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The Flying Irishman

The Flying Irishman(1939)

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teaser The Flying Irishman (1939)

The year 1939 is generally considered the peak of the American cinema and the studio system due to its abundance of certified classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Ninotchka and many more. The Flying Irishman, released that same year, is not one of them. It is, however, an offbeat historical account of an authentic American folk hero, Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, whose nickname still resonates long after people have forgotten who he is or what he did. The film also works as a curiosity piece and provides some unintentional humor due to the casting of Corrigan himself in the title role.

He was born Clyde Corrigan, Jr. in Texas in 1907. According to the movie, his hard-working Pennsylvania Dutch mother changed the boy's name after the ne'er-do-well Clyde Sr. walked out on the family. The implication is that young Doug became a celebrity aviator through a mixture of his mother's earnest determination and his father's devil-may-care recklessness. It's hard to tell, though, from Corrigan's performance. He may have been a great pilot but, as an actor, he fails to register what were surely the big emotional moments of his life: his mother's death, the tense perils of his famous trans-Atlantic flight, etc. Watching Corrigan try to appear natural while doing something as simple as smiling or just standing is both funny and painful, and really makes one appreciate the deceptive ease professional actors bring to their work.

Corrigan's forte, of course, was flying, and the picture chronicles that effectively. At times it even captures some of the excitement and homespun hero worship of the early days of aviation during the transition from the freewheeling barnstorming days to a regulated industry marked by the occasional mavericks and risk-takers (Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes) who made headlines with daring feats. The story, scripted by Ernest Pagano and future Hollywood Ten writer Dalton Trumbo, also makes clear how the new restrictions and licensing requirements of the industry directly led to Corrigan's famous feat.

After years of laboring as a pilot, mechanic, and plane builder (including work on the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Lindbergh flew solo to Paris in 1927), Corrigan bought a used plane and jerry-rigged it for long flights, installing extra fuel tanks that blocked his forward field of vision. Eager to fly solo across the ocean to Ireland, Corrigan applied to the federal government for permission in 1935. His application was denied, however, because officials claimed the plane was not sound enough to make the non-stop journey. It was, however, certified for cross-country journeys, and he made several of them.

On July 17, 1938, Corrigan took off from Floyd Bennett Field in New York, ostensibly for a return trip to California. Instead he headed east and continued over the Atlantic, landing at Baldonnel Airport in Dublin after 28+ hours. Aviation regulators sent him a 600-word telegram detailing all the rules he had broken, but Corrigan insisted he had made the trip with poor visibility, a broken compass, and no idea he was heading east until 26 hours into his flight. Although he stood by that story for the rest of his life, The Flying Irishman makes it fairly obvious that the "mistake" was intentional. That, however, did not stop him from becoming a worldwide source of good-natured humor the New York Post printed the headline about his feat backwards and his nickname turned up for years thereafter as comical asides in such TV shows as Gilligan's Island and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Corrigan did nothing to dispel the idea that he had gone the wrong way. Partly this was due to the threat of punishment and loss of his license (he had gotten off easy with a 20-day suspension), but it was also obvious that the public regarded him a hero (his New York ticker tape parade was attended by more people than the crowds that celebrated Lindbergh's victory). Error or not, they recognized his brave and daring accomplishment in a cheap used plan that had been rebuilt, as journalist H.R. Knickerbocker wrote at the time, "as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates." Corrigan endorsed "wrong way" products, such as a watch that ran backwards, and published an autobiography, My Story. And he stuck to his account of the flight until his death in 1995. Not surprisingly, he never appeared in another movie, although he did show up as a contestant on a 1957 episode of the game show To Tell the Truth.

The Flying Irishman was shot by J. Roy Hunt, better known for the noir drama Crossfire (1947) and the Astaire-Rogers musical Flying Down to Rio (1933), in which an air show is the basis for a big production number. Many of The Flying Irishman's scenes were filmed at airports in Van Nuys and Culver City.

Director: Leigh Jason
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Ernest Pagano, Dalton Trumbo
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editing: Arthur E. Roberts
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Douglas Corrigan (Himself), Paul Kelly (Butch), Robert Armstrong (Joe Alden), Eddie Quillan (Henry Corrigan), Joyce Compton (Sally).

by Rob Nixon

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