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Chain Lightning

Chain Lightning

On October 14, 1947, United States Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier. The story was one of the biggest of the year and Hollywood began to crank out movies about jet pilots shortly thereafter (although the first film about jet pilots was Johnny Comes Flying Home (1946), made the year before Yeager's ground-breaking flight). One film to cash in on the jet pilot craze was Chain Lightning (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart.

The film went into production on April 16, 1949 and lasted until July of that year, with some of the location shooting occurring at the San Fernando Valley Airport (now Van Nuys Airport, which had also been used in another Bogart film, Casablanca , 1942). It was based on Lester Cole's original story These Many Years (which he'd written under the pseudonym of J. Redmond Prior), with Liam O'Brien and Vincent Evans adapting the screenplay. Cole himself was an accomplished screenwriter, but he was a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was eventually jailed for a year for refusing to testify before the committee and questioning their legality. Vincent Evans had been a bombardier aboard the famed Memphis Belle during World War II and was a friend of Bogart.

With the taglines "When she's in his arms, it's the grandest thrill as the screen can give" and "The Screen's Biggest Bolt of Bogart," Chain Lightning had a thin story line about record-breaking daredevil pilot Matt Brennan (Bogart), the problems he causes for his long-suffering boss (Raymond Massey) and his love triangle between a beautiful woman (Eleanor Parker) and his fellow pilot (Richard Whorf). This would be the last film that Bogart made for Warner Brothers, ending a nearly twenty year association that began with his second film (a Vitaphone short) called Broadway's Like That [1930]. While the film was shot in 1949, it was held back for release until February 1950.

Famed pilot Paul Mantz served as advisor and also as director of aerial photography. Mantz had been a pilot during World War II and after the war had invested $55,000 to buy up old aircraft from the military with the intention of renting them out to Hollywood studios for films. It paid off handsomely. According to, the plane that appeared as the "Naughty Nellie" was actually Mantz's "B-17F, 42-3369 [which] is known to have been in Chain Lightning and also probably appeared in Command Decision [1948]. Its flight status with Mantz was probably limited to a ferry flight from Altus, Oklahoma, to Burbank, California, probably in 1946. It was never granted an Airworthiness Certificate by the CAA while with Mantz, and only received a civil registration number in March 1950, shortly before Mantz sold it to Owen Williams." The plane was later destroyed in a crash in Brazil in 1955. Not all of the sequences were shot with real planes. Recently, the miniature plane used in the film went up for auction. It was constructed from fiberglass, 80 inches long with a wingspan of 59 inches. The asking price started at $2,000.

The New York Times critic enjoyed the film, but pointed out the deficiencies in the script, "Like its title, this vehicle moves with exciting speed when it is airborne, but it slows down to a plodding walk as routine as a mailman's rounds when it hits the ground. However, credit the scenarists, who are not averse to dropping enlightening pointers in technical jargon; Stuart Heisler, the director, and a professional cast for not keeping this experimental craft in the drafting rooms or hangars too long. As Matt Brennan, Humphrey Bogart, despite some "Buck Rogers" costuming, makes a tough, realistic but nonchalant pioneer, who is willing to take more than a few, precious moments from his allotted "borrowed time" so that another safety element may be added to supersonic flight. Richard Whorf does a competent job as the idealistic and ill-fated plane and "pod" cockpit designer for whom he risks his life. And, Eleanor Parker, as the romantic partner for whom they compete; and Raymond Massey, as the grasping, publicity-conscious tycoon, who is ready to stick the Army with a jet that promises to be obsolete, do equally well in the other principal assignments. But in an air age in which the headlines already are threatening to date their efforts, Chain Lightning leaves a general impression of being only a neatly-turned action yarn. As such, it is successful."

Paul Mantz continued to work in the film industry as an aerial advisor, director of aerial photography and as a stunt pilot. Ironically, he was killed in 1965 while doing stunt work for the James Stewart film The Flight of the Phoenix [1965]. Among his pallbearers was Chuck Yeager.

by Lorraine LoBianco

The New York Times film review Chain Lightning: An Excursion by Warners into the Jet Age, Arrives at the Strand , February 20, 1950
The Internet Movie Database



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