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Monday, November 01, 2010

China Clipper and A Star That Crashed

I've learned to appreciate Frank "Spig" Wead beyond his life story being adapted by the Johns Ford and Wayne for 1957's The Wings Of Eagles. Wead was in fact a crack story man whose service yarns became industry staples during a thirties' boom for aerial actioners. We've largely forgotten what excitement the concept of flight aroused in moviegoing forebears. Charles Lindbergh achieved godlike status for exploits that inspired airmen to come. There wasn't a surer bet to quicken pulses than putting wings under men and setting them aloft. Did any male star outside George Arliss not do a aero-thriller? China Clipper was one I most recently watched, for a first time as it turns out, for I'd always classified the 1936 release among initiation rites for Humphrey Bogart completists and left it at that. Turns out China Clipper's a corking good account of quests to trans-Pacific fly during opener days of passenger servicing and I'd guess (without knowing) fairly accurate as to obstacles visionaries faced. Ruthlessness was forgiven those first to carry us (or the mail) over oceans, thus Pat O' Brien gets away with conduct unbecoming to screen go-getters. How we must have rooted for flight promoters in those days when the world was being linked by air for a first time! China Clipper endorses whatever it takes to get that job done, reflecting blank checks America was issuing to achieve mastery in the skies.

I like watching old planes heaving upward. Flying stories achieved stature for charting up-to-the-moment progress being made in the air. Trouble is the movies dated fast as planes they celebrated. China Clipper became yesterday's fish wrap within scant years of its 30's release. Now of course we appreciate historical values accumulated since. I'd call this one and others like it valuable primers of what went on with aerial development between the wars, and submit most would stand inspection despite Hollywood glossing over technical details (though China Clipper surprises for delving into specific challenges builders and designers had). The movie lauds private enterprise as agency that will put US flying supremacy over, this just seasons before the military assumed dominion with regards planes and men developing them. China Clipper has not the look of an economy model; Warners made its $345,000 negative cost look like twice as much. You only realize in hindsight how little actual flying we see, for the larger struggle is overcoming intransigent bankers and wives/sweethearts trying to impose domesticity on restless sky hawks. As to sense or desirability of its race to horizons, China Clipper's case is closed. Few films from any period exhibit such confidence over rightness of missions at hand. The film demonstrates if nothing else that post-Lindbergh flying and designing was as near exalted status as mortals could attain during the 30's.

Bogart and ill-fated Ross Alexander are pilot pals in China Clipper. HB's success might have been Alexander's had the latter lived longer and been luckier (and note their physical resemblance). As things turned out, Alexander would die within months of a self-inflicted shot to the head. A lot of people who worked with the young actor (age 29 at the end) spoke of his promise and that tragedy for years to come. They're mostly gone now too. Among the last was China Clipper's female lead, Beverly Roberts, who died July 2009 at ninety-six. 1936 appraisal of Bogart prospects versus those of Ross Alexander would likely have found HB wanting. Alexander worked alongside Warner stars who'd prosper for many years after he was forgotten. I found myself liking RA's way with dialogue and appreciative of his offbeat flavor in character support, even if he never seemed quite leading man material. Ross Alexander was promoted to romantic vis`-a-visĀ“ with Ruby Keeler for what proved his last, Ready, Willing, and Able, but death and circumstances of same moved Warners to diminish the actor's billing and remove him altogether from the trailer (not even a glimpse of Alexander, or his name, appear there). The musical was released three months after the actor's suicide, and mentions of him in virtually all promotion was erased. It's sad looking at Ready, Willing, and Able's pressbook wherein Ross Alexander is nowhere except obligatory cast listings. Not one publicity story includes him. Despite having far less to do in the film, eccentric dancer and film neophyte Lee Dixon (his second credited role) is elevated to co-star billing with Ruby Keeler and is prominent beside her in all the ads (as illustrated here). The sad story of Ross Alexander is well told in a Classic Images article by John R. Allen, Jr., and available online here.


Blogger Dugan said...

I looked at your online link for Ross Alexander, fascinating tragic stuff. I also liked your mention of Frank Wead who wrote one of my favorite Capra films, "Dirigible." The more I've learned about Wead the more I realized that he really deserved a better film biography than "Wings of Eagles."

10:31 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Another great post! I was astonished to see your comment about the vague physical resemblance between Ross Alexander and Bogie because A. I can't recall ever reading that observation anywhere else and B. it's something that struck me the first time I saw Alexander in a film... over 40 years ago!

4:35 PM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

My grandfather, M.K., worked with Ross on a film, called, while in production, "The Tattler", and released as "Here Comes Carter". Thanks to the largesse of Turner Classics, and a friend who taped it for me, I finally had the chance to see it. It has to be one of the best, tightest little "B"'s to have come out of the Warners factory, ever.

Between Ross Alexander and Glenda Farrell, they both break the speed-limit on dialogue delivery in true Warners mid-30's style and the dialogue they're delivering is pretty darn good! But what was most interesting to me, of course, and chiefly why I had been waiting to see this, is because of one of the songs by my grandfather and lyricst Jack Scholl, "Thru The Courtesy of Love". For years I had heard how Jackie Gleason had done a virtual note-for-note rip-off of this as his "Theme Song". Well, there it was. Yup. He sure did. Both Jack Scholl's daughter and myself are still discussing how best to arrange a lawsuit against the Gleason estate while the copyrights are still active.


8:27 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

The sad story of Ross Alexander has haunted me for years. One of the saddest angles is that he was stuck so long paying his dues in B pictures -- which meant that for decades, all we could see of him was Captain Blood and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now that the Warner Archive is releasing some of those titles -- and long-missing A titles like China Clipper and Ready, Willing and Able -- we're getting a clearer picture of exactly what was lost.

And John, I'm stumped by today's banner. Is that Louise Brooks?

7:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Jim --- That's sure enough Louise Brooks from "The Canary Murder Case" on the banner.

RJ, I'd expect Warner Archive to one day release "Here Comes Carter" on DVD. They have been putting out increasingly obscure 30's titles, including one just announced, "Draegerman's Courage," that I never would have expected ...

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Samantha said...

I adore Ross Alexander, and I think he's very underrated as an actor. He has caught my attention in several different films, and even though his style is a bit stagey, he's very good. Thank you for talking about him.

(Have you ever heard the rumors that he might have been killed? Of course there are conspiracy theories in any sudden death, especially celebrity deaths, but I've heard talk in a few different places that says he might have been killed. He was a closeted homosexual and this might have had something to do with it.)

8:50 PM  

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