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Monday, May 31, 2010

Favorites List --- The Last Flight

There was a writer in the twenties named John Monk Saunders who wanted to be Ernest Hemingway and ended up hanging himself. So much for the capsule bio. It’s as much as I knew about Saunders for a long time. That plus the fact he was married to Fay Wray, which made the suicide part all the more unfathomable. Somewhere there are descendents from the prominent family he was born into. Do they honor memories of one dismissed by others as failed and frustrated? But wait. John Monk Saunders wrote Wings and The Dawn Patrol, among quite a few others dealing with aerial wartime themes. Once, and long ago, he was writing’s promise for new realism and honesty with regards men who fought. Saunders just never got respect Hemingway earned for literature, and was in fact accused of purloining themes and incidents from the latter’s The Sun Also Rises, published a few years ahead of Saunders’ The Single Lady (from which The Last Flight derives). What Saunders enjoyed was applause and recognition a lot of better writers missed. So who needs posthumous acclaim when you can have it now? Something ate away at Saunders and brought him to a tragic finish. Was it realization that he was a mere pretender to greatness? Among sharper thorns was fact he hadn’t actually seen action during the Great War that was subject of most Saunders output. Trained to fly, yes, but fated never to do so in combat. Instead, they put him to instructing others at a Florida pilot’s school. Despite pleas for transfer, Saunders remained well clear of the action. How many times do you suppose patrons impressed with The Dawn Patrol (and the Academy Award he won for penning it) asked him to detail first-hand dogfighting?

Saunders had been a Rhodes scholar and child of privilege. Accounts of a so-called Lost Generation passing hours in Parisian bars roused his impulse to merge with that lifestyle and write about it (and them). Hemingway had done so after all, and Saunders was not alone for regarding him the best literary role model going. Whatever reality there was in that caravan of walking war wounded was enhanced by triflers who bore not their scars but enjoyed the romance by association. Saunders was already married to Fay Wray and much in demand screenwriting when he decamped to France for a taste of what he’d read about. The Single Lady was his yield for time served and Liberty magazine was all for serializing it upon his return. Warner star Richard Barthelmess noticed and saw potential for his own next starring vehicle. Dick was a believable platoon mate to those who’d marched and flown in combat. Two of his best-received vehicles had been The Patent Leather Kid and Saunders’ The Dawn Patrol. For The Single Lady’s author, there was gratification of seeing his story express train from publication to Hollywood’s embrace, with Saunders invited to furnish a shooting scenario (accompanied by publication of the novel by Grosset and Dunlap as one of their “Photoplay Editions,” accompanied by stills from the film). Originally titled Nikki and Her War-Birds, what finally emerged from Warners in 1931 was The Last Flight, an oddity then and more so now, a one-of-a-kind made possible by Saunders and Barthelmess at a short-lived juncture where neither had to compromise integrity of the film’s theme as both saw it.

It was right timing for Saunders. He had a smoother entrée to studios in fact than Hemingway, as Single Lady crabbed a deal EH thought he had for movie rights to The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was sufficiently miffed to consult with counsel over Saunder’s lift(s) from his novel, but stopped short of legal action. The Single Lady got faithfully adapted, thanks to Saunders typing adaptation keys and Barthelmess protecting what he screen-wrote. The latter was himself a representative of filmland’s own Lost Generation of silent luminaries, soldiering on despite evidence mounting daily that new faces were supplanting him. Barthelmess is precisely right casting for The Last Flight, his own renown headed for eclipse, but maintaining at all times a tortured integrity that serves perfectly his character here. WB brass called The Last Flight uncommercial, as it focused on flyers’ lives after they were done flying, a dismaying contrast to actionful predecessors, which by 1931 were themselves losing boxoffice altitude. The Last Flight’s minimal combat stuff dominated the trailer, making disappointment keener when the feature disposed of said highlights in its opening reel. This was drama of endless talk among the willfully dissipated, not glories won in the skies. It’s a picture better suited to us now than patrons then, being frustrating to their expectations, but congenial to our own. Modern viewers tend to like The Last Flight. It took me watching twice to catch the wave. Now it’s one of my favorite Warner precodes. Some critics then admired the experiment, but a larger public balked. Against negative costs of $491,000, The Last Flight took domestic rentals of $405,000, with foreign a mere $45,000. The eventual loss totaled $253,000.

The first rediscovery I noticed for The Last Flight showed up in a published collection of essays under The American Film Institute’s umbrella in 1972. That appreciation by Tom Shales came at a time when the film was difficult at the least to come by. There was syndication availability, but most stations, even UHF ones, shunned really ancient Warner titles by the early seventies, preferring to cruise with better known Bogart and Davis oldies. Shales called The Last Flight "a revealing and a very significant oddball … recklessly oddball in fact." He singled out director William Dieterle in accordance with AFI then-policy of recognizing behind-the-camera talent too long ignored by mainstream critics. Articles like this could regenerate an old film. The community of cineastes was a small one (still is) and endorsement from a Tom Shales probably led to at least collegiate bookings for The Last Flight, which by the mid-seventies could be had at a bargain rental of $35 from UA/16. For John Monk Saunders’ source novel, there was also revival around the same time. The Single Lady came back into print via a Southern Illinois University Press venture called The Lost American Fiction Series. No claim is made that we are resuscitating lost masterpieces, said the publisher. We are reprinting works that merit re-reading because they are good writing. SIUP maintained it had serious ambitions for the series. They wanted to rescue certain books and authors from what they referred to as undeserved obscurity. The Single Lady was accompanied by a thoughtful afterword from writer Stephen Longstreet that established Saunders’ permanent residency in Hemingway’s shadow. Referring to The Single Lady as a carousel of impressions moving quickly to a very faint tune, Longstreet concluded that the book’s obscurity was largely a deserved one, though it was not without interest. SIUP’s 1976 reprinting was of Grosset and Dunlap’s Photoplay edition, and even included several photos from Warners’ film that illustrated the 1931 book. I made it to page 95 of 383 making up the text, enough to satisfy myself that The Last Flight was a faithful translation of Saunders’ novel. One thing Longstreet pointed out was fact that, as of 1976, there was no published biography of John Monk Saunders. That appears to remain the case. Probably the best place to read about him would be Fay Wray’s memoir, On The Other Hand, published in 1989 and an engaging account of her career and marriage to Saunders. As for The Last Flight, it is recently available from Warner DVD Archives and also recommended.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Yes, yes and yes! I read that same AFI book in '72 and "The Last Flight" became my obsession. I wouldn't get the chance to see it for almost 20 years (thank you, TNT network!) and it was well worth the wait. Other than "Intolerance," I've never seen the Barthlemess silents, but his early Warners talkies are wonderful. He might not be a great actor, but he's real, and that goes a long way with me.

3:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Same experience I had with "The Last Flight", Kevin. Took about twenty years to find it ...

And I'd agree that Barthlemess was the real thing ... I like him more with every pic I see of his (and thanks to Warner Archive, there have been plenty lately).

10:03 AM  
Blogger r.j. said...


I loved reading this. I've never seen "The Last Flight" but now I must seek it out. However when it comes to writers who can turn a phrase I have got to say that in my opinion you take a backseat to absolutely no-one! That phrase you employed, about maintaining a "tortured integruity" was so right on the money and yet so beautifully put, that it will stay with me for a long time to come! Surely this is so much of what makes Barthlemesses' performance in "Only Angeles Have Wings" so compelling and at the same time so touching. Well done, John!

I don't believe Barthelmess was in "Intolerance", was he? (If so, must have been an awfully small part.) However, I have in my collection a copy of a major silent he did for his own company, Inspiration, called "Soul Fire", which I highly recommend!

Best always,


11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll bet the old Catholic run TV38 in Boston ran It in 1965 or '66.

2:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi RJ ... and thanks for those generous words ... Never heard of Barthlemess being part of "Intolerance," but considering the mass of players Griffith directed for his 1916 epic, who can know for sure?

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

My memory regarding Barthlemess in "Intolerance" might be faulty, having seen it so long ago.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Axe said...

I first saw "The Last Flight" on TCM a few years ago and it's been a personal favorite ever since!

I think some credit also should go to Helen Chandler's "Nikki"-- a strange and surreal character.

9:46 PM  
Blogger pvitari said...

Gentlemen, you really must see Barthelmess' silents, especially Broken Blossoms and Tol'able David. The man was an actor of exquisite sensitivity, a quality I find borne out in his talkie films too -- The Last Flight being a particular favorite. :)

10:21 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

I read Shales' piece in same AFI book and when I finally saw "The Lost Flight'' -- at the Theater 80 St. Marks -- I loved it. (Ditto for another hard-to-see movie Shales wrote about, "Mission to Moscow.'') I've introduced both of them at the Museum of the Moving Image and introduced "The Last Flight'' as a guest programmer with Robert Osborne on TCM, which built an entire series around "Mission to Moscow'' at the suggestion of Farran Smith Nehme and myself. So I owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Shales.

Besides being a book and a movie, "The Lost Flight'' was a short-lived Broadway musical starring called "Nikki'' staring Fay Wray and Archie Leach. The latter had already been signed by Paramount, who wanted to change his name to Gary Grant when he arrived in Hollywood. It was Wray who suggested that he instead adopt the first name of the character he played in "Nikki,'' Cary Lockwood.

10:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very interesting about the play with Fay Wray and Archie Leach, Lou. I had forgotten about that part of her memoir. I do remember, however, you and Farran's series of appearances for TCM, and hope the two of you will be onscreen again at some point to introduce more films for them. As for "The Last Flight," I wonder if Warners has done a fresh HD transfer ... it hasn't played TCM since before they began broadcasting true High-Def. This is definitely one I'll be checking their schedule for.

3:53 AM  

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