sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-10-27 03:13 am
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I'll send you a photograph of my poetry

I just finished watching The Last Flight (1931). It's a pre-Code movie, directed by William Dieterle from a script by John Monk Saunders, whose novel Single Lady provided the source material; I rented it from the library mostly because it starred Richard Barthelmess. From e-mail to [ profile] nineweaving: "Oh, man. I have to get this down for Patreon. That is possibly the single weirdest film I've seen about World War I."

Remember when I said that if the protagonists of The Dawn Patrol (1938) survived, they'd fit right in with Hemingway's lost generation? Meet the cast of The Last Flight, American ex-servicemen drinking away their days in Paris in 1919. All of them were flyers in the war, all of them invalided out with visible and invisible injuries; their doctors have written them off as "spent bullets . . . like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement . . . useless." They never talk about going home. Shep Lambert (David Manners1) has an elegant clownish face and wears dark glasses to hide the nervous twitch in one eye; it goes away if he's drunk enough, so he makes sure he always is. Cary Lockwood (Richard Barthelmess) burned his hands to the bone bringing them both down safely in a flaming plane; less outgoing than his friend, he carries himself with a wary defensiveness, preemptively cold-shouldering pity, mockery, gratitude. Their old comrades are boisterous, folksy Bill (Johnny Mack Brown) and sleepy-eyed Francis (Elliott Nugent), the sharpshooter of the squadron formerly known as "Sudden Death." When they discover a slender, spacey girl (Helen Chandler) standing at the bar of Claridge's with a stranger's false teeth clasped gravely in a champagne glass between her hands, they recognize her as one of their disconnected own: "Her name is Nikki. She holds men's teeth. She sits at the bar and she drinks champagne. Boys, she's going to be a lot of trouble!" Last and least welcome, Frink (Walter Byron) is the sixth wheel of the group, a pushy journalist with a creeper's manners and a moustache like the villain in a melodrama—but so long as he behaves himself, nobody cares enough about him to throw him out. And then, once the script has assembled all of these intriguing characters in the same city, almost nothing happens.

The film is nearly plotless. There's a flurry of activity near the end as several characters self-destruct in linked succession, but few of these interactions feel inevitably driven so much as plausibly stupid. The opening and closing scenes suffer from the need to say something important about the war experience and mostly just come off as sententious. In between, however, The Last Flight reproduces with startling fidelity the experience of spending a lost weekend with five very interesting, very damaged, very drunk people who have no intention of sobering up any time soon. They talk in banter, in-jokes and non sequiturs, ticcing a funny line around the conversation like the hiccups. Absurdism is a competitive sport. No one has any attention span. Someone hears about a fight and everyone rushes out into the hall to see it; someone wants to get away to Lisbon and everyone else piles into the train; a hotel elevator turns into a flight simulator with two different pilots at the controls. The script is pre-Code, so there's a running joke of increasingly outlandish euphemisms for excusing oneself for the bathroom: "He went off to sharpen his skates . . . shave a horse . . . tame an alligator . . . take a Chinese singing lesson."2 Just the quantities of alcohol drunk by all characters at all times would have disqualified it in the days of the Production Code. After the seven-minute mark, I don't think there's anyone onscreen who's sober. Sometimes they're adorable, sometimes they're heartbreaking, sometimes you just want to stuff them all in a drawer and tell them to shut up. In short, they can be exactly as exhausting and vulnerable as real drunk people, and the film doesn't try to corral them into a three-act drama: they simply appear to exist in a narrative as unstructured and impulsive as their deliberately aimless lives. Even for pre-Code cinema, this is a strikingly modern approach—I expect to find it in the French New Wave, not 1930's Hollywood. The recurring mottos of the story are "Who cares?" and "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

