Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THE LAST FLIGHT (1931)

Before you had the crazy Vietnam veteran, you had the Lost Generation. A gap of some wars separates the two. The Lost Generation came of age fifty years before the 'Nam vets, during World War I. Unlike their grandkids, the Lost Generation were usually only threats to themselves. Many were self-exiled, idling in Europe. Others returned to tell their stories. In Hollywood, their bard was John Monk Saunders. He was a flier but never saw combat. He wrote flying stories and flying pictures: Wings, The Dawn Patrol, and so on. The Last Flight is about fliers, wounded physically and psychologically, lingering in Paris after the war. In Saunders's simile, they're like finely-made Swiss watches that have been dropped on the sidewalk. With William Dieterle behind the camera, we follow four of them. The actors are Richard Barthelmess, David Manners, John Mack Brown and Elliott Nugent. Not a promising roster, but all are game. Behind dark glasses much of the time, Manners certainly gives his coolest performance ever as a vet whose only cure for an optical tic is alcohol, while a manic Mack Brown nearly steals the show, as if realizing this might be his last chance to do real acting before his relegation to B westerns.  The others haven't the same excuse but match him drink for drink on their daily bar crawls. Either one or more of them is independently wealthy or else military pensions for invalids were princely by Parisian standards. They drink and joke -- their stated goal is to laugh and play -- but they're all dodging the real issues. My copy of the Time Out Film Guide says this is more Fitzgerald than F. Scott Fitzgerald. That misses the mark a little. Forgive my pedantry but here's a movie about vets drinking in Paris, and sort of collectively courting a poor little rich girl (Helen Chandler), a film that climaxes at a bullfight, and the best you can say is Fitzgerald? Rather, it looks like Saunders is trying to out-Hemingway Ernest Hemingway. A fifth-wheel character who tries to take Chandler from the vets and is a press-service reporter may even be a dig at the great man, who was a reporter at the time of this story. Saunders is no Hemingway, however. He's more melodramatic, knowing his market, and more cathartic in his plotting. At the corrida the Mack Brown character, who had earlier playfully charged and tackled a carriage horse outside a Paris cafe, takes umbrage at Luis Alberini's disparagement of Americans' ability to appreciate bullfighting and jumps into the ring to be fatally gored. This disaster is only prelude to the catastrophe at a carnival shooting gallery that leaves two more of our cast dead. In the end only Barthelmess, being top-billed, and Chandler are left. This is sort of a happy ending but given that Chandler is the most emotionally-fragile figure on screen I couldn't get too optimistic.

Barthelmess, who spent the war in Hollywood and was already a star by 1919, was nearly typed as a troubled vet in the Pre-Code era; see William Wellman's Heroes For Sale for the domestic variation on the Lost Generation theme. Barthelmess looks troubled: at age 36 he reminds me of actors like Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor who got their starts as male beauties but seemed to sour inside as they approached middle age. Barthelmess's lilting voice didn't help him in talkies; it made him seem slow compared to the fast-talkers who took over Hollywood. There's something ambivalent about both his and Chandler's performances that may be intentional on their part, or Saunders's, or Dieterle's. They, and to a lesser extent their co-stars, bark their way through the all-too-witty, all-too-brittle banter without seeming fully to comprehend it. But it may be important that the banter seem forced, that the gang are forcing themselves to laugh and play. Chandler expresses this brittleness better than any of the men; struggling to be zany -- offered any range of choices, she'll "take vanilla" every time -- she also seems likely to burst into tears at any moment for no obvious reason. That worrisome element is crucial to keeping her sympathetic, since at moments she natters on like Gracie Allen, trying to keep up with the boys. Seeing her with Manners immediately evokes memories of Dracula, and while Manners is (almost automatically) more impressive here than in the vampire film, Chandler doesn't really show much more range. She seems defined by a fragility that was not acting, but that may be reading her sad subsequent history into her work in presumably happier days. In any event, that quality suits her to this role as it suited her to Dracula. The discomfort of all the characters should be palpable so that viewers realize that this isn't just some wacky lark in gay Paree or merry Lisbon. That wasn't quite clear to everyone. It was advertised as "the most unusual screen drama ever made" but at least one contemporary newspaper described it as a comedy. Of course, if people kept laughing during the last reel something was wrong. When Last Flight changes tone the shift is shocking; audiences should have been blindsided by the sudden deaths, though they may have felt afterward that they saw it all coming. I suppose you could still see it as comedy, of the blackest kind, or a violent parody of Hemingway, but I suspect Saunders took it more seriously than that. He did have one thing in common with Hemingway: suicide -- but as with Chandler we probably should avoid foreshadowing here. Lets leave Last Flight as a strange, discomfiting relic of that brief moment when everyone really seemed sick and tired of war for doing this to people.

No comments: