Thursday, May 13, 2010


This interesting, rarely-shown MGM film doesn't exactly feel like a big-studio effort. In narrative structure, it's a bit like a GRAND HOTEL of the air, weaving together the stories of a handful of characters during one night, but dramatically, it's more akin to a play, being largely a series of monologues and two-character conversations with some aerial action scenes scattered throughout. Based on a work by "Little Prince" author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the film is set in the main office of the Trans-Andean European Air Mail Company in Buenos Aires, with all the action taking place on the night that the airline is attempting its first night-flying schedule over the treacherous Andes and through the unpredictable weather along the coast of Brazil. John Barrymore is the tough-as-nails airline director who insists on sticking to the schedules despite reports of fog and storms. He is criticized for his stance, threatening the lives of his pilots just so, in the words of one character, a postcard can get to Paris on Tuesday rather than Thursday, but we know that, at least in one instance, there is more at stake in keeping the delivery timely: a hospital in Rio de Janeiro is desperately waiting for polio serum to arrive from Santiago, Chile to help a very sick child. Playboy Robert Montgomery is the pilot who flies across the Andes from Chile to Argentina. When asked by a young lady why he dresses up to fly, he says, "A gentleman should always be prepared to meet his maker," to which she replies, "You mean whoever makes you in Buenos Aires!" Clark Gable is a pilot whom we never really see outside of his plane and his flight goggles; he and his radio operator run into some very bad weather, unbeknownst to Gable's wife (Helen Hayes), whom we mostly see making dinner for, and fretting over, Gable, who winds up way behind schedule. She tries to get some information, but Barrymore stonewalls her.

The third pilot we follow is happy-go-lucky William Gargan, married to Myrna Loy, though since nothing much happens to him, they both have largely thankless roles. Lionel Barrymore is a plane inspector who serves as a conversational foil for John; Henry Gordon is the head of the airline board who does not see eye to with the director. At an hour into the 90-minute movie, it still feels like the plot hasn't quite kicked in, although we have had several ripely poetic speeches. It's not boring, but it does feel self-consciously arty, with all the good and bad things that label can entail: some big "acting" moments (mostly involving the Barrymores and Helen Hayes), some interesting camerawork (in this case, some very nice shots of planes in the mountains), and a self-important tone. For some reason, this is not on video and as far as I know, has never cropped up on TCM even though as an MGM film, it must be part of their library. It's worth seeing if you get a chance.

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