Cast & Crew
Navy pilots Joe Blake, Swede Larson and Tim Griffin form a tight group whose close friendship is marked by the use of a characteristic cigarette case. When Swede blacks out during a dive over Hawaiian waters and crashes his airplane, naval doctor Doug Lee recommends immediate surgery. The surgery results in Swede's death, earning Doug the enmity of both Joe and Tim. Later, in San Diego, Joe has become a flight instructor. To his dismay, Doug enrolls in the flight surgeon's training program in order experience the problems facing the pilots at first hand. Doug also runs into difficulty with the senior flight surgeon, Lance Rogers, until he learns that Rogers ruined his heart running medical tests on himself and can no longer fly. The two doctors become friends, and after Doug graduates, Rogers requests that he be assigned to the base at San Diego to help him with medical research. Joe volunteers as a test pilot as they experiment with a way to prevent pilots from blacking out during a dive. Doug invents a pneumatic belt which, when inflated, prevents the pilot's blood from leaving his head, and thus the blackout problem is solved. Later, Rogers is faced with the unpleasant task of grounding Tim, who is suffering from pilot fatigue. Because he needs money to support his family, however, Tim disregards Rogers' warning and signs up with the Canadian branch of the Royal Air Force. On a routine flight from San Diego to Vancouver, he crashes and is killed. Now Rogers and Doug begin work on altitude sickness. Because fighter pilots must be able to fly above the enemy in order to attack, they sometimes reach great heights, which cause some pilots to become very ill. After Tim's death, Joe changes his mind about Doug, and the two men work together to develop a pressurized suit which will counteract the adverse effects of high altitudes. They test the suit in a special chamber, but before Joe can take it up for real, Doug realizes that he, too, is suffering from fatigue and grounds him. Determined to see the project through, Joe ignores Doug's orders and takes his plane up. Above 35,000 feet, the oxygen tubes freeze, and Joe crashes but leaves a note to Doug advising him to heat the oxygen. With the trio now dead, Doug picks up the last cigarette case from the site of the crash. Doug and Rogers receive an award for their work, and in a posthumous honor to Joe, Doug flies with a squadron and carries Joe's cigarette case, which he releases into the air.
Louis Jean Heydt
Alan Hale Jr.
Max Hoffman Jr.
Charles B. Smith
Leo F. Forbstein
Winton C. Hoch
J. R. Poppen
Francis J. Scheid
Commander, U.s.n. S. H. Warner
Lieut +e U.s.n. R. A. Winston
The narrative opens on a naval station in Hawaii, where aviator amigos Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), Tim Griffin (Regis Toomey) and Swede Larson (Louis Jean Heydt) are anticipating reassignment once their current round of maneuvers is complete. Tragically, Larson passes out in the course of a steep dive, and is dragged barely alive from the crash site. At the corps hospital, surgeon Doug Lee (Errol Flynn) overconfidently lobbies to perform an aggressive spinal procedure on Larson. After the stricken airman dies in surgery, Lee is left to face the contempt and enmity of Blake and Griffin.
A humbled Lee puts in for transfer to San Diego's naval base and enrollment in the flight surgeon program thereon, with an eye to studying, and ultimately combating, the causes of pilot blackout. It's not an easy task; Lee's head medical instructor Dr. Rogers (Ralph Bellamy), a proponent of leading theories on the issue, is cold and brusque with respect to the younger doctor's interest. Compounding matters is the fact that Lee's requisite pilot training has been placed in the hands of the newly stationed Blake and Griffin.
While Dive Bomber's titles acknowledged the cooperation of the United States Navy, the lore behind the film indicates that the service's cooperation with the studio, at such a particularly sensitive time in history, was grudging at best. As told in Charles Higham's Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, naval authorities were reluctant to give camera crews access to San Diego or to the U.S.S. Enterprise, and Jack Warner dispatched Col. William Guthrie to lobby Washington for the film's cause. "So great was the power of Hollywood studios at the time that the Secretary of the Navy...ordered the San Diego Naval Base staff to put the base at Warner's disposal," Higham wrote.
The three-day shooting stint aboard the Enterprise was no less tense; the cast and crew bumped the ship's officers from their bunks, and director Michael Curtiz at one point demanded the vessel's turnaround so he could get a satisfactory angle on the smoke from its stacks. The Enterprise's officers took their vengeance on the filmmakers by nightly setting off guns and depth charges from the moment they settled in to sleep. Just as photography wound down on the final day, the boat was ordered out to sea with such speed that the cameras fell to the deck, and the filmmakers were made to debark onto smaller boats along the sides while the ship was still cruising.
