"Fog... darkness.... surrounds us in its grip," John Barrymore intones at a row of aviation board trustee silhouettes, "but no more!" Above him glows a giant topological map of South America. He's sending brave boys like Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery flying over and through and around the Andes, up and down the South American coast from Rio down to Buenos Aires and he's prepared for the inevitable crashes against the mountains in the fog and at night. The mail must go out on time! This is history. This is happening! The trustees wince in fear -- Buenos Aires is fogged-in! And the Andes are dangerous even in clear daylight due to treacherous wind currents. But flights leave on schedule even in ceiling zero!
Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--the radio operator down below him passing notes back and forth--clears the clouds and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in a radio station of tango orchestra music on his operator's headphones, and looks up at the moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But this is no guarantee any pilot in this film is going to survive the night, though if any do, just our luck it will be dopey William Gargan. I don't mean to hate, but he don't deserve Myrna Loy! He leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper while he's off in the storm, worrying the maid and those averse to overly theatrical acting. Her endless sobs invite the same sort of passive sleepiness as the drone of the planes.
Long unseen due to expired author rights, Night Flight (1933) turns out to be quite modern, full of great cool midnight moments like this -- it never sleeps, we only see it wake. And so there's a real curious poetic-noir -- a film spent in the pajamas, if you will -- in a land where most everyone else is sound asleep.
To enhance the drama, there's some worried wives, the most floridly soapy of whom is Helen Hayes, inhabiting big ether-misted greenhouses of monologues, and bugging Barrymore to bring her man home in one piece, as if he can somehow stop the weather or the night. Even if he could, Barrymore refuses to let sentiment get in his way, and to bear out the need for these risky night flights there's a box of medicine for infantile paralysis that has to get to Rio by morning or a child will die! John doesn't even know that package is there, but he does know only a ruthless iron determination can create the impossible dream, and that night flights are already going on in Europe and North America and we have to keep up! Up! UP!
Aside from the beautiful muted poeticism there's a giddily unabashed look towards death that reminds me of The Little Prince, which makes sense since the book was written by aviator-poet Antoine de Saint Exupéry; you can tell its written by someone genuinely in love with the moon, almost painfully so, and with the freedom that comes from living on the lip of death. I am partial though, since films that occur in the middle of the night--that say fuck you to normal sleep schedules--really soothe my ruffled brow, and that for some stretches there's no talking in Night Flight at all, just the tick-tock of clocks and metronomes, the whoosh of turbulence, and weird ethereal vocalizing in amidst the lullaby soundtrack. Even the wives pining at home are helped by the silence deep dark spaces; their shadowy boudoirs are as expanseless as the moon and stars. And as they hover between life and death, love and loss, goodbyes and going back to sleep, a really dreamy, opiate sense of floating coheres.
While packed with MGM stars, ala Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, any sense of Night Flight being an ensemble film is undone by how seldomly two stars share one scene. The pilots are off on their own, up in the clouds, bathed in darkness, fog, and moonlight; their wives are home alone, eating dinner and crying into their champagne; over at the Buenos Aires air station, Barrymores try to hold it all together while gazing up at the big board and browbeating sleepy pilots. In his grim insistence on getting the mail out on time no matter how strongly the board members plead against it, Barrymore resembles Ahab (whom he played in The Sea Beast), whose single-minded pursuit of the white whale is mirrored in Barrymore's ruthless aligning of his dream to the very unassailable momentum of human progress:
Occurring over a 24 hour period, and mainly at night, there's a dreamy sense that everyone only imagines each other exists, they're all asleep and the empty night sky is the dream canvas. At home, the silence and dark tendrils of sleep seem to creep around Helen Hayes and gorgeous Myrna Loy like loving arms of night.Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!
Some of the comments around IMDB I think encapsulate what is wrong with the film as far as conventional drama, but for me these same 'flaws' are why the film's so cool and beguilingly strange, so lyrical and even a little sad. Michael Elliot writes:
I think the biggest problem is that the screenplay really isn't all that impressive and most of the drama never comes because the story never builds up any emotional connection to any of the people we meet. The Gable character is meant to be the backbone of the drama yet we never get to really meet him and we certainly never get to know him as all of his scenes are in the air and he's given very little dialogue.
