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Featuring some of the most extraordinary footage of aerial derring-doever filmed, The Lost Squadron (1932) is a fascinating curio that serves up an eccentric mix of romance, tragedy and dark comedy while highlighting the stunt flying of its daredevil fliers. The idea of World War One fighter pilots desperately seeking employment after the war, only to wind up working as Hollywood stunt pilots for a dangerous and sadistic director named Artur von Furst (Erich von Stroheim), is an intriguing one. To make matters worse for the pilots (Richard Dix, Joel McCrea and Robert Armstrong), the director discovers that his wife (Mary Astor) is still in love with one of them from a previous romance. Soon we're involved in murder, revenge and madness, all of it topped by a variety of incredible action sequences simulating World War One dogfights.
Von Stroheim makes a formidable villain in The Lost Squadron and gives a performance that almost verges on self-parody: that military bearing, the monogrammed megaphones, his crazed and frenzied ordering of people every which way. "Fools! Idiots! Nitwits! ATTENTION! I am speaking now. I don't want to hear another sound. This is a war picture, not a musical comedy." While the Artur von Furst character is a fictitious director, the part could easily have been modeled on von Stroheim's own egotistical behavior on some of his past films. After all, he was billed years earlier by movie magnate Carl Laemmle as "The Man You Love to Hate."
Contrary to popular belief, von Stroheim was not the descendant of a noble Prussian military family, but the son of a Prussian Jewish hatter who had settled in Vienna. And, although he did serve briefly in the Austro-Hungarian army, he was not, as thought by a myth initiated by himself, a career officer in the cavalry. He entered the Hollywood film industry in 1914 and struggled for years playing bit parts that finally gained him recognition for his portrayals of stern and authoritative military men during WWI. However, after the Armistice, his services as an actor were in less demand and he turned to directing where he soon became known for his lavish productions and runaway budgets. Most of all, he was a fiend for perfection. As an example, in his epic melodrama Foolish Wives (1922,) he demanded that the studio build a life-size replica of Monte Carlo and give him money for filming birds in their flying patterns.
After filming his nine hour masterpiece Greed (1925) the studio cut it down to under three hours. This enraged von Stroheim, of course, but it still leaves us with one of the greatest silent films ever made. A few years later, while filming Queen Kelly (1929), von Stroheim became involved in a contentious relationship with star and producer Gloria Swanson and was removed from the picture by the actress before its completion. The film was later released in a heavily cut and reedited version that was not true to von Stroheim's original vision. Yet, his directing career wasn't over; he was assigned his first talkie in 1932 - Walking Down Broadway - but the movie was later shelved and remade by director Alfred Werker as Hello, Sister (1933).
After that, he returned to playing stiff Prussians and decadent aristocrats in both American and European productions. He is, of course, unforgettable as the cultured German commandant in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937) and equally memorable as Max the manservant in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). The latter role is particularly fascinating since it so closely mirrors his own career in Hollywood; Once a brilliant director, he is now reduced to working as a butler for his former lead actress. The fact that his co-star Gloria Swanson had worked with him twenty-two years earlier on their ill-fated Queen Kelly only makes the association cruelly ironic.
So while von Stroheim was just starting over again as a character actor in The Lost Squadron, Richard Dix, his co-star, was at the height of his career as a leading man. From 1929 to 1940 he made twenty-six pictures for RKO. The most important of which was Cimarron (1931) which would bring RKO its only Academy Awards for best picture and best screenplay. Though his acting in Cimarron seems rather broad and heavy handed by today's standards, Dix was nominated by the Academy that year for Best Actor. But by the mid-thirties, the studio had relegated him to a steady stream of B-movies and he never regained his star status, eventually dying in 1949 of a heart attack at the age of 55. Yet, at the time he made The Lost Squadron he was as big a box office draw as there was. And he makes a vivid impression as the strong, self-sacrificing lead stunt pilot.
A special mention goes to the fearless stuntmen behind the incredible aerialfeats in The Lost Squadron. Daredevil pilot Dick Grace not only wrote the storyupon which the screenplay was fashioned, but he was also the lead flier. His fellow stunt men were Art Goebel, Leo Nomis and Frank Clarke. Before computers and graphics manipulation, these men were the real deal. Imagine them showing up at the tiny Wilson airport in Van Nuys, California in the cool of morning, in 1932 to do their scenes. Imagine them as they climb into their aircrafts, which now look like ancient artifacts or boxes with wings - the Waco 10, the Bristol Fighters and others. Then imagine these men as they fly higher and higher into the sky, performing gravity-defying feats while risking their lives for the sake of a motion picture. For once the PR people at the studio were being truthful in their pre-film publicity for the film: "Wingmen of the Hollywood skies courting death.Plunging, zooming, climbing, crashing that a madman below might create on film the supreme thrill to shock the world."
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Wallace Smith, Robert R. Presnell, Sr.
Cinematography: Edward J. Cronjager, Elmer Dyer, Leo Tover
Costume Design: Max Ree
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Richard Dix (Capt. Gibson), Mary Astor (Follette Marsh), Joel McCrea (Red), Erich von Stroheim (Artur von Furst), Dorothy Jordan (The Pest), Robert Armstrong (Lt. Woody Curwood), Hugh Herbert (Fritz), Ralph Ince (Jettick).
by Joseph D'Onofrio