Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Oliver H.P. Garrett, John Monk Saunders, and Wells Root (based on the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
If I stand by what I said about The Son-Daughter, that the yellowface fairy tale of duty and revenge was the most atypical film Clarence Brown ever made, and I do stand by it, then it's only because with 1933's Night Flight you can in fact find other entries in his filmography that are like it in impressionistic, communal style, including, to a degree, the same year's Looking Forward. But before that, there had been 1928's The Trail of '98, afterwards there would be 1943's The Human Comedy; and above and beyond their collectivist approach, those two especially are tied to this film and to each other by the fact that all revolve around a great endeavor—the gold rush, aerial pioneering, World War II—and that each are concerned with the question of meaning in the face of death. Yet even in comparison to those fragmented narratives, Night Flight is fairly radical in its complexion, and while The Son-Daughter might be a stranger project for Brown, this is almost certainly stranger if the comparison is just movies generally. It is one of the masterpieces of 1933, an inordinately strong cinematic year already, and while I've not seen every 1933 film by any means, I think I still have some right to consider it one of the more experimental of that year's great films, certainly so far as Hollywood in general or MGM in particular is concerned.
And this time I'm not imposing some auteur theory reading on an assignment that Brown barely cared about at the time and would just shrug his fucking shoulders at forty years later. This one really did matter to him, in every possible respect, from the basic subject of flight itself, which had been the former U.S. Army Air Service pilot's first profession,* and remained his avocation; to the source material by aviator and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which Brown believed had captured the blunt masculine poetry of the air better than any other author had done; on down to its manufacture as a work of cinema, benefiting from Brown's determination to bring the lessons of French and Soviet filmmaking to Hollywood, his respect for what he'd seen in Europe sufficient that it might only be slight overreach to wonder if he conceived Night Flight as a capitalistic response to communist cinema about collective, technological struggle. If it was a response to propaganda, then Night Flight is like anti-propaganda, ambiguous enough, in the fashion characteristic to so many of Brown's best movies, to permit its audience a freedom of interpretation that would probably not be present in any contemporary Soviet film, while cutting against the fascistic undercurrents that had been recognized in Saint-Exupéry's novel with its central performance in the process. (Though there's something ungenerous about calling the novel that when it's "fascist" only in the sense it's concerned itself with the hard edge of technological innovation and the death drive appeal of aviation, more pronounced indeed in its early decades—so a little fascist, but perhaps the description is ungenerous anyway, considering that while Saint-Exupéry did ultimately die in his airplane, it was while fighting the Nazis.)
In any case, Saint-Exupéry's Vol de Nuit, a fictionalized account of his own experiences in civil aviation in South America, had been a significant literary phenomenon two years before, and I'll confess I don't really get it; it's a quick and easy read, let's give it that, and perhaps something is lost in English translation, but maybe it even goes without saying that the natural home of its subject is cinema. Producer David O. Selznick presumably thought so, though he had his reasons to believe in the commercial viability of the thing: aviation films had been a staple of Hollywood going back (and probably before) Wings, with which Night Flight naturally shares a screenwriter, and even the more specific subject of this film, air mail, had been sniped already a year prior for John Ford's, ahem, Air Mail, which has some terrific stunts though it suffers from the common Pat O'Brien movie problem of having Pat O'Brien in it; there are, of course, Howard Hawks's aviation films. Meanwhile, Night Flight's not even the only movie of 1933 with Clark Gable flying into danger and Helen Hayes crying about it; Brown's fellow aviation enthusiast Victor Fleming had released The White Sister six months before. But there's something really special here, and Brown's take on the genre must be my favorite aviation film for any number of years—at least till (Fleming's) A Guy Named Joe, probably till Top Gun. There's something spiritual about Night Flight's vision of aviation that most of its fellows don't have—spiritual in a very materialist sense, such as I know I'm going to have a damned hard time explaining—and that's pretty impressive, considering A Guy Named Joe literally brings God into it.
In his association with MGM, Selnick had happily welcomed Brown aboard to direct; Selznick maintains a reputation as an overbearing boss, but it's difficult to guess from the finished film that any producer actually could've gotten in its director's way. So they must've had something like the same goal, and in any event Brown's goal is very clear, a rather distant and self-consciously iconic treatment of nearly-anonymous, heroically-scaled figures who strive almost explicitly for the striving's sake, always keeping them at a deliberate remove—despite all the women-who-weep melodramatic elements you'd rightfully expect from a movie about men-who-fly—and all in purposeful repudiation of Brown's usual intimate approach, though empathy winds up bleeding through for the entire cast of non-characters anyway, and maybe that actually was his underlying desire. (Saint-Exupéry had complaints about Night Flight, which might well have hurt Brown's feelings more than the commercial disappointment he knew he'd actively courted, but complaining seems insane—it's one of the most faithful adaptations you'll ever see. Nonetheless, Saint-Exupéry refused to renew MGM's rights at the lapse of their ten year span—and then he promptly died—which left Night Flight in limbo for seven decades after.)
