Judge Daryl Loomis really wishes this was about the Led Zeppelin song.
Every night men stride the high, dark clouds…bearing hope to the anxious…strength to the weak…solace to the dying.
A young boy lies sick in Brazil, on the verge of death. The hospital is out of the life-savings serum he needs and the nearest vial is all the way in Peru. To get it in time, a brave pilot must fly overnight across the Andes with no lights to guide him and a storm brewing in the sky. If the pilot can make it, not only will the child get the medicine he needs, it will mark a new era in the young history of flight.
When Night Flight arrived in theaters in 1933, there was still some danger and novelty in airplane travel. Now, though, there is only nostalgia about a time when flying was easy and fun. Upon its release, I'm sure the move seemed exotic, drawing gasps from crowds at the aerial heroics. Indeed, it was a big hit for MGM at the time. Today, it looks like a bunch of airplane stock footage, which, of course, it was.
Night Flight actually features a pair of pilots, each on separate missions to deliver the mail. Neither story is very interesting and both are decidedly lacking in drama or suspense. The first involves this kid's medicine, but the two scenes involving him are the very first and the very last, making me strongly suspect that they were bookends added to give the film a shred of human drama. That story features Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake) as the pilot and Myrna Loy (Petticoat Fever) as his free-wheeling girlfriend. The second plot, which involves a flight entering a storm with only an hour of fuel left and far more distance to travel, features Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind) in a near wordless, and near pointless, role as the pilot. His wife is played by Helen Hayes (A Farewell to Arms) and she cries a lot. In between, we have John Barrymore (Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman) as calloused owner of the airmail company, and his brother Lionel (West of Zanzibar) as an inspector for the company who likes hanging out with the pilots. The giant-sized cast was clearly much of the draw for audiences, but like Grand Hotel the year before, it proves incredibly difficult to manage all of these stars, and the film is crushed under their weight.
Director Clarence Brown (National Velvet) relies heavily on the flying scenes to develop suspense. I can imagine these moments working upon release, but today they feel incredibly flat. When it cuts from wide angle stock footage of a plane flying through the mountains to a tight close up of Clark Gable in a fake plane in front of awful looking rear projection, it throws the lack of nuance and subtlety of both the technology and the execution. The movie at large has the same trouble. With the glowering bosses, carefree flyboys, and weepy wives, Night Flight becomes one giant cliche, filled to the rim with stock footage.
Warner Bros.' DVD for Night Flight is fairly strong. The image transfer, while not perfect, is good for a film of its age. This is the first time the film has appeared on DVD, and the producers have done a good job of making the print clean. There is still the occasional bit of damage and an overall uneven grain structure, especially in the aerial scenes, but it looks quite a bit better than I expected. The sound is an acceptable mono mix with relatively clear dialog, but nothing more. As extras, we get a short film about trapeze artists and a cartoon, both of which are better than the film itself. A decent package for a lame duck film.
Night Flight is officially grounded. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Short Film
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