And the damage is real, even more so than I expected from other films of the era.3 Francis sets his pocket watch to wake him at regular intervals because otherwise he drifts away into a permanent narcoleptic daze; he says little because he slurs even when more or less sober. Affable Shep is scarily disoriented, forgetting not just days of the week, but calendar dates and cities—"I kind of lose track of things," he apologizes airily, but he was surprised to hear it was June. Bill looks at first like the healthy exception, energetic and hearty as the college football halfback he was before the war, but his impulse control is shot and he's always a shade too loud, too brawling, too eager to prove his prowess. Self-conscious as he is, easily humiliated by his inability to perform simple social tasks with his scarred and stiffened hands, Cary might actually be the most functional of the group, although he too displays a fatal carelessness toward himself. Nikki is unlike any female character I have seen in a long time, if ever. She has a distracted faun's face and no conversational filters; she paints her toenails because it "seemed like a good idea at the time" and peers nearsightedly, too unselfconsciously for affectation, through an antique lorgnette. She runs back to change her shoes before a trip "on account of I can walk faster in red shoes." Her bathtub is full of lily pads and turtles. I can't imagine her in a recent film; the gravitational pull of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl would be too strong. I can't imagine anything less pixie-like than Chandler's sideways, abstracted, curiously self-contained performance. We never learn any more of Nikki's history than her estranged family's wealth and a few disjointed anecdotes of her childhood ("And when I got home, my toes were spoiled"), but she's blown a fuse somewhere just as much as the boys around her; it is impossible to tell her degree of sobriety or inebriation because it makes no difference to whether she will track a conversation or step over it entirely. She's capable of linear interaction—when Shep cautions her that "Cary likes to be alone. He's as brittle as a breadstick. One silly crack from you and he might break up in sections," she responds with immediate decisiveness, "Well, then I don't think he should be left alone." More often she communicates in bright, drifting fragments like "I'll take vanilla" or "So now I don't let anyone kiss me—hard." And yet to describe her as flighty or ditzy or, God forbid, quirky seems existentially wrong. She is the grounding center of the ex-airmen's lives; she's in an eccentric orbit of her own. If she brought any of this essential strangeness to the role of Mina in the 1931 Dracula, I'm going to enjoy that film much more than I expected.

What else do you want to know? The opening credits are militarily stylized, changing titles with each earth-shaking blast of a field gun. The battle sequences in the first few minutes of the film look like a mix of historical footage and excerpts from other WWI pictures—I'm pretty sure I recognized a bombing from The Dawn Patrol. Everyone seemed so declamatory in the early hospital scenes that it took me at least one round of drunken surrealism to warm up to the characters, so give it time; not all of the dialogue is off-kilter gold or at least molybdenum. Some of it is very funny. The very last lines are among the most emotionally pitch-perfect endings I know. Internet research indicates that the film was a critical hit and a commercial flop; it was a passion project of Barthelmess' and I hope he would feel rewarded to know that his efforts created, if not a classic, then at least a cult film. It is weirder than The Sun Also Rises (1926) and way the hell better than The Lost Squadron (1932). This delightful experience brought to you by my helpful backers at Patreon.

1. I'll see him on Saturday as Jonathan Harker in Dracula (1931), but I noticed him last year as the star of Crooner (1932), a fictionalized history of the megaphone crooner craze as a boom-and-bust fame story with fantastically racy jokes. My personal favorite, which wouldn't have flown a few years later: to convey the extraordinary and unprecedented sex appeal of the protagonist's singing style, the camera pans across a nightclub to the honey-melting croon of "Three's a Crowd" and we see, table by table, all the women looking dreamy-eyed and excited, all the men looking resentful and unimpressed, until we reach the dreamy-eyed young man who gushes, "I think he's superb," and the very butch woman next to him who says unimpressedly, "He's lousy."

2. Like, we can argue about the degree to which toilet humor in a movie is a good thing, but I was still surprised at an eighty-four-year-old film containing a scene in which a character is incredibly relieved to discover that the drunk next to him only poured a glass of beer down his leg.

3. I will never pass up an opportunity to recommend William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933), where the protagonist gets out of the army with a morphine habit and the film condemns the institutions that smugly punish him for it. I will have to see Barthelmess sometime in one of his silent starring roles, because based on his pre-Code work and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), my current image of him is the go-to guy for fucked-up disillusion.
skygiants: Tory from Battlestar Galactica; text "I can't get no relief" (tory got shafted)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-10-27 12:49 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, this film sounds fascinating!

Belated comment is belated

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[personal profile] genarti 2015-10-27 01:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Huh! This sounds like a fascinating historical gem -- a gem of unexpected interest, whether or not it's something beautifully crafted per se. But it sounds like maybe it's at least mostly that too.
kore: (Default)

in which there is way too much cinematic and literary trivia

[personal profile] kore 2015-10-27 01:47 pm (UTC)(link)
Thought you might enjoy this tidbit - the film was based on a series of stories about Nikki, and there was a musical adaptation on Broadway with Fay Wray and Archie Leach -- who changed his name to Cary Grant, after the character, although Paramount made him choose a new last name. The screenwriter, John Monk Saunders, adapted his story for the stage.

Saunders serves as a punchline in biographies of the Fitzgeralds to a drunken joke, but he was Fitzgerald's age, from Minnesota, and was paid a huge sum for Paramount for the rights to his unfinished novel Wings, the adaptation of which went on to win the first Oscar. Saunders married Fay Wray, but the marriage broke up because of his addictions, and his end is very sad. There's a not-bad bio here (Despite the name that's not a blog of mine!) Supposedly Nikki was based on Fay Wray, although I don't know how true that is. He was definitely a member of the Lost Generation, one who "didn't get over" and was haunted by war the rest of his life, especially because he didn't experience it first-hand.

The stories were called "Nikki and Her War Birds", serialized in Liberty (where Fitzgerald's work also appeared) and published as a novel in 1930 called Single Lady, which was a working title for the film. Another one was Spent Bullets. So Nikki goes from stories, to novel, to film, to musical.

Two of the stories recently
running in the Liberty Magazine
are being given screen treatment
and will soon go into production....
First National purchased John
Monk Saunders' stories of
"Nikki and Her Warbirds," later
published as "The Single Lady.*'
Richard Barthelmess, who has
been wanting to do another
aviation picture, will be given
the lead—and the answer to his

I found some quotes from Mick La Salle's 2002 book, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man:

"These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over [Nikki's] legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking a dim memory when such things were to live and die for...."

"Nikki isn't a woman of the world, but an airy figure with a child's honesty and an adult's sadness, a female version of the men. (Chandler, whose own hopeless alcoholism would lead to tragedy, couldn't help but bring a special truth to the role.)" (p. 100)
rydra_wong: Norma Shearer leans back with her hands hehind her head, wearing a very minimal white silk dress and looking pleased.. (norma -- dress)

Re: in which there is way too much cinematic and literary trivia

[personal profile] rydra_wong 2016-10-24 07:44 am (UTC)(link)

I love some of the other bits in this, like the "Wallace Beery Gets Correctly Executed in Gangster Picture" headline (and accompanying story), and this:

Having successfully managed to sing while cavorting on roller skates, Beatrice Lillie won't be happy until she tries it while being tossed around by adagio dancers. She plans to make the attempt as soon as she finds the adagio dancers.

From the bits I have heard of her, that sounds typical.

Beatrice Lillie:

[identity profile] 2015-10-27 11:48 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, a character like Nikki would definitely veer into Manic Pixie Dreamgirl territory if someone tried to conceive of her now. As it is, from bits you describe, she sounds like someone with a foot fetish for her own feet, which is something I haven't encountered before.

I was going to ask if Cary's war injury meant that he now has HOOKS FOR HANDS but I see from further on that no, the hands survived, just not very functionally.

[identity profile] 2015-10-27 03:37 pm (UTC)(link)
Have you ever seen The Time of Your Life? Compared to this, it's at least superficially a bit cheerier, but built around a similar notion of "plotless hanging-out with some interesting drunk people." Cagney's character in particular clearly has some kind of interesting backstory/damage/superpowers, and we're never told what.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2016-12-22 09:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I didn't see this before, but that's based on the play of the same name by William Saroyan, who was famously plotless, at least in his era. He was WWII rather than WWI, though, since he was born in 1908.

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[identity profile] 2015-10-27 06:05 pm (UTC)(link)
"on account of I can walk faster in red shoes."

But can she stop?

Amazing film. Thank you.


