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The precise authorship of The Dawn Patrol (1930) is a bit of a bone of contention. Novelist and playwright John Monk Saunders got sole credit and an Academy Award for Best Original Story in 1931. In later years, director Howard Hawks claimed the idea had been his and that he had set it in Monk's lap, initializing the collaboration but refusing any credit. When aviator turned film director Howard Hughes brought forth a plagiarism suit, claiming Hawks and Saunders had cadged particular elements from his similar Hell's Angels (1930), Saunders swore in a deposition that the idea for The Dawn Patrol had come from the recollections of humorist Irvin S. Cobb, who had known a cadre of Royal Flying Corps pilots during World War I, and from his own interactions with former British and Canadian flyers during his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University between 1919 and 1920.
Certainly, the idea for a film about the comradeship and courage of RFC flyers during the First World War had come from Hawks, who envisioned it as a vehicle for Ronald Colman. First refusal went to the Samuel Goldwyn Company, with Hawks collaborating on a treatment with Saunders that bore the interim title "The Flight Commander." When Goldwyn passed on the project, Hawks sold the property to First National Pictures at Warner Brothers - but not before David O. Selznick at Paramount had tried to buy the treatment directly from John Monk Saunders. Unaware that Hawks had contributed to the story, Selznick saw "The Flight Commander" as the perfect picture for William Wellman, director of the silent Wings (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. When Wellman demurred, and Selznick was apprised of the story's pedigree, his contrite appeal to the understandably bitter Hawks fell on deaf ears.
Hawks sold "The Flight Commander" to Warner Brothers for $10,000 (the exact amount that he had paid Saunders for the rights) and the promise of an $18,000 director's fee (flat rate). To adapt the material, Hawks brought in Seton I. Miller from Paramount and later retained Dan Totheroh, who had seen combat in France during the war, to sharpen the dialogue among the flyers. Instead of Ronald Colman, Hawks was offered Wings star Richard Barthelmess. Barthelmess used his celebrity clout to bring on his cameraman of choice, Ernest Haller, while Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was tapped to play the brash young pilot to Barthelmess' soot-stained veteran. Hawks himself suited up in flying gear to play the German pilot who goes gunning for Barthelmess in the film's thrilling conclusion.
The Dawn Patrol began shooting on the last day of February 1930, with exteriors filmed in Newhall and Sherwood Forest, California, and at the Van Nuys Airport. Knowing of the Hughes film (which went into production in 1927 as a silent and was by this time being retrofitted for sound), Hawks retained Hughes' aerial cameraman, Elmer Dyer, to lens the combat scenes. When Hughes was made aware of this, he attempted to stall production of The Dawn Patrol by various measures, including but not restricted to bribing a First National secretary for a copy of the shooting script and, later, attempting to buy up all the remaining vintage World War I planes in California so there would be none left for Hawks. With the threat of further litigation bouncing between Hughes and Warners associate producer Hal Wallis, The Dawn Patrol was rushed through postproduction to a July 10, 1930 opening.
The Dawn Patrol was an instant success, one of the studio's most profitable films that year. (Although Hell's Angels was also a popular success, Hughes could never hope to recoup the $1.3 million he had spent over the course of three years; by comparison, The Dawn Patrol had cost just a tick above $600,000.) Hughes' plagiarism suit went before a district court judge, who arranged back-to-back screenings of Hell's Angels and The Dawn Patrol and ruled in favor of Warners. Hollywood legend maintains that Hawks and Hughes ultimately settled their differences over 18 amicable but no less competitive holes of golf. The success of both films spawned a fleet of copycats while The Dawn Patrol's influence extends to such unexpected corners as the classic Monty Python sketch about indecipherable RAF banter and Charles Shultz's cartoon beagle Snoopy, who fancies himself a World War I flying ace.
In 1938, Warners remade The Dawn Patrol with Errol Flynn and David Niven in the lead roles, maximizing their profit potential by reusing aerial footage (and the script) from the Hawks original. The 1930 version was retitled Flight Commander for re-release and that was how the film was known in its years of television replay.
Producer: Robert North
Director: Howard Hawks
Story: John Monk Saunders
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller, Dan Totheroh
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Aerial Photography: Elmer Dyer
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Dick Courtney), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Douglas Scott), Neil Hamilton (Maj. Brand), William Janney (Gordon Scott), James Finlayson (Field Sergeant), Clyde Cook (Bott), Gardner James (Ralph Hollister), Edmund Breon (Lt. Phipps), Frank McHugh (Flaherty), Howard Hawks (Von Richter).
by Richard Harland Smith
Howard Hawks, the Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy (Grove Press, 2000)
Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars by Bernard F. Dick (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004)
On the Other Hand: A Life Story by Fay Wray (Trafalgar Square, 1990)
The American Film Institute Catalogue