But Michael, that's the point! These characters we meet in this period are all isolated, adrift in their little pocket of the world, sleeping in dark art deco rooms or crying in front of the nervous maid, waiting weeks for their husband to drift home for a few days where all he does is sleep and look wistfully out the window at that old devil sky. It's like the modern age is being born before our eyes and the sad faces of old widows and brides as their men take off to sea are frozen in amber honey and spread across die dunkelbrot nacht.
Kudos to TCM for rescuing this film via assisting in getting the licensing issues between Antoine de Saint Exupéry and MGM solved after 75 years in legal limbo. It's fitting, I guess that it was unseen--lost in the dark clouds of litigation--for so long. It adds to the mystery, you can feel the lack of eyes that have been laid on this, and while many critics and fans were perhaps expecting too much, I wasn't expecting anything except that it wouldn't measure up to the brilliance of another film about treacherous night flying over the Andes, Hawk's Only Angels Have Wings. And perhaps it's in the comparison wherein the Night Flight takes wing, the Fail Safe to Wings' Dr. Strangelove. In fact the two airlines could very well be connecting to each other along the South American flight plan! They might never meet, either, just a pilot once in awhile comes through, buys some drinks, and takes off again.
And you can find much breadth of vision between the two if you compare the warm camaraderie of Hawk's film, which takes place almost entirely in the cozy bar/saloon/airfield owned by Sig Rumann, with the shadowy isolation of the command center of Night Flight, wherein the only 'fun; moment occurs when Young and Dorothy Burgess drunkenly sing "How Dry I Am" as they drive up to the runway in her convertible. It's a single moment of merriment like a daring final laugh in the face of mortality, vs., say, a similar but post-mortem merriment, "The Peanut Vendor" in Angels (below), or the various macabre toasts, "Hurrah for the next who dies!" in the days of WWI pilots as seen in The Lost Patrol (see my analysis of the WWI anti-war aviation films of the early 30s). The sun is just coming up, and Young puts his flight suit on over his tuxedo and gives his girl in the convertible a farewell kiss, and off he goes, still drunk off his ass. Even in these early days of commercial cinema pilots went to work drunk! Why not? It's not like there are pedestrians or stop signs in the sky, and you're already taking your life in your hands just going up there. You need courage, by the quart if needed.
But now that planes can fly fly fly up high enough to coast right over the Andes, thanks to pressurized cabins (and even heroes like Denzel get dragged over the coals for cockpit drunkenness) the ways a man can sneer at mortality right into the history books have come few and far between. Only The Hurt Locker comes to mind. That film won an Oscar while Night Flight won only a 75-year shelving and disappointed critical reception when it was finally released. It's not perfect, but perfection can be boring. And the weird disconnect between all the stars' big scenes (like each was shot in a day or two on a soundstage where they didn't have to run into each other) is perfect for the subject matter. In careening through the inky blackness of the night sky instead of coasting through the inky dark dreams of sleep with their Argentine wives, these brave men of the air mail routes are, just like Exupéry's Little Prince, unbound up by the laws of gravity or sleep schedule convention, or the normal routines of human relationships, refusing to choose life over death or home life over the air or vice versa, and if they go down, they go like men, with only bobbing jellyfish parachutes for gravestones.
Other MGM star-studded prestige pics like Dinner at Eight may soar high in critical esteem but in its midnight confessional strangeness, Night Flight aces them in the dreamy disconnect department. It's so high up even the gorge is higher than a lot of films critics would put above it. Where conventional airplane dramas tend to just take a spin around the void, throw in some flares and then ride off back to safety, Night Flight plunges straight down into the black abyss, landing lights off, harpoons at the ready, all to get the postcards and insulin to Rio at the scheduled time. Call it crazy, call it suicide, but it's the kind of black art that stirs me up like Ahab's electric oratory. It's no surprise then that I'll defend the lonely black night beauty of this film though it crushes me to the core like gravity's ticking metronome...."There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar."
And, like flying itself, is often boring.