February 19, 2013

Screen Shot 2020-02-07 at 4.59.42 PM

The aviation films of Howard Hawks are comprised of tightly knight groups of men confronting death. The bleakest entry, The Dawn Patrol (1930), also happened to be the first , a tale of a British Air Force outpost that acts as a waypoint between consciousness and the void, escorting young fliers into the blood-flecked air across the German lines. A pivotol work in the scope of Hawks’ career, it was his first sound feature, and introduces themes of professional obligation and facing up to mortality that appear throughout his career, reiterated most directly in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  It has been difficult to see The Dawn Patrol in recent years until the Warner Archive released a fine looking edition on DVD last month.


Hawks’ first sound film was supposed to have been Trent’s Last Case (1929), and the director did extensive tests with the new technology, but Fox had failed to negotiate talkie rights when licensing the 1913 mystery story by E.C. Bentley. So instead it became his final silent, made in a market so hungry for sound that Fox didn’t even bother releasing it in the U.S. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, it only opened in Britain to poor notices, with Hawks regarding it as his worst film.

He wrapped filming on Trent’s Last Case in February of 1929, and was fired in May, after refusing to work on the titles Fox assigned him (Life’s a Gamble and Big Time).  Hawks and the studio sued and counter-sued over wrongful termination and failure to fulfill contracts, but all the litigation was dismissed with prejudice by the courts. He was free for the moment, and looking for a project. Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that he got the idea for The Dawn Patrol from a story by Irvin Cobb, “about an evening with a British squadron that was being hit hard.”  Contra Hawks, Todd McCarthy found a sworn deposition from screenwriter John Monk Saunders that “he had dined with former war journalist Irvin S. Cobb…and had that night heard the story of ‘young British pilots.’” Whoever originally conceived the scenario, the script was a collaboration between the two men, both of whom were steeped in flyboy lore.


Saunders and Hawks had both entered the Army Air Corps during WW1, and became flying instructors in the states, neither of them seeing action. After hearing news of the Armistice, Saunders went “out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane.” Robbed of his chance to burn up in a war, Saunders lived vicariously through combat anecdote, soaking up stories from every pilot he met. He was a prolific writer in the 30s, his newspaper stories leading to the scenario for Wings and his Lost Generation novel Single Lady (1931), which he adapted for William Dieterle’s masterful Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here). His wife Fay Wray described him as a man “who wanted to live dangerously and die young”, which he accomplished by hanging himself at the age of 44.

Hawks was a mechanically minded kid who drove race cars before entering the war, and flying became the latest of his obsessions. He did not acquire Saunders’ insecurity about missing combat action, but he was not unmarked with tragedy. The five friends he signed up for the Air Corps with were all dead by the time he started shooting The Dawn Patrol, all in plane accidents. His brother Kenneth was directing Such Men Are Dangerous when he perished in a plane crash during a failed stunt, mere weeks before The Dawn Patrol was set to film.


If Hawks wanted to get a WW1 subject filmed in 1930, having Saunders on board would guarantee studio backing. First National (A Warner subsidiary) bought the rights with Richard Barthelmess slated to star. Howard Hughes was still working on the similarly-themed Hell’s Angels, and tried to disrput Hawks’ production at every turn, buying up any extra WW1-era planes and threatening to sue for copyright infringement. Nothing came of it though, and both titles had healthy success at the box office. Having already done sound tests before Trent’s Last Case, Hawks had the technical capacity for talkies, but he already had an aesthetic plan as well. He was intent on having his actors underplay, instead of projecting to the back of the theater. The conventional wisdom held that theatrical stage forms would take over, from performance to direction. But Hawks innately knew that cinema could bring you close with a whisper as easily as a shout.  Barthelmess was already well-versed in the subtle forms Hawks was looking for, since he had worked with the similar-minded D.W. Griffith.

Barthlemess plays Dick Courtney, a veteran British combat flier leading raids into German territory. His squadron bunks at a remote outpost led by Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), all exposed nerves as the death toll rises. As each mission team returns, he counts the sound of engines to determine the number of casualties. The dead disappear as quickly as the time it takes Courtney to wipe their names off the squad chalkboard. The pilots deal with this constant metronome of death through drink and camaraderie, gathering in the makeshift bar to talk of former flings and initiating group sing-alongs to their scratchy record player. These are necessary distractions, a way in which to immerse oneself in the present rather than stare at the abyss of the past. At one point a fragile Royal Air Force member, having just lost a friend, blows up at these callous displays. It’s a scene repeated by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, after the air service fliers do their own carousing following the loss of a pilot. All female characters were cut from The Dawn Patrol, giving it its atmosphere of sweaty locker-room claustrophobia. Although it is similarly constrained to one location, Only Angels is more open and convivial, as the group teaches Arthur about how they cope, bringing her into their self-sustaining circle. The Dawn Patrol instead presents the group as a continuously disrupted family, little more than a replaceable collection of flesh.


When the pilots do engage the reality of their fallen mates, it’s with the grim, mock-heroic acceptance of a song that Howard learned from his brother Ken:  “So stand by your glasses steady/This world is a world of lies/Here’s a health to the dead already/And hurrah for the next man who dies”. It’s hard not to read this as Hawks’ own attempt to react stoically to his brother’s passing, death as a liberation rather than a defeat. This is how the professional fliers stand it day after day, as new recruits arrive and then disappear. The only constants are Courtney and his pal Scott (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). But when Major Brand gets a promotion, Courtney becomes the squad leader, tied to a desk and unable to lose himself in flight. Now he is the one counting engine motors, made stir crazy by inaction and the crushing responsibility for so many lives. His job becomes that of a bureaucratic funeral director, and he can only free himself by disobeying orders and taking on a daredevil solo mission himself. There he can lose himself in the present, never to return.

The Warner Archive presentation has remarkably clear audio for a production of this period, and though the print they transferred is a bit worn and fuzzy, it’s likely the best this film has looked in ages. At this early stage, it’s the home video release of the year.



April 13, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-01-21 at 5.02.13 PM

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.