Gone For Years --- Then Resurfaced
Would Night Flight (1932) Stay Aloft After So Long?
An all-star Metro special produced by David Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown comes freighted with expectation, the fact Night Flight disappeared for so many years only adding to mythology. There was notice that we'd be disappointed, word passed down that Night Flight was never an outstanding picture. When Warners finally cleared take-off, underlying story rights the principal barrier, there was gala aplenty in unveil that followed. Wanting so much to like it meant that many would, myself among them. Sometimes when you're warned of letdown, there's determination instead to find good in the thing, definitely a case here. Seeing Night Flight a second time, on this occasion via Warner Instant in HD, was what clinched a solid three stars on my register, with promise of more given further exposure. The fact I'm prepared to watch again says plenty good about Night Flight.
The star-laden cast seems more a gimmick here than with Grand Hotel or Dinner At Eight, two that got far more from ensembles than a mostly wasted constellation in Night Flight. Parts done by Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, and even Clark Gable might have been as suited for utility players, though post-preview editing (from two hours to 84 minutes) was clearly a culprit. John Barrymore excelled because his was the only character around which all action revolved, even as he stays chair bound throughout. Night Flight is played with seriousness that would lessen as stars like James Cagney and (later on) Clark Gable lifted off more for a lark, while Howard Hawks aped the whole of Night Flight's concept to make hazard flying fun for both pilots and their audience.
Writing on Night Flight came of the industry's best. With money like Metro's to spend, the cream of scripters could be put through as if on conveyor. A fundamental issue seems to have been a source story keyed toward cerebral vs. Selznick-aiming at a Hell's Angels for peacetime. Night Flight would be Dawn Patrol with J. Barrymore in Richard Barthelmess posture, but hadn't The Dawn Patrol been a success for Warners? The other stars are excess baggage, though their cameos lend modern interest to flawed result that is Night Flight. To "open up" a set-bound drama, Selznick had John Monk Saunders compose high flying for Clark Gable as a pilot in storm trouble, boxoffice hazard being fact we see him no place other than the cockpit, and in relative darkness. Was this any way to utilize a fastest rising star on MGM payrolls?
What Night Flight allows is comparison of acting styles: How do these stars, all celebrated at the time, live up to our measure? Barrymore strikes me as fine and undated in approach, this being one he underplayed for a most part, and that's always relief to contemporary eyes/ears. Brother Lionel is competitive, a given when paired with John. They automatically took content less serious when teamed, producers reckless enough to combine the two deserving what they got. On-set stories had Lionel scratching while John spoke, John picking tobacco off his tongue as Lionel spat dialogue. Much of mischief likely went unused ... reshot ... for finished films don't buckle under weight of histrionics or upstaging. What clunks for me is Helen Hayes, or Helen Of Cloy as I'd tab her after two helpings of Night Flight. Jack Barrymore thanked this "real actress" for pulling him through sans need of cue cards, a JB crutch for lengthy speeches given him. I can only figure standards to have been different then, or maybe it's personal taste. Are there Helen Hayes fans out there?