The film crew of Dive Bomber was deservedly lauded for the striking aerial images that it captured. Bosley Crowther stated in his New York Times review that "Never before has an aviation film been so vivid in its images, conveyed such a sense of tangible solidity when it is showing us solid things or been so full of sunlight and clean air when the camera is aloft." In his 1985 book Aviation in the Cinema, Stephen Pendo noted the challenges of the first-time utilization of a 600-pound Technicolor camera for flight sequences. "The [camera] was positioned in a twin-engines Stinson," he wrote. "The filmmakers cut another door in the fuselage opposite a standard one. Between these three-foot-wide times five-feet-high doorways a track was laid so the camera could be dollied from one side of the plane to the other."
Story and shared script credit on Dive Bomber went to Frank "Spig" Wead, the retired naval commander who worked tirelessly for the advancement of the Navy's air corps and who was portrayed by John Wayne in the John Ford-helmed biopic The Wings of Eagles (1957). The narrative lags in those places where it strays from the worlds of the pilots and physicians. Alexis Smith, in an early role as a potential point of romantic conflict between Lee and Blake, is given little to do, and the running comic relief, which involves Lee's aide-de-camp (Allen Jenkins) dodging his wife on payday, is unfashionably corny. Still, Dive Bomber boasts strong efforts from its principals, and remains both a compelling entertainment and a deserved acknowledgment to healers who served silently and well.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Frank Wead, Robert Buckner
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Winton Hoch
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Errol Flynn (Lt. Doug Lee), Fred MacMurray (Lt. Cmdr. Joe Blake), Ralph Bellamy (Lt. Cmdr. Lance Rogers), Alexis Smith (Linda Fisher), Robert Armstrong (Lt. Cmdr. Art Lyons), Regis Toomey (Lt. Tim Griffin).
C-133m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg
The carrier U.S.S. Enterprise was used in the film while docked in San Diego. The Enterprise would go on and become one of the most famous ships in history for her battles she took part in during World War II.
The Navy Department allowed filming on the U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier at sea for only three days.
One of the pilots who flew the planes in the film footage was Navy Lt. Edward "Butch" O'Hare. O'Hare served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific and shot down five Japanese planes in his first battle, earning ace status and the Medal of Honor. O'Hare would go on to down 12 planes total and become one of the top heroes of the war before he was killed in action off the Gilbert Islands in November, 1943. O'Hare International Airport in Chicago was later named for him.
Pilot Paul Mantz was seriously injured on his way to San Diego; Frank Clarke substituted for him during his convalescence.
Byron Haskin designed special mounts for a heavy Technicolor camera to allow it to move back and forth inside and airplane, in order to film the squadron while diving.
The onscreen credits include the following acknowledgment: "This picture produced under the auspices of the motion picture committee cooperating for national defense." The film begins with the following written statement: "We sincerely thank the United States Navy for its aid and cooperation in the production of this motion picture. The picture itself we dedicate to the pioneer flight surgeons of our armed forces, in recognition of their heroic efforts to solve the immensely difficult problems of aviation medicine. To the 'Flight Surgeons' then-whose job it is to keep our fighting pilots in the air."
The film's working title was Beyond the Blue Sky. A December 6, 1940 Daily Variety news item notes that Warner Bros. intended the film to be a vehicle for James Cagney, George Brent and Ronald Reagan. At that time, Lloyd Bacon was to direct. Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: Background scenes were shot on location at Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, FL and Honolulu, HI, and many of the dramatic scenes were shot on location at the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego, CA. Scenes were filmed aboard the aircraft carriers U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. Saratoga. Commander J. R. Poppen replaced Lieutenant Commander Charles Brown as technical advisor when he was assigned to the Saratoga. Warner Bros. sent triplicate prints of all stills and other publicity shots to officials of the U.S. Naval Base at San Diego for approval under orders from the Naval Intelligence Bureau.
Flyer Paul Mantz was seriously injured on his way to the San Diego location, and Frank Clark substituted for him during his convalescence. According to an article in New York Times dated June 1, 1941, taking the heavy Technicolor cameras up in airplanes created special technical problems as the planes carrying them had to dive right alongside the squadron. Byron Haskin, the head of the Warner Bros. special effects department, designed special camera mounts that allowed one of the two cameras used to move back and forth. The article adds that the filmmakers were allowed only three days at sea with the Enterprise. Bert Glennon was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Photography (Color). Hollywood Reporter news items note that the San Diego world premiere was held simultaneously in three theaters. For publicity purposes, the U.S. Navy, in cooperation with Warner Bros., placed new Douglas dive bombers on display in principle cities along with recruiting booths promoting navy enlistment. This film marked the first time actors Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens appeared together. They married in 1944.