Directed By: Clarence Brown
Starring: John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy
| Studio: Warner |
Film Length: 85 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Release Date: June 7, 2011
The Film ***Night Flight adapts the popular novel from French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry into a film telling the story of daring pilots for the Trans-Andean European Air Mail pioneering the then radical and dangerous practice of running their delivery flights at night. Clark Gable plays pilot Jules Fabian whose flight north along the Eastern Coast of South America towards Buenos Aires is endangered by a sudden storm leaving him off course and low on fuel while his wife Simone (Hayes) frets for his safety at home. Robert Montgomery plays playboy pilot Auguste Pellerin whose journey to Buenos Aires involves a dangerous flight east across the Andes. William Gargan plays the pilot who must ascend into the darkness after hearing the harrowing news about Fabian and Pellerin to attempt the final leg of the mail delivery journey from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. The airline is run with an iron fist by Robineau (John Barrymore) with an obsessive and near maniacal devotion to the idea that the mail must get through and his pilots must be fearless.
While any new classic film on pressed disc these days is a welcome sight, Night Flight is a particular treat to cinephiles as, despite its star-packed cast and high-level production pedigree, it has never before been shown on television or released on any video format. In fact, aside from a recent appearance at this year's TCM Film Festival, it has been virtually absent from any form of public exhibition since 1942. Apparently, author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was only willing to lease the cinematic rights to his literary property for nine years. After protracted negotiations with the author's estate, George Feltenstein and the good folks at Warner Bros. were able to re-acquire the rights in order to bring the film to audiences for the first time in almost seven decades.
While the star-studded cast is worth the price of admission alone, the film is not entirely successful and often feels undermined by some of its artier aspirations. Of the cast, Clark Gable fares the best with almost no dialog and not a single scene that takes place on the ground. Helen Hayes and John Barrymore probably have more lines of dialog than the rest of the cast combined, but both parts feel severely overwritten, delivering lines that keep hammering the same points home over and over again with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Myrna Loy has two decent scenes as the concerned wife of Gargan's character, but that seems like an awful waste considering the fact that she is Myrna Loy for crying out loud! As a somewhat timid employee of Robineau's, Lionel Barrymore manages to steal nearly every scene in which he appears via low-key but entertaining reactions to the more assertive characterizations delivered by the likes of his younger brother and Montgomery.
Aside from the film's cast, its strongest assets are its visual style, courtesy of camera moves and lighting flourishes by cameraman Oliver Marsh, and creative editorial decisions by Hal Kern. The aerial photography by Elmer Dyer and Charles A Marshall and special effects are state of the art for 1933, although modern audiences may be taken aback by the amount of camera shaking during some of the aerial sequences and the rear projection work, particularly early in the film during Pellerin's flight over the Andes, can be a bit distracting.
The film is also unique in the history of MGM as it is the first film from the studio to include a producer's credit, with a title card identifying it as:
DAVID O. SELZNICK Executive Producer
The Video **½The black and white transfer is presented in the film's original 4:3 full frame aspect ratio. Signs of light film damage and occasional wavering contrast appear throughout, but the overall presentation is very solid for a film of its age. Grain is heavy, suggesting that the source element was more than a couple of generations removed from the original negative, but it is not overly filtered. This results in some compression artifacts being confounded with the grain, especially during highly detailed scenes with camera movement, but I personally find these minor artifacts preferable to heavily filtering the image. Grain is significantly increased during opticals, which are plentiful given Director Brown and Editor Kern's frequent (and creative) use of dissolves and wipes. Viewers watching the film's opening credits may panic at the massive amounts of on-screen grain, but as soon as the titles are over, the grain levels settle down to a more reasonable level except for the aforementioned scene transitions.
The Audio **The only audio option is the film's original mono soundtrack presented via a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. The disc authors may have gone light on the grain reduction, but the digital noise reduction is laid on very thick, resulting in a very filtered and frequently muffled sounding audio track. Like most people under the age of 70, I never had the opportunity to see or hear a theatrical screening of the film, so I have no point of reference for what the film is supposed to sound like nor any knowledge of how good or bad the audio elements would sound without the heavy filtering, so its tough to say whether it was necessary or not.
The Extras ***The film comes bundled with two vintage shorts, both presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio.
Swing High (10:10) is a 1932 black and white one-reeler from the "Sports Champion Picture" series. It focuses on "The Flying Codonas", a multigenerational family of aerialists who are shown working out the details of some new trapeze stunts and demonstrating others while accompanied by typically wry narration form Pete Smith. The creative camera angles and strategic use of slow motion make for some impressive footage, and I would highly recommend that purchasers or renters of this disc set aside the ten minutes necessary to watch this entertaining short.
When the Cat's Away (8:31) is a 1935 Harman-Ising short from the "Happy Harmonies" series produced in the not quite glorious "Cinecolor" 2-strip process (fans of the color yellow will be disappointed). It follows the musical antics of a house full of mice when the house cat steps out to sing in a chorus of alley cats. They are eventually joined by cockroaches and a rat as well since there is nothing more entertaining than a singing and dancing infestation of disease carrying rodents and insects.
PackagingThe single sided single layered DVD-5 disc is enclosed in a standard DVD case with die-cut holes to reduce plastic use and no inserts. Art work on the case and and the disc's relatively sparse menus is derived from vintage promotional art, just the way the gods of classic cinema intended. There is no chapter menu, although the film is encoded with nine chapter stops that can be skipped through with a DVD player's remote.
Night Flight is a star-studded MGM tale of pioneering aviators in South America that has been out of circulation for close to 70 years. Its cast and visual style make it watchable despite some non-trivial flaws, inclusive of the underemployment of said cast, that keep greatness at more than an arm's length away. It is presented on DVD with a video transfer that appears to make the best of a difficult element and audio that sounds heavily filtered. Extras include a vintage short and cartoon.