The Last Flight
Friday July, 25 2014 at 06:00 AM
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During production of The Last Flight (1931), star Richard Barthelmess told a reporter, "This is the most unusual picture I have ever made. It is a story of four aviators' lives after the war. It is a down-to-earth, human tale done with utter simplicity. It will be either a great attraction or a dismal flop." As it turned out, the film got great reviews but was a commercial disappointment. In recent years it has been rediscovered as a neglected gem of early 1930s filmmaking.
John Monk Saunders' screenplay was based on his own novel Single Lady, which had also been serialized in Liberty magazine under the title Nikki and Her War Birds. The film itself was actually released in some parts of the country with that title.
"The Last Flight," however, is the better title, since the character of Nikki is not the central one but rather shares the proceedings equally with the four disaffected flying aces who have just survived World War I. The title also carries metaphorical weight that is matched by the ambitions of the script and film. The fliers are all injured somehow -- physically, psychologically, or both -- and instead of returning to America right away, they stay in Paris and float from bar to bar, café to café, drinking their anxieties away with martinis and sidecars. They are shattered souls using drink as a wall from reality, and when they come upon Nikki (Helen Chandler) in a nightclub, they see her as a bird of the same feather. She is a rich girl aimlessly wandering through life, and she joins their little group of drinking buddies. A romance develops between Chandler and Barthelmess, and near the end of the movie the action shifts to Portugal, but overall The Last Flight is a virtually plotless film that remains utterly captivating due to the fascinating characters and convincing atmosphere of 1919 Paris, the era of the "lost generation."
Renowned film historian William Everson once wrote that the picture "certainly translates into filmic terms the Fitzgerald-Hemingway fever and tragedy of the 'lost generation' far more poignantly and convincingly than any other movie I can recall, and it is certainly superior in every way to the much later adaptation of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1957), to which it has some striking parallels."
William Dieterle's direction is stylish throughout. After a stunning opening war montage, comprised of superbly edited stock footage from The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Patent Leather Kid (1927), Lilac Time (1928) and Chances (1931), the action shifts to an army hospital where we learn the extent of the fliers' injuries, and then to Paris, where the bulk of the film is made up of dialogue scenes in mostly interior settings. That the atmosphere of postwar Paris is so richly felt despite these limitations is a testament to Dieterle's skill with actors and camera. There are some highly imaginative visuals, such as a flashback seen in a clock face, and gliding camerawork unusual for the era. The bar and nightclub interiors are convincingly smoky and laden with believable background action. And the actors rarely are shown without drinks in hand. One would be hard-pressed to find another movie with more drinking going on.
This was Dieterle's first English-language film, but surely his experience as an actor and director for stage and screen in Germany -- dating back to 1920 -- had him well-prepared. Dieterle had actually been in Hollywood for a couple of years before The Last Flight, directing German-language versions of Warner Brothers films. (It was common practice in the early days of talkies for foreign-language versions of American films to be shot side by side with their counterparts.) As the 1930s wore on, Dieterle became one of Warner Brothers' top house directors.
Leading man Richard Barthelmess made an uneven transition from silents to talkies, but he did manage to turn out good performances in such notable sound films as this one and also The Dawn Patrol, The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939).
The entire cast of The Last Flight is excellent, but special standouts are Helen Chandler, David Manners, and cowboy star Johnny Mack Brown in a rare non-western. Chandler in particular is great in a very offbeat role. Her Nikki could easily be a daffy screwball-comedy heiress in another movie; here it's a lower-key, somewhat zoned-out character whom Chandler imbues with the suggestion of something mysterious going on beneath the spacey exterior. One senses that something has shattered Nikki inside in much the same way that the war has shattered the male characters, but we never quite know what it is.
The character of Nikki certainly flummoxed the Variety reviewer, who began his review: "If the crowd can understand that girl character in this picture the film is an undoubted grosser." While he couldn't grasp Nikki, he did admire the film overall, praising the direction ("Dieterle's style and work point him to a worthy spot in the megaphoning field") and script ("The dialog is apt, sometimes brittle and most times natural. Barthelmess even uses 'lousy' once").
The New York Times also gave a very strong review, calling the film "a curious but often brilliant study of the post-war psychology of four injured aviators.... It is for the most part an impressive piece of work and although it is replete with bizarre ideas, it is always interesting."
Screenwriter John Monk Saunders was at this time married to Fay Wray, who had just starred opposite Barthelmess in The Finger Points (1931), written by Saunders.
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: John Monk Saunders (screenplay and novel "Single Lady"); Byron Morgan (continuity)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: David Mendoza (uncredited)
Film Editing: Al Hall
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Cary Lockwood), David Manners (Shep Lambert), John Mack Brown (Bill Talbot), Helen Chandler (Nikki), Elliot Nugent (Francis), Walter Byron (Frink).
by Jeremy Arnold
William Everson, New School film society program notes
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