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Sunday, 30 September 2007

Flight (1929) Frank R Capra

It's the big New Years Day football game and they bring on Lefty Phelps to stir everything up. He does so by running the wrong way and scoring a winning touchdown for the other team, which means that everywhere he goes everyone laughs at him. The first person he meets that doesn't (or rather does, but takes it back) is a marine corps flight instructor, Panama Williams, and so Lefty signs up for the marines. From then on, we get the same old marine story that we've seen many times before, with most of the same twists and very few differences. There's hope, there's failure, there's adventure, there's redemption, there's a love triangle. What there isn't is anything new.

The last one of these I saw was The Flying Fleet, also from 1929, which is an obvious comparison as it isn't far off being exactly the same film. The chief difference is that The Flying Fleet was made with the sanction of the US Navy, making it a lot more authentic if a little more like a hiring commercial. It also provided a lot more planes and a lot more aviation sequences, which can hardly hurt a film like this. There was also a major star, Ramon Novarro, along with Anita Page as the love interest and a young man called Ralph Graves.

In Flight we have Ralph Graves too, as the main character Lefty Phelps, and he co-wrote the story too. Given that The Flying Fleet came out in January and Flight in December, it would appear that Graves merely rewrote the script from the earlier film to make his own, the only real addition being the whole Wrong Way Corrigan bit. This was actually inspired by a college football player Roy Riegels, whose own famous wrong way run was in the 1929 Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, meaning that Graves wasn't even subtle enough to vary the details. Given that Corrigan's famous flight was in 1938, when he flew from New York to Ireland instead of Long Beach, maybe he took inspiration from this film! Certainly it would appear that his wrong way flight was deliberate, whatever he might have said officially.

The most obvious thing about this film is that it would have made a much better silent film than a sound film, hardly something unusual in 1929 when the studios were getting used to the new technology. Both the leads had long careers in the silents (Holt was even one of the founders of the Academy), but those careers foundered in the sound era because neither of them were any good with their voices. They looked the part all right but sounded all wrong: not just their tones but their inflections and everything else. They would have sucked royally on radio and they couldn't survive long in sound film. Both of them would be back in planes again, and zeppelins too, for Capra's Dirigible in 1931, but that had a different plot at least and is far superior. I haven't yet caught Submarine, the first of the three films they all made together (Graves, Holt and Capra) but it would be interesting at least as it's a silent.

Anyway Lefty fails miserably as a student pilot, but stays in the marines through Panama's influence and becomes his mechanic. They go off to Nicaragua to fight the rebels, and of course Elinor Murray, the girl they both love, finds her way there too as a nurse, meaning that the whole love triangle gets a chance to come to a head. No, this one is not particularly subtle in the slightest, and in fact gets embarrassingly unsubtle more than a few times. You could write the rest of the story yourself. If I hadn't seen The Flying Fleet, I'd have thought a lot more of this one, though a lot more still doesn't mean much in this instance.

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