A turgid little melodrama, deadly dull and meandering for most of its run time, Clarence Brown's Night Flight (1933) makes a valiant effort to recreate the all-star magic of Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933) but miserably fails to catch the tailwind of success. Before Grand Hotel no studio dared conceive the all-star blockbuster. Immediately following its Oscar win every studio tried to outdo the other. That such a formulaic approach to film-making should be embraced overnight is perhaps nothing new. Hollywood’s creative brain trust has always been willing to exploit a good thing for pure profit. That MGM – the studio who basically invented the format should stumble so horrendously into this blunder only a year later is unforgiveable. The script by Oliver H.P. Garrett is based on a French novel Vol de Nuit by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; a solid pedigree, but one that proved almost impossible to film.
The book's rather socialist-moralizing approach to a philosophical question - of whether the sacrifice of one to serve the needs of the many is a worthwhile – nee heroic - pursuit translates poorly into visual terms. Worse, the novel’s episodic narrative does not lend itself to the all-star treatment, primarily because it compartmentalizes the action into vignettes and therefore keeps the stars mostly apart from each other. Each is given precious little to do except wring their hands in frantic anticipation. Paramount’s huge success with Wings (1928) and RKO’s Hell’s Angels (1930) – two high-flying melodramas about peril in the skies must have seemed a natural for MGM – the studio with more stars than there are in heaven. But Night Flight goes the quick and dirty route, eschewing realistic aerial sequences (the definite plus of the aforementioned two movies) in favor of some shoddy rear projection and rather turgid dialogue sequences between the pilots – in short, more talking with a mere relocation of venue from the airport to the air. Not good!
Clark Gable is Jules, a pilot called into service by his boss Riviere (John Barrymore) to fly a shipment of drugs over rough mountain terrain in South America to a hospital in Argentina where it will help stave off an outbreak of polio. Riviere is a hardened taskmaster. But he is also under the gun and constantly being scrutinized by Robineau (Lionel Barrymore) a bean counter who has threatened to pull the plug on Riviere's Patagonian Mail run. Jules' night flight runs into a terrible thunderstorm. The plane is lost, leaving Jules' wife Madame Fabian (Helen Hayes) to pick up the pieces of her wounded heart. In the meantime, Riviere sends another pilot, Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery) into the fray with another shipment of the vaccine. Auguste's wife (Myrna Loy) begs him not to go but he defies her and his own considerably shaky nerves to see the shipment through successfully through to the hospital in Argentina.
That's pretty much it. A hefty portion of the film's modest 84 minutes is spent up in the air - literally, with long drawn out flying sequences illustrating Gable's character writing down his thoughts on a large placard, documenting the impending disaster as his plane dives headlong into the storm that will ultimately claim it and his life. When we're not following Gable's hot shot pilot through the clouds the narrative becomes bogged down in various scenes of confrontation between Lionel and John Barrymore, endlessly debating the novel's central theme of self-sacrifice. The French names of the central characters are an ill fit for the stars since none of them even attempt a French accent. Gable's role is mostly a silent one depriving us of 'the king's' usual boastful swagger. Robert Montgomery is so all-American that when others in the film refer to him as 'Auguste' we are made painfully aware of that disconnect between star and role.
John Barrymore spends way too much time illustrating for us why he is known as 'the great profile'. He plays most of scenes rigidly pointing either toward stage left or stage right. His brother Lionel spends just about as much of the film's run time scratching himself, presumably from a case of emphysema. Helen Hayes - whose appeal as a younger woman on screen has always escaped me (I prefer her as the dowager in Anastasia or devious con artist in Airport) skulks around the Patagonia Mail offices with a doe-eyed faraway look that translates more into utter confusion than sympathy.
I really am at a loss to explain why such nonsensical drivel as Night Flight gets a stamped DVD release from Warner Home Video while other more worthy titles like The White Cliffs of Dover or Mrs. Parkington have gone directly to the inferior Archive MOD program. Night Flight is about as pedestrian and simple-minded as movies can get. There’s no substance to anything here and a genuine waste of star power. Even upon its initial release Night Flight was a financial flop.
Warner's DVD doesn't win any points for mastering efforts either. The original elements must have been in rough shape because the B&W image contains a ton of age-related artifacts, some serious fading and a lot of grain that translates more as digitized grit. Fine details are lost. The image is frequently softly focused. Contrast levels are lower than expected and there is some severe breathing around the edges throughout most of this presentation. Truly, there's not much to recommend this disc. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented herein. A short subject and theatrical trailer are the only extras. Again, I find this release a most curious one. Night Flight commits a cardinal sin in the world of entertainment. It bored me to tears! Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)