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In just 61 minutes, the 1934 action film Murder in the Clouds pits reckless flyer Lyle Talbot against enemy agents in a fight over a new explosive that takes them to the skies, the mountaintops and the bars of the Warner Bros. back lot and its environs. Typical of many aviation films of the period, the film depicts commercial flying as a high-stakes game perfect for hot-heads like Talbot's Bob 'Three Star' Halsey, who keeps getting grounded for daredevil stunts but always comes through when they need someone for a life-risking assignment. In addition, it offers a brief yet fascinating glimpse of air travel in an era before in-flight movies and luxury class accommodations.
The script teamed freelance writer Dore Schary, who was averaging $250 a script at the time, with studio writer Roy Chanslor. It re-cycled a typical Warner's plot - a carefree hero whose excesses discredit him until he saves the day in the end. This time, instead of a soldier, federal agent or college athlete, the hero is an airplane captain and his problem is a weakness for gambling. Schary wrote this shortly after being fired from MGM, a daredevil habit of his own (he would be fired from MGM three times, the last after six years as production head). Because of his ability to write quickly and effectively, he had no trouble supporting himself with freelance assignments like this.
Lyle Talbot's presence at the top of the cast list is a sure indicator that this was intended as a B film. The veteran of stage and vaudeville had found work easily in the early days of talking pictures, but he rarely made it beyond supporting roles in A pictures. Eventually, he would spend most of his career in B movies, though that gave him the chance to become the screen's first Commissioner Gordon (in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin) and the first Lex Luthor (in another serial, Superman vs. the Atom Man ). Eventually he would become a regular performer in Ed Wood's poverty row-classics, including Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). One reason for his move into low-budget production may have been his prominent role in the creation of the Screen Actor's Guild. A frequent agitator for better working conditions, Talbot was the first contract player at Warner's to join the new union.
Equally rebellious was leading lady Ann Dvorak. A prominent figure in early talkies, particularly as Paul Muni's doomed sister in Scarface (1932), Dvorak had started out as one of Warner's top leading ladies. But when she found out the child actor playing her son in Three on a Match (1932) was making as much as she, she raised a ruckus. She also complained about the many pedestrian productions she had to do for each solid role, and before long was eclipsed by another Three on a Match co-star, the equally feisty Bette Davis. By the time she left Warner's in the late '30s, Dvorak roles were getting smaller, along with the budgets of most of her films.
Of course, the real star of Murder in the Clouds was Elmer Dyer, an accomplished aerial photographer who had worked on the original version of The Dawn Patrol (1930). His flight sequences were so spectacular that one actually precedes the film's titles, a rarity in '30s films. Never known to use a good sequence only once, Warner's would recycle the flight scenes from Murder in the Clouds in later B films about aviation.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Screenplay: Roy Chanslor, Dore Schary
Cinematography: Warren Lynch
Music: Ray Heindorf, Bernhard Kaun
Art Direction: Jack Holden
Principal Cast: Lyle Talbot (Bob 'Three Star' Halsey), Ann Dvorak (Judy Wagner), Gordon Westcott (George Wexley), Robert Light (Tom Wagner), George Cooper (Wings Mahoney), Henry O'Neill (John Brownell).
by Frank Miller