Thursday, December 21, 2017

Joy Cometh in the Morning

I think that classic film fans are idealistic.  We may differ in our lives in many ways, but we share that basic element of idealism that is likely the result of watching films from a more unabashedly idealistic -- and yet, no less troubled -- era of history.  "Watching" perhaps isn't a strong enough word; we absorb these films through a wonderful intellectual and emotional osmosis.  They give us ideas, stir up our feelings, add value to our lives in ways which I think we are actually acutely aware.  They also give us inspiration and courage.

James Stewart in the above photo comes with hat in hand to Lionel Barrymore, the Scrooge-like villain of Bedford Falls.  The great difference between Mr. Potter and Mr. Scrooge is that Scrooge will undergo redemption and become a decent human being again at the end of the story.  Mr. Potter will not.  

James Stewart as George Bailey is demoralized, defeated, crawling to him for money, for mercy.  He is at the end of his rope.  It is George, not Potter, who undergoes an epiphany with the help of supernatural aid. When his brother Harry announces at the end of the film, "A toast to my  big brother George, the richest man in town!" -- we cry, the church bells in our heads ring, and it is a moment to rejoice.  His family, his friends, his community have come to his rescue.

We are lucky to be classic film fans; those who are not may have more difficulty swallowing the idea that good can triumph over evil through something so simple as all of us helping each other.  We will need that lesson, and that kind of inspiration and courage to get through the years to come.  Fascism is evil, and it is with us in the White House, in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, and is bleeding downward to state and local offices.  There may be a time when a black and white movie about a wealthy man who strips the poor of what they have, destroying any possibility of their climbing into the middle class will be banned.  Consider how during the infamous House Un-Amercian Activities committee, which we covered in this previous post, a film like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) could be criticized because it showed a character who was a wealthy banker merely for showing him in a less than flattering light; and for showing a character who embraced far right-wing politics being punched in the face.

We've had the draconian tax bill destroying our future.  We've had the encouragement of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis.  We've had the protections stripped away, the rules broken, the nation sold out to the highest bidders, foreign and domestic.  Now look for censorship, and erasing the Bill of Rights.

Let's remember our idealism in the face of this, and have courage, and help each other.

To all who visit this blog, may I wish a Merry Christmas for those who celebrate it, and a very Happy New Year to all.  May we discover, as George Bailey did so hopefully expressed in Psalm 30:5:  "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

We'll see you next on Thursday, January 4, 2018, for another year of Another Old Movie Blog.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mankind Was My Business - A Christmas Carol (1951) and Scrooge (1935)

John Krakowski, Chicopee, Mass., 1911, photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novella written in six weeks in 1843 whose power to entertain has lasted over a century and a half.  It has received several film treatments; today we have a look at Scrooge (1935), and A Christmas Carol (1951), but Dickens always invites us to look beyond the tale on the page—or the screen. There is a rich background to our experience with this story, a tale that instructs as much as it entertains.

One year I attended a local community theatre production of A Christmas Carol, which I will always remember for a charming blooper at the very end of the show.  The little boy who played Tiny Tim was lifted onto the shoulders of the man playing his father, Bob Cratchit, and he was to jubilantly shout the last line of the show: “God bless us, everyone!”  He literally stopped the show—by forgetting his line.  The other members of the cast, all dressed in some semblance of Victorian London, as much they could with a limited budget, huddled around with frozen, expectant grins, waiting for him to end the show.  Nothing.  The boy just calmly observed the audience, daydreaming with a pleasant smile from the advantage of his perch.  “Bob Cratchit” grew nervous, and perhaps a little tired, as the boy got heavier with each moment.

Crickets.  Finally, a handful of people in the audience started to shout out, “God bless us…”

And then the rest of the audience, laughing as we did so, finished the sentence, “EVERYONE!”   Then, of course, the little boy remembered he had forgotten to say something, so he quickly blurted it out, “Godblessuseveryone!”  In any other play, the audience probably would have thought that the play ended with silence, and begun to file out after some applause.  This was one of the few plays in existence where every member of the audience KNEW the last line, and we weren’t going anywhere until we heard it.  That we supplied it ourselves made for a lovely, interactive sort of theatre.

I’ve always felt that A Christmas Carol was a very interactive piece of literature.  It does not render us as passive readers or a passive theatre or film audience.  We are intimately involved because we must ponder every nuance of Scrooge’s experiences and wonder at the enormity of the lessons he is learning, and sometimes even wonder if he is actually learning them.  It has been said that author Charles Dickens is the father of the modern Christmas because of this book and its impact, and that may be so in a world where tales of Bethlehem and the Messiah seem diminished in nearly two centuries of an industrialized world where commercialism is the new religion.  I would imagine that there are many homes where the Crèche has been replaced by a ceramic village meant to evoke a largely fictional Victorian Good Old Days where the only thing held sacred is sentimentality.

