Stars: Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, Wendy Barrie, John Carradine, Allen Jenkins, Joseph Calleia, C Aubrey Smith, Kent Taylor, Patric Knowles, Elisabeth Risdon and Casey Johnson
What a bizarre cast list for an RKO adventure yarn! A dozen highly varied characters played by a dozen highly varied actors board the Silver Queen for Panama, even though there are prominent Guatemala signs everywhere. It's a plane, the pride of the Air Coast Lines, but it still flounders off course during a storm and crashes into jungle country that's riddled with headhunters. The airline sends reconnaissance flights to track it down but they're looking in the wrong place, so this bunch are effectively on their own to find a solution. As I'm sure you can extrapolate from the title, after a good deal of drama they manage to get the plane back in the air to return safely home, but because of technical limitations only five of the twelve can be on board.
Wendy Barrie and Patric Knowles are a young couple, Alice Melbourne and Judson Ellis, who are apparently boss and secretary but also obviously much more than that. During the stopover in Mexico, we discover that they're eloping, much to the displeasure of their parents. Lucille Ball, who always looked better in black and white to my eyes, is a dreamy sort of sad here, some sort of disreputable young woman called Peggy Nolan. We're not sure initially why she's there but she's wished 'good luck and thanks a million for what you're doing,' by special delivery right before the flight. C Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon are Henry and Martha Spengler, a botany professor on vacation with his wife. Prof Spengler delights in explaining to the passengers the techniques the local headhunters use in shrinking the heads of their enemies.
John Carradine is a bounty hunter, Mr Crimp, who's tasked with escorting Joseph Calleia to the proper authorities in Panama City. He's an anarchist called Vasquez and he'll net $5,000 for delivering him to the hangman. As Pete and Tommy, Allen Jenkins and young 'nephew' Casey Johnson turn up to the plane in a Rolls Royce. Tommy's dad will follow later, or so he says. He's a mob boss and the reports of his death by violence are soon reported over the radio on the plane. Chester Morris is top credited (there really isn't a star per se) but we don't see him for quite a while. He's Bill Brooks, the pilot of the plane, assisted by Kent Taylor and Dick Hogan as Joe the co-pilot and Larry the steward, respectively. Hogan can't have been too happy given that this is a story told by twelve actors, eleven of whom get credits and one of whom didn't. Guess which one he was. Then again he's the first to die, not even making it to the jungle, let alone back from it, leaving the plane in a heroic nature during the storm.
As you might expect from such an ensemble cast, the character development is the key here, and fortunately there's a talented set of writers to provide that, not least Dalton Trumbo. It takes more than the material though, it takes the actors to bring it to life and this film fortunately has a decent amount of both. Almost all the characters change given their new and rather unwelcome surroundings, as you might expect they would, and of course we're left to work out how they're going to change, because the big question comes down to which five are going to make it out and which six are going to be left behind. For the longest time it isn't particularly clear, as each revelation changes how we comprise our list, though by the time it gets down to really calling it, a couple of deaths and a change of circumstances make it reasonably obvious.
We're given a lot of opportunity to think before we get that far. Excluding the child who would always be a given, even the most obvious candidate for not wanting to leave might not have a choice about it. While everyone else wants to leave to get back to their lives, Vasquez would be leaving to get back to his death, something he'd hardly want to do. As a prisoner in custody though, he may not have a choice. It's a truism that times of trouble always bring out the real characters within people, and here's a time of trouble for everyone involved. To get out of it alive, they have to team up and work together, something that's easier for some than others. Sure enough some are great assets, and you'd be an idiot to assume that good old reliable C Aubrey Smith isn't one of that number. Others are more of a hindrance and some exhibit true heroism or villainy.
I won't spoil the outcome, of course, but I don't want to spoil the progression either. It's well written and well acted, though there are a number of things holding it back from beyond its control. For a start it had to struggle along with a budget of $225,000, apparently rather low even by the standards of RKO at the time, but it looks more expensive than it was. It had a mere 75 minutes to unfold, though it could easily have been a three hour epic that concentrated even more on the subtleties of character, but everyone involved did what they could with the inherent limitations, and the end result is much better than I ever expected it would be.
Most obviously it was released in 1939 and just look at what it had to compete with at the ticket booth! This was the year where undying classics couldn't even get Oscar nominations because there were too many to cram in there, even though these were the days when there were ten choices for Best Picture. In full cognizance of its inherent limitations, I'd call it a greater success and far more powerful entertainment in my eyes that the film that the Academy awarded the Best Picture of the year. I'd even dare to suggest that it jerked more tears at Chaos Central.
In fact it plays better to me than a number of other major films that members of this cast were involved with, and of course there are many to choose from. Even little Casey Johnson made three films in 1939 and this was his debut. Chester Morris made four and I've only seen Blind Alley, but this is certainly superior. Lucille Ball made five and I haven't seen any of the others, highlighting yet again that however many films I see from Hollywood's greatest year there are always many more to find. This is my first Kent Taylor of 1939, even though he made seven films that year. At least I've seen three of the five Joseph Calleia made, including Juarez and The Gorilla.
John Carradine was always prolific, meaning that this is only one of nine films he made that year, including at least one other classic that throws a bunch of disparate characters together in close proximity for an extended journey, John Ford's Stagecoach. Other notable films he made in 1939 include The Three Musketeers, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the latter of which also featured Wendy Barrie. Barrie made six films that year, including another with Chester Morris, Pacific Liner. Those sorts of connections are rampant if you look for them.
C Aubrey Smith's most prominent film of the year was The Four Feathers but he had eight to choose from, including the third Thin Man movie, which also featured Patric Knowles. Knowles made six films that year, including Torchy Blane in Chinatown. This was the era of movie series, so Allen Jenkins got to appear in a different Torchy Blane movie, Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite, along with one of my favourite classic westerns, Destry Rides Again. Most prolific of all was Elisabeth Risdon, who managed to land ten parts in 1939, though this is only my second, after the highly underrated Cagney gangster flick, The Roaring Twenties. Whew.
As fits a film that seems to be a popular memory to many, the simple yet powerful concept behind the story resonating to viewers the way I fully expect it to resonate with me, it was remade twice. The first was a Mexican film in 1948 called Los que volvieron, but that looks to be rather obscure. More obvious was a Hollywood production in 1956 made by the same director as this original, John Farrow, called Back from Eternity, which was apparently pretty good even though it added a chick fight that may not have made a lot of sense. It would be interesting to see it, especially given some of the names involved. I'm rather fond of people like Chester Morris, C Aubrey Smith and Allen Jenkins and I'm hardly likely to prefer their replacements, but having Rod Steiger play the Joseph Calleia role could be fascinating to see.