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Central Airport

Central Airport(1933)

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teaser Central Airport (1933)

As one of the most famous pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, the air wing of the French Foreign Legion, director William A. Wellman often returned to the theme of aviation in his films for good reason. It was a dangerous occupation he knew intimately and one that he excelled in rendering cinematically in both visual and emotional terms. Of the ten movies he set in this milieu, Wings (1927) is generally acknowledged as his finest achievement (it won the Best Picture Oscar® at the first Official Academy Awards ceremony in 1929) but even his minor efforts about fliers and their lifestyle are worth seeing and Central Airport, released in 1933, is a fascinating slice of early Americana, depicting a world of barnstorming stunt pilots and primitive rural airfields that have since become thriving commercial terminals.

Like several of Wellman's films, Central Airport presents a romantic triangle with two men vying for the same woman but in this case the two men are brothers. Jim (Richard Barthelmess) is a professional pilot who is banned from the industry after ignoring storm warnings that result in a commercial airline crash. After a brief stint as a banker, Jim meets Jill (Sally Eilers), a dazzling female parachutist who is part of a high-flying carnival act, and becomes her partner and lover. Unable to commit to marriage because of his risky profession, Jim unintentionally drives Jill into the arms of his competitive younger brother Neil (Tom Brown) who has no qualms about getting hitched. Jim, disgusted and disillusioned by the turn of events, begins a globe-trotting existence, accepting dangerous flying missions in remote places. By chance he encounters Jill in Havana several years later where Neil has recently been transferred. In an ironic twist Jim is soon called on to rescue Neil whose passenger plane has gone down in the Gulf of Mexico during a storm. Will he reach his brother in time to save him and the surviving passengers? Will Jim and Jill finally be reunited at the fade-out?

Despite the predictable nature of the story and a noble, self-sacrificing moral code which predetermines the climax and reflects a long-vanished age of chivalry, Central Airport is distinguished by its first-rate aerial photography and stunts, model set miniatures of landscapes and airfields, and some frisky Pre-Code behavior such as Jim and Jill pretending to keep separate hotel rooms as they travel around the carnival circuit or the scene where Jim surprises Neil and Jill in bed together.

If there is a major flaw in the film it is the casting of Tom Brown in the role of Neil. Not only does he look too young for the part but his pencil thin mustache only accents his juvenile appearance which is made worse by his overly earnest performance and the obvious lack of sexual chemistry between him and Sally Eilers. Richard Barthelmess, however, is compelling as the tragic hero, forging ahead with a grim determination while leaving parts of himself behind, wherever he goes: "an eye in Nicaragua, a heel in China, a couple of ribs in Chile. It's been a habit wherever I go. I leave 'em something to remember me by." It is only fitting that Wellman would chose to represent Jim's painful separation from the two people he loves most in physical terms - and in bodily injuries from aviation accidents.

Something to look for in the final climax is the brief appearance of John Wayne, still an unknown B-movie actor and extra at this point in his career. As Neil's co-pilot of the downed plane, he can be spotted trying to help the terrified survivors as the rough weather dislodges some of them and he eventually drowns trying to save a castaway.

One other bit of trivia relates to the opening disaster that ruins Jim's career as a commercial pilot. Apparently the crash scene was omitted by the aviation board of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce because they deemed it harmful to the travel industry. Of course, that didn't stop Wellman from filming - and keeping - the sequence where Jill's brother crash-lands and is killed while rehearsing a stunt for his air show.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Jack Moffitt, Rian James, James Seymour
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: James Morley
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Howard Jackson, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (James Blaine), Sally Eilers (Jill Collins), Tom Brown (Neil Blaine), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Blaine), James Murray (Eddie Hughes), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Blaine).

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:Hal Wallis: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis by Hal Wallis and Charles Higham
William A. Wellman by Frank T. Thompson

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