Despite Tiny Tim’s blessing on us, there is really very little sentimentality in AChristmas Carol, however; it is one of the few modern Christmas tales whose message is redemption—that same powerful point of the First Christmas.  Instead of a biblical setting, we have a claustrophobic brick and mortar jungle during the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

The story has always been a favorite of mine; my twin brother and I read it aloud to each other for years, often making some of the characters sound like Yosemite Sam or Sylvester.  We were cartoon junkies at an early age.  One of my earliest memories is watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), with Jim Backus, of course, as Mr. Magoo; the wonderful Paul Frees supplying several voices; Royal Dano as Marley’s Ghost; and in an interesting bit of casting, Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit.  As delightful as this musical cartoon version is, the segment where young Ebenezer is singing about his loneliness in the boys’ school, “I’m All Alone in the World,” destroys me.  Perched on a stool in an empty classroom, trying to draw a hand on the chalkboard to pretend to grasp it—all I can think of are the playground outcasts, those with difficulty being accepted, the shy, the physically or mentally challenged, the different, those who are not approached and find it hard to approach others.  How many autistic children mourn their childhoods as being people to avoid, “A hand for a hand was planned in the world, why can’t my fingers reach?  Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach?”  I’ve been watching it for fifty years; it still brings tears.

This is the power of Dickens’ masterful tale, and his exquisite telling of it.  Even in a Mr. Magoo cartoon, it is not sentimental.  But neither is it so cynical that we are given a villain to despise and destroy.  It would be so easy to have Scrooge vanquished and let everyone live happily ever after, but Dickens doesn’t do that.  He shows us a sad boy who became a greedy man, and then allows him to be redeemed.

But the path to redemption is not easy.

Speaking of cartoons, I also recall watching the 1971 animated version (which you can watch on YouTube here) that is the scariest and most bleak telling of the story I have ever seen.  It haunted us as kids.  Ebenezer Scrooge is voiced by Alastair Sim.

Which brings us to the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol. Sim played Scrooge here as well, in a British-produced film that was the standard for a generation.  Movies would not revisit the story again until 1970 and the musical Scrooge.  Sim pastes a continual sneer across his face as an expression of Scrooge’s distaste for others and his sarcasm for his kindly nephew; to the many poverty-stricken renters who owe him money and whom he evicts; to his longsuffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, whom he berates for using more coal to bank the fire in their chilly office.  He even humiliates Bob by suggesting he is a fool for celebrating Christmas on the meager salary he pays him.

At the end of the movie, however, when Scrooge embraces the meaning of Christmas and the idea of charity to others, he erupts into hearty giggles, laughing at himself for trying to suppress them, which, more than other actors who have played the role, lets us see that Scrooge all along has had a sense of irony, a latent sense of humor.  Who but a man with a sense of humor could knock out, “There’s more of gravy than of grave in you,” to Marley’s Ghost.

The movie also presents us a textbook telling of the ills of capitalism, the end game of which we’re witnessing today, which seems to indicate that AChristmas Carol is in some ways as prescient as Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work.  When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to Fezziwig’s, the company where he was apprenticed as a young man, he witnesses a venture capitalist of the day trying to get Mr. Fezziwig to invest in a new scheme where machine manufacturing takes the place of humans.  Fezziwig is a bit of a Luddite, perhaps, because he will not change his business to the new model.  “There’s more to life than money,” he replies.

The venture capitalist makes an impression on young Scrooge, and he and his partner Marley will buy out Fezziwig’s.  When one of the young clerks anxiously asks Scrooge if he will be retaining him under the new management, Scrooge replies that yes, he can keep his job—for four shillings instead of the five Fezziwig had been paying him.  And so it goes.  Even today, we know the pattern.  Scrooge learns, “control the cashbox and you control the world.”  How many in the current Republican-held Congress and White House would agree?

Dwight mill gate, Chicopee, Mass., photo by J.T. Lynch

Looking back, I suspect another reason I was always so taken with this story as a child is because it seemed real and true to me, its setting and circumstances was something that was familiar to me and with which I could identify. I grew up in a New England factory town.  Enormous manufacturing bastions of soot-stained red brick were the backdrop of my childhood, and since some of them, as well as some commercial buildings in town, date from the early 1840s when A Christmas Carol was written, you can easily, on a cold, grey, foggy December evening, imagine yourself back in the days of Charles Dickens—the scene was, as they say, Dickensian.  Generations of my family worked in these factories.  We had a few farmers, craftsmen, small business owners as well, but it was the factory workers for whom I felt the most affinity.  They seemed to have endured much, and yet enjoyed a zest for life that belied their limited opportunities.  I’ve done factory work as well, and appreciated having the opportunity to know something firsthand of their experience. 

Sophie, Chicopee, Mass., 1911, photo by Lewis Wickes Hine,
Library of Congress
The sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, who documented child labor in the early twentieth century, came to my town and shot this photo, now in the Library of Congress, of a girl named Sophie, who tended the bobbins in a cotton textile mill here, in 1911.  The venture capitalists in Boston made a mint off her.  The dreaded poorhouse was just down the street for those—perhaps like Tiny Tim—who would never have the strength to work 13-hour days at the mill.

Much of those nineteenth century and early twentieth century industries in my town closed during the Great Depression, though some factories closed because the corporations moved their operations to the South, where there were no unions and they could pay their employees much less.  The union to which my father belonged in his 40-year factory job fought—over many, many strikes—to grant him the peace of mind in my parents’ old age they would not have otherwise had:  A modest monthly pension and decent health insurance.  They had little else at the end of their lives, but they had that.  These came from the union’s bulldog efforts; the corporation would never have been so generous otherwise.  That was a lesson from my childhood, and one that I take into my reading of A Christmas Carol.

But even Scrooge knew the importance of an employer’s benevolence, when he comes to the defense of his employer Fezziwig when the Ghost of Christmas Past chides him for his praise of a simple Christmas party at work:

“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

Mr. Dickens came to New England on his first American book tour and was taken to Lowell, Massachusetts—a planned industrial city that was the model for my own town—and marveled at how the English-born Industrial Revolution exploded with a new American vigor.  He also came to my area to give readings from A Christmas Carol.  See my New England Travels blog next Tuesday the 19th for more on Dickens’ trip through New England.

Because Dickens had been sent to a workhouse as a young man to pay off his father’s debt, some of the most poignant and politically charged passages of A Christmas Carol are borne of his firsthand knowledge of getting squashed in the cogs of the Industrial Revolution.

In A Christmas Carol, those pesky “snowflake” social do-gooders come to Scrooge asking for a donation to their fund for the poor:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Soon, Marley’s Ghost will chastise him for his soul-destroying greed, and warns him not to fall into the same otherworld of everlasting torment that Marley has earned:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

In Scrooge (1935), another British-produced film, we have Seymour Hicks in the title role, who had a long history of playing the character.  He’d been Scrooge on stage since the late 1800s, so we have an authentic bit of theatre history in this actor who’d practically originated the role on stage.  This movie also, quite interestingly, is filmed in a simplistic theatrical manner, with some scenes almost like the tableau of nineteenth century theatre, or reminiscent of silent film techniques.  The ghosts who visit him are mere shadows, we have no actors playing them, and Mr. Hicks remains center stage for most of the film—though look for a brief scene with Shakespearean actor and future father of Samantha Stevens on television’s Bewitched, Maurice Evans, in the role of a poor fellow whom Scrooge evicts.

Scrooge is more nervous in this interpretation, more eccentric and less evil than in Alastair Sim’s crusty characterization.

When Cratchit’s poor, struggling family toast Scrooge as “the founder of the feast” we are reminded that the under classes acknowledge that there are masters and there are servants—especially in the then rather rigid caste system of British society.  Particularly touching is the scene where a large banquet is held by some wealthy folk and they toast the Queen, singing “God Save the Queen.”

The camera pans back to the dark, cold, alley where a mob of poor—children and adults—wait for scraps.  They immediately stand to attention and sing the anthem as well, just as reverently and as proudly.  They are not seeking revolution.  Perhaps they cannot even imagine equity.

What these two films omit is the searing message Dickens puts in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present confronts Scrooge with his own arrogant assumption that the wealthy are more important than the poor. It is a lesson that the greedy need to learn over and over again.  For some, like a stupid man who would install gold toilets in his gaudy home, the lesson is too difficult to learn.

This scene was played out, however, in the excellent 1984 television version starring George C. Scott.  The Ghost refers not only to the rapacious Scrooge, but those who prop up their own power by dismissing the humanity of others:

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us… Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

There is a suggestion of revolution, perhaps, as well, when the ghost shows him two child specters:

"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

That is probably the most important, most profound passage in the book.

Scrooge’s conversion is the crux of the story that really links the Modern Christmas with the Biblical One.  Dickens approached the Christian idea of salvation and loss of salvation through his world of the Industrial Revolution, and deftly merges Scrooge’s redemption—a greedy guy who has a change of heart for the sake of his fellow man, and a guy who recognizes his sins and tries to atone for them for his own sake.  The story becomes appealing for both those who are religious and those who are not.  It reaches us on all levels.  His salvation is based largely on his newfound empathy, for that is what leads to his atonement, perhaps equally if not more than his fear of eternal retribution for his behavior.  The arrogant don’t fear hell—they feel they are omnipotent, and those lacking in empathy cannot imagine the distress of others. 

