Sunday 29 July 2007

The Last Flight (1931) William Dieterle

A year after The Dawn Patrol, Richard Barthelmess is back behind the controls of a plane fighting in World War I. It's another John Monk Saunders story, of course, this time directed by William Dieterle. The key point this time is that the war ends about two minutes into the film and so both lead characters find themselves completely out of place. The war has taken its toll on them: Cary Lockwood has burned hands and Shep Lambert has a spasmodic eye. They both have nervous problems caused from plummeting to ground in a burning plane and suddenly they're thrust into a world completely different to what they've become used to.

The point is made quickly. One moment their army doctor regrets that they're heading out to face life while their whole preparation was to face death, then the next moment they're eloquently described by a superior officer as spent bullets. They find themselves in Paris, getting drunk and traipsing around with a flapper called Nikki, as if they have no idea how to do anything else except exhibit the symptoms of their various psychological problems.

The acting is a little clunky on occasion but the story is well told and the key members of the cast are on fine form. Richard Barthelmess is quiet and subtle as Lockwood, probably a little too restrained, but David Manners is a little more lively as Lambert. I'd never have guessed that Manners would look like a thin Peter Sellers just by putting on a pair of glasses. There are others here like Elliott Nugent and Johnny Mack Brown to back them up, but it's Helen Chandler who steals the show beyond any shadow of a doubt.

As Nikki she's unlike any girl I can remember seeing on film. Beyond being pretty yet not too bright, I kept coming up with new words to describe her, like lost yet empowered, uninhibited yet innocent, elsewhere yet in control, childish yet insightful, fragile yet strong, accepting yet wilful. The best has to be ethereal though, as she seems to exist on a different plane to everyone else, perpetually half in a trance and accepting of any situation she happens to find herself in. It's a rivetting performance, never less than surprising.

I've seen Chandler before of course, not only along with Manners in Tod Browning's original Dracula, but in Daybreak, one of Jacques Feyder's few American films, and in Christopher Strong, behind both Katharine Hepburn and Billie Burke. She was never so eye catching as here though and unfortunately she made so few films for me to catch up with. She only made 27 films from 1927 to 1938 before addiction led her into a sanitarium. She didn't die until 1965 but, sadly, she never made another film.

This one's going to be well worth another look as I feel that it's going to continue to grow. Sure, it's old and on occasion a little creaky but it has depths to investigate, very possibly different depths for different people, depending on where life has taken them. Powerful stuff indeed.

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