio serum seems as antiquated as a girl tied up on the railroad tracks the real explanation is brought to life by the younger Barrymore's Riviere who has given his life over to progress.
You'll be lured in by the star billing but thrill to the air scenes and John Barrymore's inspired performance.
Night Flight was released on DVD by Warner Brothers last year. Special features on the disc are an early Pete Smith short titled Swing High and featuring the Flying Codona family of trapeze artists as well as the cartoon When the Cat's Away. Neither has anything to do with the movie. There is no commentary.
Night Flight surely would have been relegated to a Warner's Archive release if not for the cast and years of anticipation. But those elements earned it a standard pressing and an overhyped modern reputation which will likely recede now that it's been recovered and we can all actually see it again. Good, not great.
- Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
My coverage of Lionel Barrymore's turn on TCM's Summer Under the Stars, August 10, 2012, can be found HERE. Check out other articles about Lionel from around the web by clicking the Summer Under the Stars blogathon banner immediately below.
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