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West Point of the Air

West Point of the Air(1935)

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teaser West Point of the Air (1935)

At the time of its release, one critic said of West Point of the Air (1935), "the story has more tributaries than the Mississippi River." And there is a little something for everyone in this drama, which focuses on a different aspect of the military academy than other films usually do the training of pilots for air combat. It's an action picture with some well-handled aerial sequences, a love story with the essential young hero/good girl/bad girl triangle, a father-son relationship drama, and a rousing celebration of U.S. Army traditions and achievements. The combination proved to be a real crowd-pleaser and helped confirm West Point as one of the most utilized settings for motion pictures.

Wallace Beery plays Big Mike, an old sergeant who hopes to make a man of his son, Little Mike (Robert Young), by pushing him to become a top flier. The callow youth, however, disappoints him at every turn throwing over sweet Skip (Maureen O'Sullivan) for no-good temptress Dare (Rosalind Russell), carousing when he should be studying, getting his father court-martialed and dishonorably discharged, and causing another plane to crash. But in the end, spurred on by Skip's love and the stern but fatherly guidance of General Carter (Lewis Stone), Little Mike comes through, saving his father's life and earning his wings.

For a fairly routine release of its era, West Point of the Air has, in retrospect, quite an impressive credit list, featuring players in supporting roles and crew members who would go on to become some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Director Richard Rosson (whose siblings included silent film star Helene, director Arthur, and top cinematographer Hal) was certainly at home with stories of men in action, having been a second-unit director on a number of Howard Hawks films. He was also credited as co-director with Hawks on Scarface (1932) and Today We Live (1933), which featured Gary Cooper as a World War I flying ace. Beery was then one of the biggest stars in the business and an Oscar-winner for another father-son drama, The Champ (1931). Young (known to TV audiences a generation later as Marcus Welby and for the title role of Father Knows Best) and O'Sullivan (already famous as Tarzan's Jane and later as the mother of Mia Farrow) were rising young players; he had just co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in Spitfire (1934), and she had made her mark in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and David Copperfield (1935).

But today we're more likely to remember the film careers of two cast members in smaller roles. Rosalind Russell, in only her second year as a film actress, was just starting her career at MGM, where she would take on a lot of second-leads throughout the 1930s, usually playing sophisticated women (the "Lady Mary" parts she jokingly called them, where she had to say "rahther" a lot). Here she's incongruously cast as the bad girl with the odd but evocative name Dare. But true to the versatility she displayed throughout her long and varied career, Russell gave the part her all, causing one reviewer to note that her ultimately dumped temptress was "much the hotter number" of the two female love interests in the picture. Robert Taylor was also in his second year on screen. At this point, MGM executives didn't think much of his acting (an opinion Taylor agreed with throughout his career) and saw him only as a pretty face that photographed well. Although his role in this picture amounts to little more than a bit part, within two years he would be courting the likes of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Greta Garbo in some of the biggest hit films of the time. Also watch for character actor and three-time Oscar-winner Walter Brennan in a tiny part as another member of the Army Air Corps.

Director: Richard Rosson
Producer: Monta Bell
Screenplay: Arthur J. Beckhard, Frank Wead, based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness and John Monk Saunders
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna, Charles A. Marshall, Elmer Dyer
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: H.R. Campbell, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Charles Maxwell
Cast: Wallace Beery (Big Mike), Robert Young (Little Mike), Maureen O'Sullivan (Skip Carter), Lewis Stone (General Carter), Rosalind Russell (Dare), Robert Taylor (Jaskerelli).

by Rob Nixon

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