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"Women of the sky, reckless-hearted as the men they love! Smashing romantic melodrama of adventure!" So declared the posters for Twentieth Century-Fox's Tail Spin (1939), a yarn about female pilots competing in a cross-country air race. In a film that feels a lot like Stage Door (1937) with planes, socialite Constance Bennett takes up aviation in order to impress her fianc (Kane Richmond), and enrolls in the famous Powder Puff Air Derby. The other girls (including Alice Faye and Nancy Kelly) resent the advantage that Bennett's specially-built, expensive plane provides her, and the war of women is on.
Tail Spin was written by Frank "Spig" Wead, a famous, colorful military man and writer. Wead had been a WWI flying ace and later a naval aviation pioneer. When a 1926 accident left him paralyzed, he managed to slowly rehabilitate and regain the use of his limbs. Meanwhile, he met John Ford, who encouraged him to write about his military experiences, and eventually Wead fell into screenwriting -- mainly war-themed dramas like Dirigible (1931), Hell Divers (1931), Ceiling Zero (1936) and The Citadel (1938). Later he wrote the exemplary WWII combat film They Were Expendable (1945), directed by Ford, and a decade later, Ford made a biography of Wead starring John Wayne, entitled The Wings of Eagles (1957).
Compared to those other films, Tail Spin is a trifling little entertainment, albeit a well-made one. As The New York Times pronounced: "Though history may not consider his contribution equal to that of Orville Wright, [Fox studio chief] Mr. Darryl Zanuck may ultimately be remembered as the man who brought sex to aviation... A thoroughly competent job of movie-making...constructed on a simple formula: every time the picture is about to crash, Mr. Zanuck crashes a couple of planes instead."
Variety described this picture as "plenty of production, fine air shots and several good performances, but story zooms and flutters to create many slow spots in between the spectacular flying sequences.... There's rather an over-abundance of tragedy...with nearly all of the girls cracking up or doing the parachute bail-out at one time or another."
Constance Bennett, in a role originally meant for Loretta Young, had recently made the big hits Topper (1937) and Merrily We Live (1938), both of which were produced by Hal Roach Studios and which, according to biographer Brian Kellow, "re-established Constance in Hollywood" after a dry spell due in part to her temperamental reputation. Bennett was not under contract to any studio at this point, and next did a series of films at various studios around town, including Tail Spin for Fox.
In truth, this was a minor film for both Bennett and Faye -- especially Faye, who was riding an enormous wave of success. Her previous film, Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), had been a box-office triumph and scored six Academy Award nominations (with one win). Faye's fan mail skyrocketed, and at age 23, she was the queen of the Fox lot and commanded $2500 per week. But audiences expected to see her in romantic musicals, making Tail Spin an oddity, with no romance for her and barely any music. That said, she does have one song in the film -- "Are You in the Mood for Mischief?" by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. (She recorded a second, "Go In and Out the Window," but it ended up on the cutting room floor.) One specific memory Faye had of Tail Spin regarded a scene where Bennett was supposed to slap Faye: "Usually you just fake the slap, but she really let me have it -- and she had a hand like a whip!"
Faye's biographer, Jane Lenz Elder, wrote that from the viewpoint of the Fox studio executives, Faye was a model employee, taking whatever assignments were given to her and accepting the salary, image, and work schedule that was demanded of her. "It might have been considered a trap," Faye later recalled, "but if it was, it was that well-known one made of the richest velvet. If it was a cocoon, it was lined in satin. If it was a prison, it was the most luxurious prison ever conceived by mortal man."
Barely three months after the release of Tail Spin, Warner Brothers released its own women's air-racing movie -- Women in the Wind (1939), starring Kay Francis. Critics generally considered Tail Spin to be the better of the two.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Frank Wead (writer)
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Rudolph Sternad
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: Alice Faye (Trixie Lee), Constance Bennett (Gerry Lester), Nancy Kelly (Lois Allen), Joan Davis (Babe Dugan), Charles Farrell (Bud), Jane Wyman (Alabama), Kane Richmond (Lt. Dick 'Tex' Price), Wally Vernon (Chick), Joan Valerie (Sunny), Edward Norris (Speed Allen).
by Jeremy Arnold
Jane Lenz Elder, Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen
Brian Kellow, The Bennetts: An Acting Family
W. Franklyn Moshier, The Alice Faye Movie Book