Cast & Crew
Roy Del Ruth
At a Hollywood night club, Trixie Lee, a hat check girl, convinces her boss to give her a two-week leave of absence and a $150 advance to visit her sick mother in South Dakota. In actuality, Trixie is a female pilot entered in the Women's Trans-Continental Air Race from Los Angeles to Cleveland. With her partner, Babe Dugan, Trixie pays off the debts on her plane and enters the race. Trixie takes the early lead, but develops an oil leak. With no time for the repair, Trixie blows her engine and crash lands just outside of Cleveland. At the Cleveland airport, Trixie and Babe try to get their plane ready for the National Air Races. Without the money to repair the plane, Trixie convinces a storekeeper to take forty per cent of her prize money instead of cash for the parts she needs. Needing help for her mechanic, Bud, to pull the engine, Trixie recognizes Navy flyer Dick "Tex" Price and gets his help. Tex is met by T. P. Lester, a steel manufacturer, who informs him that his daughter Gerry, Tex's former girl friend, has taken up flying. When Gerry arrives with her new, faster planes, Trixie and the other female pilots think the race is over. They take Gerry to lunch and try to scare her out of the race, but only anger her. After lunch, Trixie calls Gerry a "self-satisfied heel," which leads to a wrestling match. Alabama, another female pilot, tries to scare Gerry during a practice run, but her plane gets caught in Gerry's slip stream and she crashes. At the Field Hospital, Alabama's injuries are discovered not to be serious, but her plane is unrepairable. Tex visits Gerry in her hotel room and tries to convince her not to enter the race. Gerry, learning that her father was behind Tex's visit, orders him out. Gerry and Al Moore, her mechanic, ask Speed Allen to fly the Gerry Lester Special in the Thompson Trophy Speed Race. Trixie and Tex get together that night, and Trixie begins to fall for him. The next day, the Nationals begin. Babe enters the parachute contest and, despite her inexperience, manages to win. Speed, trying to set a new speed record, loses control of the Lester Special and crashes to his death. Lois, his pilot wife, is looked after by the other female pilots and seeks comfort in the Book of Ruth. She tells Gerry not to feel guilty about Speed's death, that it was the way he would have wanted to go. The next morning, Lois takes Speed's plane up and crashes to her death. Trixie tells Gerry that she does not know what it is like to love someone like Lois did, but Gerry tells her that love is why she flies. Just before the Powder Puff race, Trixie receives a telegram from the Sunbeam Oil Company offering her a sponsorship if she wins. Trixie takes the early lead, but Gerry's superior plane quickly overtakes her. On the last lap, Gerry fakes engine trouble and drops out of the race. Trixie wins the race, but Gerry then develops real engine trouble, forcing her to bail out of her plane. She pulls her parachute too soon, snagging it on the plane, and injures herself upon landing. At the hospital, Trixie visits Gerry. Trixie tells Gerry that if she really loves Tex, she must accept him for what he is. Leaving Gerry's room, Trixie runs into Tex and tells him to go back to Gerry with her blessings. Trixie and Babe prepare to return to Los Angeles when another telegram from Sunbeam arrives, offering them $600 a month plus expenses. Bud, who had been planning to return to Akron, takes up Trixie's offer to go to Los Angeles with them.
Roy Del Ruth
J. Anthony Hughes
Fidel La Barba
Harry Joe Brown
Clifford W. Henderson
Tony Le Vier
Darryl F. Zanuck
Tail Spin was written by Frank "Spig" Wead, a famous, colorful military man and writer. Wead had been a WWI flying ace and later a naval aviation pioneer. When a 1926 accident left him paralyzed, he managed to slowly rehabilitate and regain the use of his limbs. Meanwhile, he met John Ford, who encouraged him to write about his military experiences, and eventually Wead fell into screenwriting -- mainly war-themed dramas like Dirigible (1931), Hell Divers (1931), Ceiling Zero (1936) and The Citadel (1938). Later he wrote the exemplary WWII combat film They Were Expendable (1945), directed by Ford, and a decade later, Ford made a biography of Wead starring John Wayne, entitled The Wings of Eagles (1957).