Well, before I make it sound like pure collage or something, there's certainly something like a plot, even if it's really more like a series of situations and events. So: in Buenos Aires there has been established the Trans-Andean European Air Mail Company, run with an iron hand by its managing director Rivière (John Barrymore), who has plunged the company headlong into the future by insisting that they begin making flights at night. This is something commonplace enough in North America and Europe, but it's next to madness here in South America, where their routes are bisected by the unforgiving Andes, and their skies frequented by fearsome storms. This is a job that's terribly risky even in the daytime, as one of his pilots, Pellerin (Robert Montgomery), re-confirms for himself when the perilous air currents in the Andes nearly do him in. Yet there's been no dissuading Rivière, and tonight the experiment begins. It immediately goes awry, with another pilot, Fabian (that's Gable), soon finding himself set upon by one of those mighty, continent-spanning storms.
The unappealing way to put this (though I'm not even sure about that) is that basically what we have is an alternation of scenes of Rivière, making grandiose speeches to anyone unlucky enough to share the same space with him, and Fabian and his radio operator (Leslie Fenton), doing procedure almost entirely silently amidst the roar of the storm and the engines (Gable—Clark Gable!—has, I believe, two lines, despite probably having the second-most amount of screentime; in fairness, he does have a somewhat greater number of a written notes to the radio guy). This is interwoven with figures who are more like sketches, or vessels: the lonely inspector, who exists principally to be the usual unlucky recipient of Rivière's lectures, Robineau (Lionel Barrymore, making the chemistry and the animosity alike between the two feel quite accomplished in its long practice); Pellerin and his nerves; the other night pilot (William Gargan) and his wounded pride, set against the reservations of his wife (Myrna Loy). In only one case does the vessel rise to the level of "inherent drama," in the form of Madam Fabian (that's Hayes) and her burgeoning terror that her husband is already dead.
What you'll notice is what a tremendous line-up this is, MGM having seen in Night Flight, presumably with Brown's connivance, an opportunity to repeat the great success of the previous year's Best Picture, Grand Hotel, and now on a more action-oriented vector, replicating its casting model and once again putting J. Barrymore in the center of it. Even leaving aside whether Grand Hotel had really taken full advantage of its opportunities for an ensemble of all-stars bouncing off one another, Night Flight isn't even attempting that—some of its stars never saw another star on set—but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. Along with the subject matter, it gives it something like a proto-disaster film feel, and in every instance the star was slotted into the right place. Montgomery has precious little "story," for example, but Brown ably exploits Montgomery's manner of going blank and stiff when asked to do inner conflict, and gets a genuinely very good one-scene examination of traumatized fear out of the actor, as he seems to actively wonder why his first instinct was to brush it off. Gable's persona, on the other hand, actually is that devil-may-care, and this comes through in spite of (even because of) his lack of dialogue, as he bravely flies into the maw of the storm. Hayes's fragility is the lynchpin of the tragic element—and so on—though as Hayes gets as much actual acting as anybody short of the headliner, I don't want to dismiss her small but rather great performance as just typage. And this is how I like my all-star casting model: stars giving presence to nobodies, and so many stars that any individual star becomes expendable. (Now we could question Gargan, who sticks out like a sore thumb for being married to Loy but not being anybody recognizable.) L. Barrymore is, perhaps unfortunately, the one saddled with the most pervasive "business," in the form of an eczema that makes him scratch, a touch that indicates they were all so intent on fidelity to the novel that in this case they overemphasized what's a pretty minor detail in the text.
John Barrymore, however? He gets to have a performance, and a full measure of one. There could be something perversely productive about this phase of J. Barrymore's career, which makes you kind of sad (and made Brown so irritated he wanted to fire him), but still makes you wonder if his being so lost to alcohol that he was reading most of his lines off cue cards wasn't even useful for a performance like this. It's a haggardly belligerent performance, and for all that you are seeing Barrymore either presently drunk or very recently drunk, the choices are pristine, creating a character defined almost purely by his sense of mission but which neither he nor Brown intend to box up nicely for you, leaving you to determine for yourself whether he's a megalomaniacal tyrant or an inwardly-suffering promethean hero or, in truth, both. That's never entirely resolved, and the key scene is when he can't quite bring himself to mouth the correct words for Madam Fabian, as to do so would be to concede to human weakness; though whether Hayes's acknowledgment of tragedy or Barrymore's refusal to admit error is the greater vulnerability is up to you. (You can tell Barrymore knew this was the key scene, for Hayes later recalled that he'd done her the honor of learning his lines before he read them.) The key visual, not just of this scene but the whole film, is the borderline-absurdity of the great wall map behind him in his office, against which Barrymore is frequently posed—simultaneously a weary Atlas tasked with lifting up a continent, or, thanks to this particular continent's dagger-like shape, a Damocles over whom hangs obliteration.
