"Fog... darkness.... surrounds us like a prison," intones John Barrymore to a row of aviation board trustee silhouettes, "but no more!" Above him glows a giant topological map of South America, like a comforting artsy lighthouse beacon. He's sending brave pilots like Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery over and through and around the Andes, up and down the South American coast from Rio down to Buenos Aires, even with zero visibility in the dead of night and he's prepared for the inevitable crashes but not for a minute lateness or a single mechanical slip-up. 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! And the planes aren't all fancy like the poster above, they're bi-planes, and Andes' air currents hit them "like an elevator!" (there's some exhilarating aerial footage of Mongtomery's little plane bobbing up and down in the wind currents over endless white caps). Gazing contemptuously one last time in their piddling humanitarian direction, Barrymore snarls at the row: "In spite of ya, night flying is going on!" adding "if it wasn't for me you'd still have one plane, a ferry service across the river to Montevideo." Yo, I took a real ferry across that river! Montevideo is a real mess, and it's huge- the ferry took three hours -- and its entirety is light coffee brown! When the water sprays up it turns the whole sky a surreal setting sun pink...
Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic and modern meditation, full of great cool midnight moments, particularly Robert Montgomery, who comes in from nearly dying in the valley between two mountains with a kind of calm benevolence, the realization he's lucky to be alive, that's contagious. Unfolding over one long night it has curious poetic-noir fairy tale qualities-- a film spent in the pajamas, if you will, occurring in a land where most everyone else is sound asleep, recalling They Shoot Horses Don't They? and nothing else. So there's Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction--clears the fog 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 so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Just our luck if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust! And now he's got the divine Myrna Loy, and 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, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting. Her endless sobs invite the same sort of passive sleepiness as the drone of the planes. "Like an elevator!"
But oh, there are some worried wives, the coolest of whom is Myrna Loy (of course) married to most uncool man (Gargan) and the most uncool (Hayes) inhabiting big ether-misted greenhouses of monologues, 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. He doesn't even know that package of medicine waiting in a foggy Buenos Aires for the Rio-bound plane, 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 that book too was written by aviator-poet Antoine de Saint Exupéry; you can tell its written by someone genuinely in love with the moon, the night, flying, the Andes and living on the lip of death. I like death too films that occur in the middle of the night--that say fuck you to normal sleep schedules--really soothe my ruffled brow, and I love 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, it's like my white noise machine in film form. Even the wives pining at home are helped by the deep dark spaces; their shadowy boudoirs are like big warm airy wombs. And as they all hover between life and death, love and loss, goodbyes and going back to sleep, a really dreamy, opiate sense of floating coheres.
While it's 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 two stars share more than 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, lecturing abstract silhouettes, and fining sleepy pilots, as if each actor only imagines the others exists but in reality 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 whining Helen Hayes and gorgeous Myrna Loy like loving arms of night. In the air the moon is the like a big comforting mother cradling the plane like a baby, and the BA tango music picked up on the radio is perfect in its ghostly lullaby allure.
Some of the comments around IMDB encapsulate what is wrong with the film as far as conventional drama, and they are all quite right, but for me personally these same 'flaws' are why the film's so cool and beguiling. 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 moon. It's like the modern age is being born before our eyes and the sad faces of the old widows and brides as their men take off to sea in Moby Dick are here frozen at their fullest blossom in nightshade honey and spread across die dunkelbrot nacht.
So thanks, TCM, for rescuing this film, and assisting in getting the licensing issues between Exupéry and MGM resolved, allowing it to emerge from its 75 years inside the dark cloud legal limbo like Amelia Earhart. We can almost feel the lack of eyes that have been laid on this, the way it feels is like a person comfortable with being a lonely artist, most awake and productive in the hours between midnight and dawn, when everyone else is asleep so they don't clog the airwaves with petty junk, and he can subliminally harness their dreamy calm. Many critics and fans who've wanted to see it for decades 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, as 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 Barranca, buys some drinks, waits til the storm clears, 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, "The Peanut Vendor" in Angels, or the various macabre toasts, "Hurrah for the next who dies!" in The Lost Patrol (see my analysis of the WWI anti-war aviation films of the early 30s). In this one, the song comes when 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 into the horizon, 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. And god knows you can't even be nice to Lionel Barrymore's inspector, lest brother John hear about it and break up the friendship with petty fines, so that it will be easier sending the boys into their death. What a dick.
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 opportunities for a man to sneer at mortality are far between. And the weird disconnect between all the stars' big scenes (like each actor 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, 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, if they go down, they go like men, with only bobbing jellyfish parachutes for gravestones, free forever of their overbearing bourgeois wives.
Like those birds on the plain, other MGM star-studded prestige pics like Dinner at Eight may soar critical esteem but they're in familiar ground, while Night Flight--even when it nosedives, is way up in its own gyre. 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.