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Backlot Fan Programmers - 5/26
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,Flight Command

Flight Command

Stories of callow cadets who must prove their fighting mettle have become almost a sub-genre of military films. For this particular take on the theme, MGM cast its leading "pretty-boy" star of the time, Robert Taylor, guaranteeing a box office hit for the studio. Taylor plays a hot shot enlisted in a Navy pilot program who proves himself as a professional team member while clearing himself of a false rumor of an affair with his commander's wife. Flight Command (1940) has the distinction of often being credited as the first Hollywood film glorifying the American military to be released after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. A year later, of course, after the U.S. had entered the conflict, theaters were inundated with such pictures. But at the time of its release, many Americans were still leery about breaking their long-held isolationism and engaging in a foreign war. Movies like this helped change that perception and subtly supported the argument in favor of a build-up of arms and troops.

Flight Command also introduced its star, Robert Taylor, to a favorite new hobby. A biography of the actor's wife, [Barbara] Stanwyck by Axel Madsen, noted that "for his navy ensign role Bob decided to take flying lessons. He found soaring into the air from Burbank airport liberating and exhilarating and soon began spending every spare moment at airstrips with instructors, flyers, and "hangar jocks," as general aviation enthusiasts were called." This was particularly distressing to Stanwyck who hated to fly. Taylor's interest in this new pastime got so obsessive that, at one point, his MGM bosses encouraged him to see the studio psychiatrist. Taylor refused to give up flying, though, and when the US entered World War II, he joined the United States Navy Air Corps despite major resistance from MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer who feared for his star's safety. Taylor ended up serving as a flying instructor for the Navy for the reminder of the war.

Flight Command was shot on location at a major Navy base in San Diego, California, with the full cooperation of the Navy's Air Corps, which would become standard practice for all branches of the service in the production of World War II movies. A. Arnold Gillespie (photography) and Douglas Shearer (sound) received an Academy Award nomination for the special effects used to create the movie's exciting flying sequences. A master of the craft, Gillespie created the effects for 160 films in his long career, including the justly celebrated earthquake sequence in San Francisco (1936) as well as Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959). That same year he won an Oscar® for his work on Ben-Hur (1959), and in 1964 he and Shearer received a technical achievement award from the Academy for engineering an improved Background Process Projection System. Principal cinematography on Flight Command, however, was handled by cinematographer Harold Rosson, who lensed such MGM classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939), On the Town (1949), and Singin' in the Rain (1952). Although closely associated with top musicals, Rosson also earned his action/war credits with his work on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), the film that earned Gillespie his first Oscar® for special effects.

Also proving himself here in a new arena was director Frank Borzage, who at this time had been one of Hollywood's most successful directors for more than a decade. Borzage is best known for complex and compelling 1930s romances, what critic Andrew Sarris has called "a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity." Borzage's other film released the same year, The Mortal Storm (1940), one of three movies he made with actress Margaret Sullavan, was one of the most chilling portraits of the horrors of Nazism. Although couched in a sensitive love story, the film likely also contributed to turning the tide of public opinion toward a willingness to fight the rise of fascism in Europe. Ironically, Flight Command, done in the more "realistic" patriotic action style that would dominate American screens for the next several years, marked the decline in his career. Such finely-wrought, tender romances as Seventh Heaven (1927), which earned him the first Best Director Award ever given by the Academy, A Farewell to Arms (1932), and Desire (1936), a wry romantic comedy about jewel thieves Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, had fallen out of favor by 1940, and Borzage's work has become largely neglected.

Red Skelton appears in a small role in Flight Command, his third movie. He would shortly become one of MGM's top comic stars of the decade.

Director: Frank Borzage
Producers: Frank Borzage, J. Walter Ruben
Screenplay: Wells Root and Commander Harvey Haislip, based on a story by Haislip and John Sutherland
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Editing: Robert J. Kern
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Robert Taylor (Ensign Alan Drake), Ruth Hussey (Lorna Gary), Walter Pidgeon (Commander Bill Gary), Paul Kelly (Lt. Commander "Dusty" Rhodes), Red Skelton (Lt. "Mugger" Martin).
BW-116m. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon



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