powered by AFI
An MGM entry in the war effort, Pilot No. 5 (1943) was not a major release or a big hit but managed to pull off a story that was out of the usual war film mold. Franchot Tone plays a pilot who volunteers for a suicide mission against a Japanese aircraft carrier. While he is in the air en route to his target, his friends and associates recall the events that brought him to this point. Gene Kelly plays an Italian-American serviceman who knows the deepest details of the story, namely that Tone was a successful lawyer who unwittingly became involved with a right-wing politician (modeled after notorious Louisiana Governor Huey Long) and ruined his own career to expose the would-be despot's corruption. He joins the service when the war breaks out to pursue his obsession with stamping out the kind of fascism he saw rearing its head in the politician's career. The original script's emphasis on home-grown fascism, however, was slightly defanged to focus more on abuses of political power abroad.
This was only the second film for Gene Kelly after an auspicious debut opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942). He was happy to take it on to show the studio he could handle straight dramatic parts as well as musicals but later said he thought that because of his eagerness to prove himself and hold his own against Tone, he tended to overact in the picture. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the experience and was glad to be working with pal Van Johnson, who would soon have much more success breaking out of the ranks of supporting players in another doomed-pilot war film, A Guy Named Joe (1943), with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne.
In contrast to Kelly's beginnings at the studio where he would remain a major star for years to come, this was the end of the line for Franchot Tone and MGM. Born into a family of wealth and privilege, Tone began his career on stage and signed with the studio for his second film, Howard Hawks's Today We Live (1933). Despite an abundance of talent, intelligence and ambition to play roles of greater range and complexity, Tone was relegated to mostly bland leading man assignments, shepherding the studio's A-list female stars, most often Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford, to whom he was married from 1935 to 1939. He had a couple of breakout opportunities with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935, on loan to Paramount) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, along with fellow cast members Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. But MGM soon had him back in run-of-the-mill pictures, and after Fast and Furious (1939), he left. Pilot No. 5 was his first time back at the studio in four years, and he never worked there again.
Pilot No. 5 was produced by what became known as "the Schary Unit," after Dore Schary, a young writer whose ambitious ideas to make quality B pictures so impressed studio head Louis B. Mayer that he made Schary a production chief. Schary's specialty became "programmers," lower-budget films that were somewhere between A and B pictures and meant to be either at the top or bottom of a double bill, depending on the region and companion feature. Pilot No. 5 was made by the unit close on the heels of another wartime drama, Journey for Margaret (1942), a major hit that made a star of the studio's most prominent child actor, Margaret O'Brien. Schary, whose notions of worthy properties and left-wing ideals often put him in conflict with the iron-fisted, ultra-conservative Mayer, left the studio not long after Pilot No. 5, but returned years later, replacing Mayer as MGM chief when the older man ran into a career-ending conflict with the holder of the studio's purse strings, Nicholas Schenck.
This was also a big step up for director George Sidney, who soon left the B picture ranks for top-budget productions, including four more pictures with Gene Kelly and such major musicals as The Harvey Girls (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), and Pal Joey (1957), starring Frank Sinatra in a tamer version of the role that had made Kelly a star on Broadway years earlier.
The extensive cast list features in a bit role Peter Lawford, whose brief close-up in this picture reportedly convinced Mayer to sign him to a long-term contract. And although she most likely ended up on the cutting room floor (or can you spot her?), studio records also list future star Ava Gardner among the minor players.
Director: George Sidney
Producer: B.P. Fineman
Screenplay: David Hertz
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: George White
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Franchot Tone (George Braynor Collins), Marsha Hunt (Freddie Andrews), Gene Kelly (Vito Allessandro), Van Johnson (Everett Arnold).
BW-71m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon