sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-06-19 02:17 am
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Ain't them stunt flyers a screwy lot of mugs

I should have slept more before watching The Lost Squadron (1932). Not because it's a difficult film to follow, but because I'd have liked more mental wherewithal to analyze what makes it a weird little curio rather than a lost classic. Possibly it's just that I really wanted to see it directed by William Wellman. Possibly it's just an unsalvageable third act.

Not unlike Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933), the script—from a story by Dick Grace, real-life stunt pilot and eventual veteran of two air wars—follows three World War I aces and their faithful mechanic from the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, where dogfighting pilots break off at the appointed minute, salute one another, and wheel away toward their respective civilian lives, through the confetti and congratulations of a heroes' welcome and into the broken promises and bread lines of a country that couldn't extend those open arms into employment, or pensions, or medical support. High-living Woody (Robert Armstrong, pre-King Kong) thought he had the family fortune to fall back on, but his unscrupulous partner ran through it and/or ran off with it while he was away "on important business in France." Lanky, enterprising Red (Joel McCrea, almost younger than I've ever seen him) can have his old job back—if he accepts the cost of the firm firing a married coworker with a new baby, which he finds that he can't. Former squadron captain Gibby (Richard Dix, a square-jawed hero if ever I saw one) rushes into his girl's apartment only to find her sugar daddy there before him, unconcernedly taking the car downtown to wait for the aspiring actress while she brushes off her old flame. Mechanic Fritz (Hugh Herbert, less of a pure clown than usual1) didn't have a girl, a job, or a fortune to lose, but that still doesn't leave him with much. Before long, three of them are riding the rails to join the fourth in Hollywood, where he's made his name as a stunt pilot in silent movies. "It's easy money," Woody boasts. "Fifty bucks a flight, and all you have to do is a couple of outside loops, tear off a wing, and land upside down." Red laughs, wryly amazed: "To think I used to do it for nothing over in France."

There's a fly in the ointment, of course, and it's the director of the studio, the megaphone-toting, swordstick-twirling Arthur von Furst. Self-parodically played by Erich von Stroheim in man-you-love-to-hate mode, von Furst is the kind of tyrannical martinet who stops a complicated action scene in mid-explosion to scream, "Fools, idiots, nitwits! This is a war picture, not a musical comedy! Haven't you any brains? This is supposed to be war—death—hell—destruction—not a Sunday-school picnic! I'm making this picture for the theater, not for the ashcan! Now we're going to retake it—and we're going to retake it until you do what I tell you!" We're told that "no on-the-level producer" will give him a job anymore, and rumors of his wife-beating are confirmed when he cruelly twists his leading lady's wrist, pulling her away from a startled rapprochement with Gibby. Furst's wife, you see, is Gibby's old girlfriend, having successfully slept her way to movie stardom. I might as well mention here that out of all the pre-Code movies I can remember watching, the female characters in The Lost Squadron are some of the most decoratively useless—Mary Astor's Follette Marsh characterizes herself in her first scene as "ambitious and weak" and does nothing to disprove this description, existing only to motivate von Furst's increasingly dangerous jealousy toward Gibby, while Dorothy Jordan as Woody's younger sister is credited only as "The Pest" and serves a similarly perfunctory purpose as the point of romantic conflict between Gibby and Red. Woody's fluffy little terrier gets more character development. To be fair, this is a movie in which characterization is more sturdy than it is subtle and the actor who makes the greatest impression on the screen is von Stroheim, balancing his counterpart's aggressive temper and dictatorial outbursts on the wavery line between absurdity and actual disturbance. I'm just honestly used to less sidelining of female characters from movies of this period; it wasn't a film-killer, but it was a disappointment.

