"Fog... darkness.... surrounds us in its grip," Barrymore intones, "but no more!" "Night flying is going on!" he yells at board trustee silhouettes while brooding up at a giant topological map of South America. 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!
Long unseen, Night Flight turns out to be quite modern. It has a weird, great musical score with touches of weird Yma Sumac-style singing and striking, muted poeticism in the winsome moment where Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--clears the clouds 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.
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, 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!
But those places don't have to contend with the treacherous Andes, where fog and storms can roll down out of nowhere and spill over the coastline where the planes fly without a word of warning.
A memorable poetic bit involves Young's slow, careful dismounting from his plane after a flight where he nearly crashed deep in a canyon in the Andes. Bumming a cigarette from the prop man and slyly kissing of the ground while he tests the struts, Young tells him that an "air current... dropped me into a canyon... just missed the rocks. It's as if the mountains were crouching ready to spring at ya.... not a thing moved... almost too quiet.... as if a secret...." and he catches himself, pulling back from conjuring a silent demon incarnation of the Andes; the high strangeness of almost dying in the middle of nowhere without a creature stirring for hundreds of miles and how the landscape itself starts to seem like some giant, sentient ambivalent god (maybe if you've ever driven through an empty stretch of Montana or Wyoming while almost out of gas you too know that fear). "It's too good to be alive... on such a night." Young says, and his gratitude-drenched sardonic laugh feels real and beautiful. Lionel tries to cow him with threats of fines for being ten minutes late, but Young's so glad to be alive the idea of losing 200 francs (why they don't use pesos since they're in Buenos Aires is anyone's guess) is as worrisome as a soft cloud of music. Capturing this feeling of gratitude and chillness, Young is unusually marvelous. Like Gable--still up in the air--Young conveys the joy of landing in one piece, and having a cigarette.
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 seldom more than two big 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; and in 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 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, unique, and 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 the 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 and lack of favor, 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 and wound up disappointed, 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, Only Angels Have Wings. And perhaps it's in the comparison 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 plans! 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 WW1 pilots as seen in The Lost Patrol. 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, otherwise you'd buckle and crash like a card house of nerves.
But now that planes can fly fly fly up high enough to coast right over the Andes, 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 as far as men deliberately facing death on a daily (or nightly basis). 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 instread 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.
Some lines from Moby Dick maybe encapsulate the true kernel of poetic treasure within the seemingly disparate scenes of Night Flight:
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 diconnect department. Where they all take a spin around the void, throw in some flares and then ride off back to safety, Night Flight plunges straight down into it, 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.... and, like flying itself, in spots is just plain boring."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."