Compared to those other films, Tail Spin is a trifling little entertainment, albeit a well-made one. As The New York Times pronounced: "Though history may not consider his contribution equal to that of Orville Wright, [Fox studio chief] Mr. Darryl Zanuck may ultimately be remembered as the man who brought sex to aviation... A thoroughly competent job of movie-making...constructed on a simple formula: every time the picture is about to crash, Mr. Zanuck crashes a couple of planes instead."
Variety described this picture as "plenty of production, fine air shots and several good performances, but story zooms and flutters to create many slow spots in between the spectacular flying sequences.... There's rather an over-abundance of tragedy...with nearly all of the girls cracking up or doing the parachute bail-out at one time or another."
Constance Bennett, in a role originally meant for Loretta Young, had recently made the big hits Topper (1937) and Merrily We Live (1938), both of which were produced by Hal Roach Studios and which, according to biographer Brian Kellow, "re-established Constance in Hollywood" after a dry spell due in part to her temperamental reputation. Bennett was not under contract to any studio at this point, and next did a series of films at various studios around town, including Tail Spin for Fox.
In truth, this was a minor film for both Bennett and Faye -- especially Faye, who was riding an enormous wave of success. Her previous film, Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), had been a box-office triumph and scored six Academy Award nominations (with one win). Faye's fan mail skyrocketed, and at age 23, she was the queen of the Fox lot and commanded $2500 per week. But audiences expected to see her in romantic musicals, making Tail Spin an oddity, with no romance for her and barely any music. That said, she does have one song in the film -- "Are You in the Mood for Mischief?" by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. (She recorded a second, "Go In and Out the Window," but it ended up on the cutting room floor.) One specific memory Faye had of Tail Spin regarded a scene where Bennett was supposed to slap Faye: "Usually you just fake the slap, but she really let me have it -- and she had a hand like a whip!"
Faye's biographer, Jane Lenz Elder, wrote that from the viewpoint of the Fox studio executives, Faye was a model employee, taking whatever assignments were given to her and accepting the salary, image, and work schedule that was demanded of her. "It might have been considered a trap," Faye later recalled, "but if it was, it was that well-known one made of the richest velvet. If it was a cocoon, it was lined in satin. If it was a prison, it was the most luxurious prison ever conceived by mortal man."
Barely three months after the release of Tail Spin, Warner Brothers released its own women's air-racing movie -- Women in the Wind (1939), starring Kay Francis. Critics generally considered Tail Spin to be the better of the two.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Frank Wead (writer)
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Rudolph Sternad
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: Alice Faye (Trixie Lee), Constance Bennett (Gerry Lester), Nancy Kelly (Lois Allen), Joan Davis (Babe Dugan), Charles Farrell (Bud), Jane Wyman (Alabama), Kane Richmond (Lt. Dick 'Tex' Price), Wally Vernon (Chick), Joan Valerie (Sunny), Edward Norris (Speed Allen).
by Jeremy Arnold
Jane Lenz Elder, Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen
Brian Kellow, The Bennetts: An Acting Family
W. Franklyn Moshier, The Alice Faye Movie Book
The opening credits of the film end with the following statement: "In Acknowledgment of the Splendid help and cooperation by the committee and those others at the National Air Races in Cleveland which made possible this film." Hollywood Reporter reported that Sidney Lanfield briefly filled in for director Del Ruth due to illness. The Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Script Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library states that Jean Arthur, Loretta Young and Frances Dee were all considered for the role of Gerry Lester, as were Mary Treen for the role of Alabama, Jack Haley as Chick, Richard Greene as Tex, and George Barbier as T. P. Lester. According to a Twentieth Century-Fox press release, Fidel La Barba, former flyweight champion, was brought in to coach Alice Faye and Constance Bennett for their fight scene. La Barba was, at the time, under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox as a writer. Press releases also state that the studio paid Union Oil, Standard Oil, and two unnamed drug companies $5,000 to find imitation motor oil that would not harm Faye's eyes in the scene in which her plane's engine blows. Two years earlier at the studio, actor Brian Donlevy was injured and suffered a loss of vision in his left eye because of a similar on-set accident. Seven hundred caricatures of famous people were created for the cafe scene, which required two weeks of work by seven artists. While Alice Faye played an aviatrix in the film, press releases report that, in real life, she suffered from acrophobia. A Hollywood Reporter production chart includes John King in the cast, though his participation in the final film has not been confirmed. While John Mescal is credited as the cinematographer by a Hollywood Reporter production chart, Karl Freund is credited as the photographer by all other sources.