When the film sticks to action sequences and the perils of working for an unhinged perfectionist, it's great. The aerial stunts are just as impressive as they're supposed to be and there's the intriguing, almost submerged angle of watching the four veterans fall into their familiar wartime patterns, reproducing for the fantasies of the silver screen the maneuvers that were life and death in the skies over no-man's-land. I'm even fine with the shift into thriller territory as von Furst plots to rid himself of his supposed rival and film a realistically tragic crash for the climax of his picture. I just can't help feeling that the last twenty-five minutes go badly off the rails and I'm not even sure I can blame it on the absence of von Stroheim and his enthusiastic scenery-chewing, though I'm sure that didn't help. We can handwave all the melodramatic twists after Woody dies in the crash contrived for Gibby; all you need to know is that they eventually result in Red shooting von Furst, the police coming around to investigate, and Gibby getting rid of the evidence—while simultaneously clearing the way for the uncomplicated marital happiness of Red and the Pest—by taking the body up in his plane and then deliberately, fatally crashing into the set. So far, so Sydney Carton. It's the last few minutes that snapped my disbelief like a wishbone, as the photonegative ghosts of Woody and Gibby appear in the sky over the cemetery, smiling, trading thumbs-ups, steering their phantom machines away through the billowing clouds to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." The internet tells me that the original ending of The Lost Squadron was scrapped and reshot on grounds of implausibility. If this was the more believable option, what the hell was the original like? The mind doesn't boggle, it backs away slowly, trying not to be seen.

On the bright side, it's the earliest movie I've seen in which one character flips another the bird. That won't beat What Price Glory? (1926) for profanity, but it still made me smile. This discovery sponsored by my generous backers at Patreon.

1. He's a competent mechanic, but personally something of a screwup, a middle-aged sad sack introduced goofily drunk for the armistice. But when the flyers are in a sticky situation, without any self-pity or anything more than a small, shrugging glance up at the man he's talking to, Fritz offers, "Then let me take the rap. I've been a flop all my life. Doesn't make much difference what happens to me." Nobody lets him, of course, but just the simplicity with which he says it got my attention.
genarti: Knees-down view of woman on tiptoe next to bookshelves (Default)

[personal profile] genarti 2015-06-19 01:30 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, that ending is not one I saw coming from the description. Uh. Gracious.

But this sounds fascinating, however flawed!
movingfinger: (Default)


[personal profile] movingfinger 2015-06-20 03:28 am (UTC)(link)
I went to the Crocker Museum today to see some of these and his other work, and I kept wishing you were there.
spatch: (Typewriter Guy)

[personal profile] spatch 2015-06-19 06:56 am (UTC)(link)
The mind doesn't boggle, it backs away slowly, trying not to be seen.

I am sure a certain H.B. and a P.K. are nodding somewhere, half out of sympathy, half out of approval.

[identity profile] 2015-06-19 08:59 am (UTC)(link)
I find myself pondering the potential meta here: were the guys who did the actual stunt flying for this film* themselves former war aces scraping a living in Hollywood?

*Since you say the aerial stunts are impressive, I presume there is actual flying happening on screen, and not just a special effect.

[identity profile] 2015-06-19 03:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Slightly off-topic, but now I'm suddenly remembering Billy Bishop's cameo appearance as himself in Captains of the Clouds. In a movie supposedly set in Canada (and actually filmed here), he's just about the only person who doesn't sound like he's from Brooklyn.

[identity profile] 2015-06-20 02:24 pm (UTC)(link)
They're all supposed to be bush pilots, but IIRC, none of them are actually given backstories, so I suppose we could assume they're all Americans who came north, except for "Frenchie," who does try for some kind of French-Canadian accent.

Oh, and there's a Chinese cook -- who does get a good scene: when the group is discussing "the War" he comments -- "Yes -- the enemy needs to be driven east, into the sea."
"Isn't that a long way?" asks one of the pilots.
"Yes, but General Chiang-Kai Shek can do it," the cook smiles.
"Different war," says Cagney. Not for long, I think.

[identity profile] 2015-06-19 07:49 pm (UTC)(link)
I hope you have slept more since then!

[identity profile] 2015-06-21 03:17 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, so they were flipping the bird in 1932. I really do wonder how far back that goes.

To be fair, this is a movie in which characterization is more sturdy than it is subtle

Best backhanded compliment :-)