Until its recent showing at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, and the unveiling of this DVD, Night Flight hadn’t been shown publicly since the 1930s. It’s been on many film buffs’ wish list for years and years, given its all-star cast and pedigree (based on Antoine de St. Exupéry’s acclaimed novel, directed by Clarence Brown, produced by David O. Selznick, with a screenplay by the solid and prolific Oliver H.P. Garrett). That it isn’t a masterpiece is only a slight disappointment. It’s quite good, and what is more important, it represents a genuine attempt by Selznick and MGM to bring intelligence and some of the source material’s literary quality to a mainstream movie.
Selznick prided himself on his literary adaptations, and with good reason: at MGM he made Dinner at Eight, from the Broadway play, and two—
—classic Dickens films, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, which managed to retain the heart and soul of those wonderful but densely-written books. With Night Flight he had a different challenge, translating St. Exupéry’s passages about the feeling of flight itself, and here the film is most impressive.
After a grueling trip over the Andes Mountains, Robert Montgomery lands safely, and a member of the ground crew asks, in cursory fashion, “Was it a tough trip?” Montgomery nods and lingers, smoking a cigarette and pondering what he’s just experienced. How often did a Hollywood movie ever pause to show thought or contemplation? In a similar vein, when pilot Clark Gable manages to dodge a severe storm by taking his aircraft high above the clouds, he shows his exhilaration by pulling off his headgear and looking straight up to the sky, as if to breathe in the freedom he feels.
Night Flight is also impressive for two components that one might not expect to stand out: its visual effects and its music. The first imaginative visual occurs during the main titles, in which a biplane sky-writes the tail of the letter T in Flight. Since so much of the story takes place in the air, with pilots Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery, there is a great deal of aviation footage, some of it genuine (although almost surely NOT filmed in South America) and some of it using rear-projection. An interesting narrative device repeated several times in the picture—and using an optical effect—shows a “parade” of people in different settings on the ground, to illustrate the vast landscape covered by pilots as they fly their air-mail routes. (Oddly some shots that show the shadow of a plane passing overhead are genuine, while others are patently phony.)
The movie is far from perfect. John Barrymore is saddled with a one-note character, the hard-nosed, single-minded managing director of a South American air mail company who cares more about meeting schedules and proving that night flight is feasible than he does the safety of his men. His brother Lionel has an equally superficial role as the ground supervisor who suffers from eczema. And Helen Hayes is a bit much as the perfect wife who dresses up and all but dances around her apartment awaiting husband Clark Gable’s arrival home for dinner.
But Gable, in an almost wordless role, commands the screen, as does Montgomery, as a playboy who lives it up when he’s not in the cockpit. Myrna Loy is good as the suffering spouse of another flyboy, William Gargan. And there are worthy contributions from the supporting cast, as well, especially Frank Conroy, who is quietly expressive as the stoic telegraph operator who relays information—both mundane and urgent—to and from the pilots. The movie ends with a stirring title card that is meant to help soften the blow of an unhappy outcome for audiences of the time, but the fact that MGM was willing to do it at all stands to the studio’s credit.
When Irving Thalberg put a galaxy of the studio’s stars in Grand Hotel, in 1932, it was considered a huge gamble, “squandering” so much marquee talent on one picture. But the gamble paid off, and Selznick repeated the idea, first in Dinner at Eight and then in this film.
In summing up his career at MGM upon leaving the company, David O. Selznick lamented that Gable was forced upon him and was miscast, but overall “I thought it was a fine picture…” for which he had “no apologies.” I disagree about Gable, but can’t argue with the producer’s assessment: Night Flight was a departure from the norm that is still worthy of admiration today.
P.S. Included on the new DVD from Warner Home Video are a pair of contemporary short subjects, the Harman-Ising cartoon When the Cat’s Away and Swing High, a one-reel “specialty” narrated by Pete Smith in his distinctive manner. It features an aerial act called the Flying Cordonas and shoots their impressive trapeze stunts from camera angles I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. It’s worth a look.