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Second-string pictures that mimic the success of blockbusters are usually disappointing, but obviously inspired by the success of MGM's big-budget Test Pilot (1938), which starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy, producers at RKO put the aerial drama Sky Giant (1938) into production and turned out a rather entertaining B-picture with some exciting action sequences. The story has the standard elements: hard-boiled commanding officer, tough pro pilot training a group of cocky young recruits, one cocky young recruit who happens to be the son of the hard-boiled commander, and a beautiful young woman who inspires a romantic rivalry. But director Lew Landers, working with a script Lionel Houser adapted from his own story (with the far less crowd-drawing title "Ground Crew"), pulled together a production that earned critical praise and a tidy profit.
At this point in her career, Joan Fontaine, barely 21, was still playing roles that required little more than being the pretty young thing. It would be another two years before her breakthrough performances in two Alfred Hitchcock films, Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), which earned her the Academy Award many felt she should have won for the earlier Hitchcock role. But she works well with her two male leads as they vie for attention. In a few short years she would command enough clout to co-star with the likes of Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier and Charles Boyer. But her leading men in Sky Giant, while never among the top rank of Hollywood actors, were no amateurs. Richard Dix had been in films since early silent days and was a popular star at RKO from 1929 on. Although he never reached major stardom, he commanded the screen throughout his 30-year career in a series of hit pictures, many of them action programmers, and received an Academy Award nomination for his work in the western Cimarron (1931).
The younger Chester Morris made his screen debut at 16 in 1917 and worked steadily on stage, big screen, radio and television right up until he died in 1970 (in fact, he was appearing at Bucks County Playhouse in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial at the time of his death). His greatest success came in a series of 13 movies in the 1940s in which he played the retired safecracker and amateur sleuth Boston Blackie. He received a Best Actor Oscar® nomination for Alibi (1929). Morris also occupies a special footnote in Hollywood history; in 1951 he was witness to the deathbed confession of his friend Roland West for the 1935 murder of actress Thelma Todd.
One other minor curiosity in the cast: the character of Edna, the commander's secretary, is played by Vicki Lester, which is the name of the character played by Janet Gaynor as the rising young actress in A Star Is Born (1937). The real-life Lester made her film debut that same year. It's not known whether her screen name was inspired by that of Gaynor's character in the hit picture. Unlike her fictional namesake, who became one of the biggest stars in the Hollywood depicted in William Wellman's picture, Lester never played more than a supporting part in a career that lasted just five years.
Much of Sky Pilot was filmed at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, CA. Reviewers at the time noted striking similarities between the climactic "Arctic mapping" flight made by the characters in this picture and the trans-world flight of millionaire aviator and film producer Howard Hughes, completed shortly before the film's preview screening. In fact, at a production meeting after the preview, it was suggested that the studio's advertising department use newsreel footage of Hughes's record-breaking flight in the movie's trailer. Hughes used a twin-engine Lockheed, one of three types of planes seen in this movie.
Director: Lew Landers
Producer: Robert Sisk
Screenplay: Lionel Houser, from his story "Ground Crew"
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Harry Marker
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Roy Webb (uncredited)
Cast: Richard Dix ("Stag" Cahill), Chester Morris (Ken Stockton), Joan Fontaine (Meg Lawrence), Harry Carey (Col. Stockton), Paul Guilfoyle (Ferguson).
by Rob Nixon