But it did make a better movie than The Sun Also Rises (1957).
John Monk Saunders was responsible for a handful of World War I screen classics: Wings (1927), The Dawn Patrol (1930 and ‘38), and Ace of Aces (1933), among those. The Last Flight (1931) was adapted from his novel Single Lady, which was itself compiled from a collection of entries by Saunders originally serialized in Liberty magazine under the title "Nikki and Her War-Birds."
The story of four damaged soldiers spending the immediate aftermath of the war drinking their way through Paris and on to Lisbon and the bullfights, was familiar territory for the literary world by 1931. “Why you’re lost,” Nikki, the adorably bizarre and forthright young woman who they hitch their high times to, says to Cary. “You’re all lost.”
The 1931 novel was torn apart by critics as a pale imitation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published a little over four years earlier. The New York Times review went so far as to call Single Lady, “the worst novel of the year” (Goff).
But the Saunders story beat Hemingway’s to the screen by more than a quarter century, though not without some controversy. The Last Flight fared much better in film form with both critics and audiences, though John McElwee points out in his informative essay about Saunders and the film, the movie did wind up losing over a quarter of a million dollars.
Despite opening with battle field explosions, cavalry charges, and war planes screaming overhead and down to the ground, The Last Flight quickly leaves the war behind as Cary and Shep watch a clock tick to 11 o’clock from a hospital, where a calendar prominently informs us it is November 11, 1918.
Richard Barthelmess is Cary Lockwood, war pilot who’s burnt his hands beyond use in trying to safely bring down his plane. David Manners is Shep Lambert, Cary’s gunner, who has developed a nervous tic in one of his eyes as result of the accident. John Mack Brown is Bill Talbot, a boisterous bull of a man who was a football star back home. Elliott Nugent is ever-so-quiet as Francis, a sure shot who needs to carry a watch with an alarm, or he’d never bother waking up.
The war has turned them into brothers and The Last Flight leaves little doubt of the close bond each of these four men feels towards one another.
They quickly find a sister in Paris when happening upon Helen Chandler as Nikki. She stands in the bar alone, quiet and expressionless, clutching not a drink, but a glass containing a set of false teeth. Nikki comes from money and seems all at once world-weary yet naive. She immediately attaches herself to Cary, taking great pity on his burnt hands, a terrible mistake when interacting with the proud soldier. Each of the men quickly come to adore Nikki, even before the end of their first night together.
Cary offers to show Nikki home from the bar, but the other fellows agree that they should all escort her. “I saw her first,” Cary says, but big Bill nails it when he replies, “It makes no difference, she belongs to us all now.”
Attaching himself to our gang of five heroes is the humorless Frink (Walter Byron), whose greeting is always a crack about how much the other fellows, especially Shep, are drinking. Even seemingly carefree Nikki takes an immediate dislike to Frink and does her best to avoid him. Frink has his eye on her though.
The dialogue is bizarre banter, mostly meaningless on the surface but illustrative of the group’s total abandon. The postwar mood is best summed up by Cary’s repeated suggestion of having a drink to “make you laugh and play.” Nikki’s response to this offer is simply, “That’s what I want to do. Laugh and play.”
While each man’s story is told and a Continental binge is a reasonable enough explanation for their moods and actions, Nikki’s own story remains mostly a mystery. Excepting her delightful little yarns about her hair ribbon, crooked teeth, and spoiled toes, all we’re told of her life before Armistice Day is that she is unmarried and has a wealthy mother who she’s lost touch with. Rather than exploring any of Nikki’s problems, her big heart pours out for the soldiers, with Cary especially responsible for her outpouring of empathy.
Originally slated to be directed by William Wellman (Variety), who had directed Wings, the honors on The Last Flight went instead to William Dieterle, in what would be his first English language film in Hollywood. Dieterle does a wonderful job of keeping our attention squarely focused upon Nikki and her war birds, only occasionally pausing to let anybody else interrupt a scene. Despite the fact that the action rarely consists of anything more than five or six people drinking and talking together, The Last Flight never feels stagey and usually even succeeds in making us believe in its European locales. The 76-minute run time feels just right and, to writer Saunders’s credit, even when nothing much is happening there’s always a bit of suspense in wondering what bit of nonsense will roll out of the characters' mouths next. Just a guess, but possibly it helped having a director whose native language wasn’t English. I can half imagine Wellman replacing some of of the more impenetrable gems with brawnier bits of American slang, especially when the fellows were speaking.