[identity profile] 2015-10-27 06:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks. Now I really want to see this too.
gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-10-27 08:25 pm (UTC)(link)
That sounds very strange and wonderful. I think the only films by David Manners I've seen are Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat, and he plays basically the same clueless romantic lead in all of them. Helen Chandler's Mina also isn't super interesting (especially compared to Lupita Tovar in the Spanish-language version), though there may be glimpses of the strangeness you describe in the scenes where Mina acts under Dracula's influence. Having only seen these performances by Manners and Chandler, I'm very curious to see them in The Last Flight. (I'm also curious to see your reaction to Dracula; I've seen it many times, but saw it on a big screen for the first time last weekend, which was quite wonderful. Dwight Frye's Renfield is probably my favorite thing about it.)

[identity profile] 2015-10-27 10:07 pm (UTC)(link)
This just sounds seriously beyond belief. I love it.

I'm always amazed by how much people drink in old films, and how normalized it is; at least this cast has its reasons. Watching The Thin Man, I kept thinking that one day everybody onscreen would be dead of liver failure and probably distinctly sooner than they thought, so they'd better solve that damn case quick.

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[identity profile] 2015-10-28 01:16 am (UTC)(link)
Frederic Brown's characters drink enough (and in most cases, with enough believable quiet desperation) that I end up worrying about the author's own life. At least Doc Stoeger in Night of the Jabberwock has an unlikely tolerance for the stuff -- I went back and counted how many drinks he had over the course of the novel's 24-hour timeline, and concluded that he must be some kind of alcohol-powered android who only *believes* himself to be a 52-year-old small-town newspaper editor.

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[identity profile] 2015-10-28 01:09 am (UTC)(link)
I just looked up John Monk Saunders, the scriptwriter and author of the original novel, and it sounds as though he wasn't far off from his own characters, or perhaps in some way he felt ashamed for *not* being them -- he'd been in the air force but hadn't been deployed, and the article I found on his 1940 suicide speculates he'd gone into a downward spiral of guilt after having thrown a punch at Herbert Marshall (who'd lost his leg in battle) at a Hollywood party.

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[personal profile] movingfinger 2016-11-16 01:26 am (UTC)(link)
I just watched this (finally). It's beautiful. Barthelmess looks unexpectedly like a gracile Shackleton. Nikki's PTSD is riveting, and the way she responds to the damaged people she's picked up by gradually, sporadically, coming into focus, is heartbreaking. I don't know if she and Cary can survive the Twenties.

Frink is an odd duck. He's a reporter for a New York newspaper, or is he? I think he is, and I wonder if he is supposed to be reporting on the Americans who haven't come home. He seems not to be any flavor of veteran himself, and I wonder whether he didn't fight and resents the ravaged men who did---for being so weak as to be damaged, for doing what he couldn't, I don't know.

As ever, it's worth observing that their old-style martinis are smaller than the big gulps served in all the bars nowadays. They look to be about an ounce and a half.

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Lowering the tone

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rydra_wong: From the film "The Last Flight": Nikki sits at the bar, smoking and looking ethereal. (last flight -- nikki)

[personal profile] rydra_wong 2016-11-21 05:08 pm (UTC)(link)
My Google wanderings have turned up the existence of this book, published in 1972, which contains an essay on The Last Flight by Tom Shales which was apparently one of the first modern appreciations of it: (link goes to a review which kindly transcribes the TOC -- it looks like there may be other good things in it too)

Am attempting to acquire; will report back if interesting.

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rydra_wong: From the film "The Last Flight": Nikki sits at the bar, smoking and looking ethereal. (last flight -- nikki)

[personal profile] rydra_wong 2017-01-12 08:40 pm (UTC)(link)
my current image of him is the go-to guy for fucked-up disillusion.

On the basis of Way Down East and Tol'able David, circa 1921 he seems to have been the go-to guy for "innocent farmboy", which I find amusing.

(Somewhere in the multiverse, Richard Barthelmess is Luke Skywalker.)

LaSalle found a quote from him where he described himself as "the screen's champion underdog", which seems like a common thread through many of his roles.

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