Night Flight

MGM promised moviegoers “more stars than there are in heaven” and occasionally made movies seemingly designed to make good on that boast. Released a year after the similarly star-studded Grand Hotel, 1933’s Night Flight gathers John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Robert Montgomery for a film about how one much-needed packet of medicine makes its way from Santiago, Chile to Rio. Produced by David O. Selznick, Night Flight often groans from the effort of packing too many stars into too little story, but that flaw also makes it interesting, as does Clarence Brown’s steady direction and meticulous attention to the details of flying in an era of open cockpits and constant peril.

Adapted from a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the writer and aviator best known for penning The Little Prince, Night Flight captures 24 hours in the lives of those who dare to navigate South America by plane without the benefit of daylight, and those who await news of their fates. John Barrymore plays the hard-driving general manager outwardly concerned with nothing but the smooth operation of his company, but inwardly in awe of the pilots who make that operation possible. These include Gable (who spends almost the entire film confined to his biplane’s cockpit) and the smooth, girl-in-every-port Montgomery. Hayes co-stars as Gable’s devoted, highly fretful wife.

What Gable does here contrasts fascinatingly with the work of Hayes and the Barrymores, actors at least as comfortable, if not more so, onstage as onscreen. Hayes, in particular, overplays every scene, laying on grief and worry as if projecting to the back row. But Gable, a born movie star, seems perfectly comfortable in his virtually wordless role, conveying his character’s pleasure in his profession via a wordless, lingering, rapturous close-up that frames his face against the night sky. And while John Barrymore’s speeches on the nobility of doing a job give the film its only shape, Brown’s elegant camerawork and some truly impressive flying sequences—a mix of actual aerial footage and well-executed special effects—keep the film moving along. So do details like Gable’s handwritten communication with his co-pilot, who can’t hear him over the din of the engines, and who receives notes from Gable to relay back to base via radio, including, in one poignant, desperate moment, a sheet of paper with this unfinished, crossed-out sentence: “Tell my wife…”

Not a huge hit in its day, Night Flight has been out of official circulation for decades until this DVD release, and while no one will mistake it for a forgotten masterpiece, anyone made curious by the subject and cast won’t be disappointed. Saint-Exupéry’s presence lends it an added layer of poignancy, too. At age 44, he disappeared while flying reconnaissance for the Allies during World War II. Like his heroes, he saw a job that needed doing and took to the air to get it done, whatever the cost. 

Key features: A pair of vintage MGM-produced shorts: “Swing High,” about a family of trapeze artists, and “When The Cat’s Away,” a Happy Harmonies cartoon in which several species of vermin overrun a kitchen.

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