Like any long-sought treasure, few ‘lost’ films are able to meet the inflated expectations of unavailability. But this rarely seen David O. Selznick production, from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book, turns out to be a true buried beauty. Hardly a great film (heck, it’s not even a good film!), it’s so handsomely designed & visually inventive, it disarms normal objections. Meant as an all-star follow up to Selznick’s DINNER AT EIGHT/’33, it top-bills John & Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery & Myrna Loy; all that’s missing is a storyline. No matter, helmer Clarence Brown, an avid flyer, seems positively liberated by the assignment, as is his inspired lenser Oliver Marsh. John Barrymore, in another superb perf from his brief glory years (1932-34), agonizes in an office impressive enough for a small-time fascist dictator as the tough-minded boss of a So. American mail service. He’s just instituted night flights and won’t let fog, rain, black-outs, impassable mountains or worried spouses stop him. A commander out of wartime, he sends young pilots like Gable, Montgomery & the likable William Gargan to possible death, all to advance the cause. (Gable’s miscast, but Montgomery has some remarkable scenes.) Hayes, who’s wistfully insufferable, and Loy play the not-so stoic wives, while a fidgety Lionel Barrymore grumps as his kid brother’s second. Selznick tossed in a bit of corny melodrama involving a polio serum to shore-up the film’s episodic structure and damned if he didn’t reuse it on MADE FOR EACH OTHER/’39. But it’s the romance of the air, captured by all the tech departments working on some kind of painterly high, that holds the film togteher. The trick work is unusually fine for its period and the real flying sequences are beautifully caught, quite spectacular. Why even Herbert Stothart’s musical score has its moments. Now that’s unusual. (Be sure to check out the vintage Harman/Ising cartoon for some mint-condition 2-strip TechniColor.)
DOUBLE-BILL: The hard-shelled guy sending flyers into harm’s way may echo Howard Hawks’ THE DAWN PATROL/’30. But then, Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39 strongly echoes this film. And Gable, a fly-boy here, will take on a variant of Jack Barrymore’s role when he makes COMMAND DECISION/’46.