Ring a Ding Ding
I had never heard of 1933’s Night Flight when I stumbled upon it in a sales pile at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. I’ve tried to train myself not to buy movies on a whim without knowing whether they are good, but the cast for this one was enough to secure its purchase. Besides love of my life Robert Montgomery, the cast also features John and Lionel Barrymore, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable, to name a few.
The story starts with a plot element that we will all but forget before the picture is over. A child at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro teeters on the verge of death from a virus, but doctors assure his mother that because of a new night flight schedule, the life-saving serum he needs can be delivered from across the continent by the next morning.
Now move on to the main story: the plight of those pilots tasked with the treacherous duty of flying mail planes across South America. The trip is dangerous enough during the daytime as Auguste (Montgomery) discovers as he flies the serum and other packages from Santiago, Chile ,to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires is the headquarters of the delivery outfit where company president A. Riviere (John Barrymore) stressfully monitors all pilots’ progress. Auguste hits a nasty storm going over the mountains and at one point gets sucked down close to the rough terrain but thankfully makes it to his destination alive.
The package in question and other mail will not leave immediately for Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires because another flight is due just in time to ensure the load will leave by midnight. Flying that plane is Gable’s Jules. We will never see him outside of his vehicle and he has surprisingly little dialogue because he communicates with his radio operator via notepad, sending messages to headquarters. His path takes him from southern Chile to Buenos Aires, but he and his radio man encounter a surprise rain storm en route. They are thrown off course and also must battle a fleeting fuel supply. Jules’ wife, Simone (Helen Hayes), knows her husband’s schedule well and becomes distraught when he is late.
A “Brazilian Pilot” (William Gargan) is aroused from his sleep to take the night flight to Rio de Janeiro, leaving worrying wife (Loy) behind. He thinks the only value of night flight is to allow someone in France to get a post card two days earlier than normal, not realizing he is carrying a life-saving serum.
The bulk of the acting heft in Night Flight comes from the two Barrymores. John is a hard-nosed businessman who defies the company board in insisting on the overnight program. Lionel comes in as an “inspector” of some sort who is there as a counterpoint to Riviere’s tough tactics, trying to draw compassion from the man.
All scenes with John take place in his office, a dark room that is literally only lighted by “moonlight” from outside and a desk lamp. The darkness of most scenes in the picture leaves the audience feeling the weight of the night as much as the pilots do. We yearn for the dawn to bring with it safety in the same way they do. The office scenes are also often shot from waist height across the room or closeup low angles. This leaves the viewer feeling less like he is in the scene with the characters and more as an unwelcome spectator.
As with all movies featuring flight, Night Flight contains impressive footage of aerial maneuvering. Day for night shooting was apparently used for the flick, but unlike most picture that take this approach, the fakeness of night was unnoticeable.
The movie was apparently one of Gable’s lowest-grossing pictures. Interestingly, he is scarcely in it. He utters only a few lines of actual dialogue and is never seen outside his plane. A surprisingly small role for such a big star, but given the magnitude of the remainder of the cast, it might be understandable.