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Adapted from an acclaimed novel by French aviator/author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince) and populated by a Grand Hotel-caliber cast from the MGM talent roster--the Barrymore brothers, Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, and Robert Montgomery--the early air mail opus Night Flight (1933) had long been regarded as a Holy Grail for vintage cinema enthusiasts; when the author's grant of story rights to the studio lapsed in 1942, the film was consigned to the vaults, unexhibited for close to seventy years. Returning for public consumption in 2011 through the graces of TCM and Warner Home Video, Night Flight has proven somewhat rickety but still sky-worthy, offering some still-engaging aerial sequences, as well as the salvaged performances from the fan-favorite players.
Saint-Exupery's 1931 best-seller drew its inspiration from the author's experiences as a pilot and director during the formative years of the Argentinean commercial air service Aeroposta Argentina, and screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett had to expand the novel's spare, intimate narrative into an ensemble piece. Starting with a Rio hospital's plea to doctors in Santiago, Chile for delivery of much-needed serum, the scenario follows day one of a South American carrier's first venture into overnight delivery, where its pilots must deal with the heretofore unknown perils of flying after dark. Cracking the whip over the entire enterprise is the driven operations director Riviere (John Barrymore), determined to see all connections made seamlessly and demonstrating zero tolerance for any employee not holding up their end. A frequent target of his wrath is the middleman inspector Robineau (Lionel Barrymore), particularly over his penchant for getting chummy with the pilots he's supposed to reprimand.
The precious medicine makes the harrowing jump across the Andes and arrives at the company's Buenos Aires hub without incident, thanks to the aerial skill of the garrulous playboy Auguste Pellerin (Montgomery). More perilous, however, is the northbound east coastal run north from Punta Arenas, piloted by Jules Fabien (Gable), due to the unanticipated materialization of a vicious thunderstorm. With radio contact lost, and fully aware of how little fuel Fabien has left, Riviere tries to stonewall the airman's devoted wife Simone (Hayes) regarding the grim truth of his predicament.
For all the star power vested in casting Night Flight, the marquee names, on balance, have precious little interaction amongst themselves. Gable, in particular, is never seen outside the cockpit, and his exposition to co-pilot Leslie Fenton is primarily in the form of passed notes. Loy's participation comes primarily in the third act, as the worried wife of William Gargan, the flyer on the Buenos Aires-to-Rio leg. "We did that picture in bits and pieces, episodes with different characters who never met," Loy wrote in her 1987 autobiography Being and Becoming. "I didn't see Jack or Helen or anybody but Bill Gargan, whom I'd adored since The Animal Kingdom . We had a very nice scene as he goes off on a fatal flight, which everybody seemed to do in that picture." (Night Flight's long sequestration might have helped hinder Ms. Loy's recall; the movie's denouement clearly shows Gargan completing his mission safely.)
In her 1990 memoir My Life in Three Acts, Hayes recounted her trepidation over lensing her key scene opposite John Barrymore, when Madame Fabian confronts Riviere over the truth about her husband's fate. "John had a tempestuous personality and a well-deserved reputation for throwing people off, for unnerving even the most experienced actors...Determined to give him no cause to blow up at me if I could help it, I memorized my lines until I could say them in my sleep." The hard-living Barrymore was heavily reliant on cue cards by that point in his career, and while the crew had them ready, the take proceeded flawlessly. "Our director, Clarence Brown, was astonished," Hayes recollected. "'I can't believe it, John,' he said. 'You didn't need the idiot cards. What happened?' 'I was working with a real actress,' said John. 'I didn't want to make a goddamn fool of myself.' That, coming from John Barrymore, America's great actor, remains my favorite notice."
In crafting his performance as the conflicted inspector, Lionel Barrymore was disconcertingly relentless in embellishing the character's complaints of eczema by unrelievedly scratching at himself. The elder Barrymore's penchant for scene thievery by such maneuvers was the stuff of legend, and he probably took some particular delight in victimizing his matinee idol kid brother. The Jay Robert Nash/Stanley Ralph Ross/Robert B. Connelly Motion Picture Guide recounted how Brown bet John ten bucks that Lionel couldn't upstage him in the sequence where Riviere dressed down the hapless Robineau. "When the scene was shot, Lionel stood mute, his face twitching, his eyes rolling, but the script had silenced even his notorious whine. He turned to go, but when he reached the door...he reached his hand behind him and scratched his bottom. Beamed John to Brown: 'Now there, sir, is a brother to be proud of. Pay me the ten dollars!'"
Producer: Clarence Brown
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett (screenplay); Antoine de Saint-Exupry (novel)
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff; Cedric Gibbons (uncredited)
Music: Herbert Stothart
Film Editing: Hal C. Kern
Cast: John Barrymore (Riviere), Helen Hayes (Madame Fabian), Clark Gable (Jules), Lionel Barrymore (Robineau), Robert Montgomery (Auguste Pellerin), Myrna Loy (Wife of Brazilian pilot), William Gargan (Brazilian pilot), C. Henry Gordon (Daudet), Leslie Fenton (Jules' Radio Operator/Co-Pilot), Harry Beresford (Roblet).
by Jay S. Steinberg