April 13, 2020
To celebrate their one-year anniversary, the Warner Archive held a decent sale last month, netting five discs for $55. One of the titles I snapped up is The Last Flight, William Dieterle’s 1931 film about disillusioned WWI fly-boys on a European bender. French director and critic Nicolas Saada called it “possibly one of the greatest films ever made” over at Dave Kehr’s site, while filmmaker and blogger David Cairns posted an enthusiastic review at his Shadowplay journal. Along with a hearty endorsement from a friend who’s a Richard Barthelmess buff, I had high expectations for this rather unknown early talkie.
The Last Flight was Dieterle’s first Hollywood production, after a varied career in Germany, which was highlighted early on in his stint with Max Reinhardt’s theatrical troupe, starting in 1919. He switched to film in ’23, and later co-directed Reinhardt’s silver-screen adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). His varied resume from this period includes directing and acting alongside Marlene Dietrich in Man By the Roadside (1923), performing in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), and starting up his own production company with his wife Charlotte Hagenbruch (for whom he made Sex in Chains (1928)).
He made the leap to Hollywood by directing German versions of American films. He spoke to Tom Flinn about this period:
I was hired to make synchronizations. Sound had just come in, and Hollywood was afraid of losing foreign markets. So they hired German, French and Spanish units to make foreign versions of important features…. The four films we were to make had already been completed. All the sets were still standing and dressed – we used the same costumes and everything. The big difference was that we had just ten days to make each picture.
His work on these foreign-language quickies must have impressed the suits at Warner Bros., because he was soon hired on to direct The Last Flight, which John Monk Saunders adapted into a screenplay from his own novel, Single Lady (1931) (Moira Finnie wrote a detailed history of the writer’s life and career here). Saunders had already won an Oscar for Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), and had provided the stories to Best Picture winner Wings (1927, William Wellman) and critical favorite The Docks of New York (1928, Josef von Sternberg). A fellow-traveler with the Lost Generation despite living in the U.S., Saunders was broken-hearted over spending WWI as a flight instructor in Florida, and his ex-wife Fay Wray described him as someone “who wanted to live dangerously and die young.” He acted out his untapped aggressions on the page, and The Last Flight is heavily influenced by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – it’s a boozy portrait of post-war disillusionment and decadence. Instilled with a snarky, slangy, and deflective dialogue, the tremors of violence in The Last Flight are repressed under layers of protective irony.
This was a challenging, rather prestigious debut for the German emigre to take on, but Dieterle succeeds skillfully. Instead of anchoring Saunders’s script with heavy symbolism, he glides along the surface just like the characters, employing rapid-fire montages, agile tracking-shots, and close-ups as punctuation. Every other shot seems to be an exclamation, punchy and precise. The way they order martinis is accompanied by a smooth track to the left, each man’s intonation rising in a barbershop quartet of mockery. After finding out a dame’s name, Dieterle repeats the shot from a more frontal angle, and he glides left as they repeat her name, with the same mocking tone. This establishes their unity as a comedic team, and sets the template for their deconstructive use of language. Every word has a double-meaning, twisted into a sarcastic punchline. This glossy, fast-paced style allows the fliers’ grim reality to creep in through the corners. Dieterle doesn’t find a way to leaven some of Saunders’ clunkier metaphors – like their army doctor’s intoning about how they are “spent bullets” – but this draggy thematic exposition is the exception rather than the rule.
The story revolves around four friends from the Air Force, recently discharged after suffering physical and mental trauma in WWI. Richard Barthelmess plays Cary Lockwood, the informal leader of the trio, a tremulous and reckless pilot who burned up his hands upon a crash landing, who would die rather than accept pity from a stranger. Then there’s Shep Lambert (David Manners), whose gift from the war is a twitching eye, which he can only combat by constantly getting drunk (asked what his plans are, he says, “Get tight.” After that? “Stay tight.”) Bill Talbot (Johnny Mack Brown) runs on adrenaline, constantly proving his masculinity on the new battlefield of the city, tackling horses and then meeting his final fate in a bullfight. Lastly there’s Francis (Elliott Nugent), a meek wallflower type who’s tasked to babysit some turtles. He only comes alive with a gun in his hand.
They form a circle around Nikki (Helen Chandler), a flighty socialite who speaks in nonsense rhymes that hide a spiky intelligence, or, as Lockwood describes her, “the kind of girl who sits down on phonograph records.” Chandler is a revelation here, ditzy and distant, chin pointed up as she floats around rooms in a dream-like state of childish denial and innocence. She’s introduced as a woman apart, standing alone with a cup of tea, oblivious to the tuxedoed airmen staring at her from across the room. But what Chambers eventually makes clear through her coded speech and slow-motion gestures is that her distance is a choice, and a kind of defense mechanism. Her words keep the humorously wooing men at a distance: “anyone kisses me too hard…it’ll split my lip.” Chambers is radiant and inscrutable, as hard-hearted as the men but seemingly more wise.
The whole setup feels like a Howard Hawks film – what with the group of professional-minded men struggling with their self-respect while jousting with an independent-minded woman – and it even acts as a kind of prequel to the more loving fly-boys in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), where Barthelmess plays another disgraced flier clumsily groping for redemption. But unlike in Hawks, there is very little hope for the survival of the group. These are, as Saunders sometimes over-emphasizes, broken men, with little hope of re-integrating into society. They drink and drink until they crack-up, camaraderie the only thing keeping them alive.