Ralph Bellamy is one of the rare actors to become an archetype. It wasn't exactly flattering to the show-business survivor who got his Hollywood start in 1931 and endured to appear in movies people today may still recognize as "modern" (Trading Places, Pretty Woman, etc.). Bellamy is remembered by film buffs for his 1930s roles as a romantic loser, the guy who lost the girl, often to Cary Grant. During the "classic" era of Code Enforcement, to be a Ralph Bellamy type was to be ineffectual, a little dull in more than one way, and hopeless in competition with the leading man.
In the Pre-Code era, Bellamy sometimes got the girl. More to the point, Pre-Code Bellamy fought for his woman, sometimes to the death. In Russell Birdwell's Flying Devils, an RKO aviation picture from the Merian C. Cooper era, that makes Bellamy the villain. He plays Speed Hardy, the impresario of a flying-circus thrill show featuring "The Black Cats." The team includes his wife Ann (Arline Judge), his alky mechanic Screwy (future Jiminy Cricket Cliff Edwards), and aloof Ace Murray (top-billed Bruce Cabot). Birdwell and his writers portray the flying circus as a desperate, dissolute lot. Screwy acts crazy but his girl-chasing -- women around the world have autographed his overalls, one in Chinese -- suggests another meaning to his name. For Ace stunting is a dead end. It's the only flying work he can get after a conviction for bootlegging. He also fits the "lost generation" type of men damaged by the late war. He shies away from displays of affection, telling Ann that he's "not into that stuff," while Screwy invites girls to play "airplane" -- lips touching equals "contact." All is well, as well can get with this lot, until Ace's younger brother Bud (Eric Linden) shows up intending to drop out of college and join Ace in the air. Ace tries to talk him out of it. If he must fly, Bud should get an air mail or airline job instead of the no-future of stunt flying. Bud is irrepressible, however, and so is his passion for Ann Hardy, which awakens a jealous monster in Speed.
Ace and Bud aren't competitors, but their relationship reminded me of the romantic competition between brothers in another flying picture, William Wellman's Central Airport. That's another picture in which the hero's younger brother gets the girl, as if signalling that the lost generation needs to step aside -- to get lost, one could say. In Central Airport Richard Barthelmess simply goes on his way, but Flying Devils is more melodramatic and more pessimistic in its climax.
Speed hires Bud for the Black Cats and features him and Ann in a double parachute jump routine. Nature takes its course, however, and a joyride crash landing forces the unhurt youngsters to take shelter in someone's home. In a moment of Pre-Code subtlety Ace and Speed find them and Speed inspects the house. We don't see what he sees, but we just know it from his reaction: Bud and Ann stayed overnight, but only one bed was used. Speed conceives a revenge out of pulp fiction -- the real stuff, I mean. He sells Bud on the idea of staging a midair collision of expendable planes, both pilots bailing out seconds before the crash. Then he sabotages Bud's parachute, not knowing that Screwy saw him (two of him, in fact, Screwy is so hammered) do it. Word gets around in time for Ace to take to the air for unscheduled real aerial combat with Speed. This crowd gets more than they bargained for when Ace saves the day by ramming Speed's plane, blowing both of them out of the sky. It's an insane finish that hasn't really been built up properly. Ace may seem lost but he didn't seem doomed. His sacrifice seems less noble than senseless. But I guess the film had to end with one man standing, not counting Screwy, who's interested in every woman but Ann. Flying Devils is edgy in tone but too over the top at the end for its own good. I call your attention to it chiefly for the relative novelty of Ralph Bellamy with balls, before Code Enforcement neutered him for posterity.