The tension between those ideas is the film in a single word, and Brown's job, as he must've conceived it, was to never, ever resolve that tension, only illustrate it with the most evocative visuals he could muster, and he has mustered plenty. It's not just that honking big map, either, though I love that fucking map; rather, for all that the film's "impressionistic" and "observational," Oliver Marsh's actual photography and the way Brown has chosen to use it is very often expressionistic—the treatment of Rivière's hostile conference with his board of directors, for instance, with the latter imagined as insubstantial shadows upon a wall; but you could point to practically any shot in the aeropost control rooms, simultaneously full of high-contrast light sources and shadowy murk. (Any shot of Gable in the plane is usually just artfully-applied murk.)
For this reason, but not for this alone, Night Flight represents the most forceful return in the Sound Era of Brown, the silent filmmaker, and this is true in a literal sense: it's a movie that, in Pellerin's Andean flight, basically unfolds his situation in real time; you might be outright shocked to realize that this 1933 sound film has a dialogue-free sequence that's seven minutes long. It necessarily asks more of its composer, Herbert Stothart, than almost any other film of its era would—I would hesitantly forward it as a contender for the single most score-heavy movie Hollywood had done since talkies became the thing—and while Brown would work with Stothart many times, I wouldn't be surprised if Stothart never had to do as much actual work again. That seven minute sequence is predominantly aerial footage, captured by Elmer Dyer or Charles Marshall, the film's two airborne cinematographers, and Brown is willing to soak for a long time in the sheer beauty of a flying machine over the imperious majesty of "the Andes" (the Rockies, but, you know, pretty close) before sending Pellerin into the danger of a foggy abyss; and these flight sequences are always strong, merging their actual airplanes, their modelwork, and their studio props in ways that get at those feelings of awe and fear even if you won't be, in the usual case, fooled. Meanwhile, as far as the "silent cinema in sound" of it goes, the flight scenes aren't even the only ones that use the absence of dialogue as their basic foundation—one of the best scenes in the film is just sitting around for long horrible minutes, mainly spent with Hayes's face, with no other sound but the nerve-wracking ticking of the clock that's measuring out the remaining seconds of her husband's fuel, and therefore her husband's life. Yet elsewhere, it's probably the closest Brown ever got again to the almost off-the-rails muscularity of A Woman of Affairs' camera movement, or the frequency of its acute, threatening angles.
Then there's the actual new here, in the editing that, despite the life-and-death stakes of the film and the overcharged energy of the visuals, is strikingly, even disorientingly loose. Things that might've been dramatic cuts! are often instead handled with simple camera pans and the like (even gentle camera pans, at that), and we seem to somewhat float through the movie, from airborne danger to women fretting in nightgowns to Montgomery staring off into space; a profound sense of ambivalence arises out of the very structure of the movie. It's never more forceful than in the long wipe-cuts that still enforce kind of a breathless sensation of movement—but also of time being very obviously manipulated before our eyes, and ceasing to have precise meaning, even though time is so all-important to the narrative—and several times taking us through montages in true God's-eye-view, of people looking up to the heavens and witnessing the man-made miracle of flight.
Somehow, though, possibly the most crucial element here wasn't Brown's idea, or Selznick's, and surely not Saint-Exupéry's, so maybe this explains the author's outrage: it was, believe it or not, studio head Louis B. Mayer's. The big change Mayer imposed upon Night Flight was to give it a conventional hook—something more than, as Loy's wife bitterly puts it, "someone in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday." Mayer dictated a child dying in Rio; that the only cure be in Santiago; that only the Trans-Andean European Mail be able to save the day. Theoretically, this is an enormous change but one that, filtered through Brown's sensibility (and palpable resistance), somehow amounts to no change at all except to intensify what's already here. You would very reasonably assume that this grave crisis would be the subject of every scene in the movie; yet other than the ones in which it is established, and a few insert shots of the package as it transits, it is the subject of literally none of them. Not Rivière, nor pilot, nor pilot's wife, is ever aware of the crucial import of this night; not even in the end do they find out. It winds up astonishingly effective at doing the opposite of what Mayer'd wanted it to do, but this is why Brown was a genius, rendering this film's prospect of "night flight"—the whole idea of "progress" itself—into something that's almost purely abstract and intellectual, even while it's hitting you with the gigantic human emotions represented by Hayes's grief and Barrymore's unresolved moral horror.
No film that ends with this one's aerial parade of ghostly fliers (or its triumphal title cards) can be said to completely lack its own worldview; but every time I see this I'm amazed by how reluctant the movie itself is about telling you how to feel, opening up the space, for me anyway, to have very strong feelings indeed, even if—maybe especially if—those feelings are so completely in contradiction with one another.
*Well, he also owned a car dealership, but that's not very romantic.