Wednesday 25 July 2007

The Dawn Patrol (1930) Howard Hawks

The recent festival of aviation films on TCM included three precodes starring Richard Barthelmess, one of those names who had flown very high indeed but is hardly remembered today. Here's the earliest of them, screened as Flight Commander, but made as The Dawn Patrol, which is what the title remained for the remake in 1938.

There are other major aviation connections here. The story is by John Monk Saunders, writer of Wings and husband of Fay Wray, and his name seems to appear everywhere that planes do in the Hollywood of this era. Given that flying planes seemed to be a similar attraction to pulp audiences in the late twenties and early thirties like piloting spaceships would be a decade or two later, that's a major portion of a major market. This one won him an Oscar for his efforts, and it was that title under which it was remade eight years later. The director is Howard Hawks, who later made the wonderful Only Angels Have Wings, among his many classics.

We're in France early in the first world war, when French fliers were up against it fighting the Germans. The film starts as it means to go on with planes in the sky, dogfighting the enemy, from their base on the western front. As you'd expect, it's a tough fight from which some of those who go up don't come back, to the degree that it becomes a production line of death from which nobody can escape. Fresh face after fresh face comes in all raring to go one minute only to be lost in action the next.

The film powerfully explores the impact the knowledge of this has on the people who have to run the show, counting the planes back in, mourning those who don't return with a drink, wiping their names off the blackboard and knowing full well what will happen to the next ones they send out. It also transcends the whole point of the war to focus on the individual stories. At one point a German pilot is shot down and the airmen from each side drink together and share the evening, even though it's one of the allies who had shot him down and he'd shot down one of the allies. The universality of man is a constant here.

It's a powerful story and while the 1938 version is certainly greater as a whole, this one does have some things that weren't bettered, Barthelmess for one. Barthelmess was a major star in the silents, entering pictures in 1917 and starring in such classics as Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Tol'able David. He did more than survive into the talkies, he became one of the most important names of the precodes, heartily lauded by Mick LaSalle in his excellent book Dangerous Men. In 1930, the year this film was made, he was also notable in Son of the Gods and The Lash. Unfortunately his brand of depth didn't survive the introduction of the Production Code and retired after the war to live off investments.

Here he shares the screen with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, where the remake would have Errol Flynn and David Niven. Both are excellent but unfortunately the rest mostly aren't up to the task. Neil Hamilton plays the tough role of the commanding officer, Major Brand, that was given to Basil Rathbone in the remake, and he's just awful. He isn't just not up to Rathbone's version, he doesn't deserve to be on the same screen as either of the co-stars, and the true subtlety of his role is completely lost in his outrageously overdone performance. Then again, given that the peak of his acting career was as Chief Gordon in the sixties TV version of Batman, that's not particularly surprising. As a lesser yet still notable example, Gardner James is amazingly inconsistent, as a pilot who loses his best friend. He has a couple of powerful grieving scenes, but most of them are painful to watch, they're so overdone.

One name that I was happy to see as a supporting actor was Frank McHugh, veteran of many a Cagney or Bogart movie. This, however, is his debut and he doesn't have much of a part. but it's interesting to see how he started.

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