Richard Barthelmess is a fine Cary Lockwood, especially impressive when alone with Nikki during the scene at the cemetery. With the other men he seems slightly more distant, a man who knows this path cannot last forever, yet is absolutely lost when it comes to thinking of an alternative. There’s an intensity to Cary, plus hints of intellectualism and sensitivity that are finally flushed out during his conversation with Nikki at the cemetery.
Barthelmess shares top honors with Helen Chandler, whose wide eyes bring an especially potent vacancy to Nikki. She seems more broken than lost. Chandler’s given the most nonsensical lines throughout The Last Flight and she pulls them off with a confidence that makes clear Nikki knows what she’s talking about, even if nobody else can quite figure her.
Being most familiar with Chandler’s trance state from Dracula and, more recently, her terror of Walter Huston in A House Divided (each also 1931), the temptation is to boil down her charms to simply those haunting glazed eyes. But they reveal themselves as technique when a new expression washes over Chandler while having a drink alone with Cary before going to the cemetery. It’s morning and for once Nikki seems sober. The conversation is between two people in love and Chandler no longer appears either vacant or wide-eyed.
It’s not that she’s putting on a show as Nikki. What should be remembered about all of the wild dialogue and irresponsible actions of the characters in The Last Flight is that, other than Frink, they are all perpetually drunk. We’re along on a binge, privy to a party where the revelers only want to “laugh and play” because that’s better than remembering or looking forward.
Before Paris, back in the hospital when the clock struck eleven, Cary asked Shep what he wanted to do now. “Get tight,” says Shep. And then? “Stay tight.”
David Manners continues to win me over. I’ve come to accept him as being very good at portraying damaged, somewhat fragile characters like Shep. His attachment to Cary, who saved his life, is touching, as is the bond he forms with Nikki as he unobtrusively and selflessly helps pair his friends, old and new. Manners is still prone to poor line delivery and sometimes just tries so hard that his work looks forced, but he also gets off several good lines in this one, including that short exchange with Cary about getting tight. His final scene is especially good.
Johnny Mack Brown seems, for once, perfectly cast in a non-Western role. In The Secret Six, earlier that year at MGM, he was so inferior to Clark Gable that anyone could see what was coming, but The Last Flight uses him correctly. His Bill Talbot is a big, loud, wisecracking, carefree Southern football player. Every crowd needs a blowhard and Brown’s Bill fits neatly here as a likable loudmouth.
Elliott Nugent is at the opposite end of the spectrum playing the quiet and somewhat mysterious Francis. He was my favorite of the four main male characters, a man of few words, loyal to the core. Francis is so quiet that you could almost forget he's around if Nugent hadn't made him a character you were waiting to see more of. It’s very satisfying to see him unveil his talents during target practice later in the film.Finally, Walter Byron is an absolute sleaze as Frink, the unwanted fifth member of the crowd. From the first time we see him, when Cary offers a halfhearted greeting, we know he’s going to be trouble. Even Nikki doesn’t like him, going to the special trouble of peering at him through her glasses as though she can’t quite ever see him. Nikki has a sixth sense about Frink that proves to be correct on a few occasions. Unlike the other men, Frink has a job, and is largely defined by that responsibility in comparison to the rest of the group. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said of Byron’s despicable Frink is that he is so unpleasant that I'm not sure I believe that the others would even allow him to tag along.
The Last Flight is an immediate postscript to the War as well as a preview of the men who would soon be tabbed forgotten. You can witness the phases encountered by certain World War I veterans just by following Richard Barthelmess from The Dawn Patrol to The Last Flight to Heroes for Sale.
While The Last Flight originated as a pale imitation of an instant literary classic, it has over time become one of the best available movie representations of the Lost Generation.
Regarding the bit of trivia that has probably bugged you at every mention of the lead character’s name, yes, Cary Lockwood is the character that young Archie Leach played on Broadway just prior to taking the name Cary Grant in Hollywood. That stage version of the story, titled simply Nikki, offered another intriguing bit of casting with Mrs. John Monk Saunders, Fay Wray, starring as Nikki, a part she is said to have inspired.
The Last Flight is available as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive. Screen captures on this page come from my own copy recorded from Turner Classic Movies. The 1931 novel, Single Lady by John Monk Saunders, was reissued in 1976 before going out-of-print. Check Amazon for used copies.
- Goff, Jill Jividen. "Singling out John Monk Saunders: Hemingway's thoughts on an imitator." The Free Library 22 September 2008. 07 September 2014. < http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Singling out John Monk Saunders: Hemingway's thoughts on an imitator.-a0191011222 >.
- Variety. "Review: The Last Flight." 31 December 1930. Web. Variety.com. 6 September 2014. < http://variety.com/1930/film/reviews/the-last-flight-1200410394/ >.