But Dickens gives us a Scrooge who can change—for most of us, a herculean task. A villain who becomes a hero.  Alastair Sim and Seymour Hicks marvel that they made it to Christmas Day and a new, clean slate is before them.  Because of Scrooge's change of heart, maybe Bob Cratchit and his kids can soldier on through the Industrial Revolution a little easier.

God bless us.  Everyone.

photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Aviatrix - Part 2 - Wings and the Woman, and Flight for Freedom

The devil-may-care aviatrix of the 1920s and 1930s became a serious and somehow less fancy free figure in the 1940s. Wartime was not the arena for setting records, but in another sense the aviatrix seemed to have had her wings clipped in this new era where the great flyers were aces, and were in uniform, and were men. Though women pilots did help in terms of ferrying planes and pulling targets, they were not allowed in the combat air forces of the Army or Navy. The line was drawn between the genders in aviation that did not exist in the earlier decades of flight.

We continue our series on the aviatrix with two films from the 1940s: Wings and the Woman (1942), and Flight for Freedom (1943). They both illustrate a more self-conscious female pilot than in the first two films we discussed in last week’s post: Tail Spin,and Women in the Wind, both from1939. The wartime aviatrix was back to fighting the battle of the sexes.

Wings of the Woman was a British film (released in the U.K. as They Flew Alone) about the real-life Amy Johnson, who was a heroine in a British Empire that marveled over her skill and daring, and followed her exploits over their empire on which the sun, at least at that time, never set. She was the first woman to fly solo to Australia from London, and also the first to fly to Cape Town, South Africa.

Anna Neagle plays Amy Johnson in a really luminous performance. The film begins when Amy rebels as a teenager at her school uniform, particularly over the nineteenth century straw boater which she and the other girls must wear. She stomps on hers and manages to switch the rest of the class to the more modern straw Panama hat. It is from this incident that the introductory narration remarks: “And to all the Amy Johnsons of today, who have fought and won the battle of the straw hat - who have driven through centuries of convention - who have abandoned the slogan 'safety first' in their fight for freedom from fear - from want - from persecution - we dedicate this film.”

The film lauds her independence and her drive. As a young woman she attains college degrees, applies herself in different office jobs, but it is not until she begins her hobby of learning to fly where she feels the most satisfaction and the greatest sense of purpose for her intelligence and her energy. In the 1930s her exploits captivated the British public and she became famous. In close-ups of her perched in the cockpit the film becomes an intimate examination of not only her motives but of the great sense of freedom she feels while she is flying. One particular scene, where after several hours of exhaustion and despair, she finally sights her goal of reaching northern Australia, the relief and ecstasy on her face are more eloquent than any explanations of why would a young woman want to put herself through such a dangerous test.

The film explores in a more introspective way a woman’s need to excel and to feel the freedom of pursuing her own dreams, as well as the unusual freedom of just being alone. (Indeed, in the two films we discussed last week from 1939, there was a camaraderie in a community of female flyers; but in the two wartime films in this post, the ladies are truly solo, without the support of other women.) In the first two films that we discussed last week, which were more lighthearted and less introspective, we do not examine the women’s motives for being pilots. This may result in a less satisfying story; however there is, ironically, a greater sense of freedom and self command displayed in those earlier two movies by the women who never needed to be examined for their motives, never needed to explain why they were doing what they were doing, and never needed validation. They were just pilots, and that was jake with the men around them. In a sense, it was not a story about men and women; there were only pilots and non-pilots.

But the two movies we discuss today drag us back into the dismal realm of the battle of the sexes. Wings of the Woman handles it a bit more deftly. Anna Neagle meets Robert Newton, who plays the real-life husband of Amy Johnson, Jim Mollison. Like her, he is a headline-grabbing pioneer aviator who likewise has great success in long-distance flying records. They seem to be made for each other, equally understanding of each other’s work and each other’s need to fly. However, Mollison is a bit of a playboy, charming, unreliable, and Amy is not so much jealous as she is independent to the degree of being able to jettison Mollison from her life like so much overweight cargo. In an interesting scene, when she catches him in a dalliance, instead of bawling him out like a fishwife, she determines to set a new world record beating his old one, just because she can. Because Mollison is a flyer, he is far more chastised than if she had hit them with a frying pan. Eventually, however, they both realize it is not working, and they divorce. Amy Johnson never takes her married name, at least not in this movie, and in real life Amy Johnson did revert back to her maiden name after her divorce legally.

At one point, they decide to pursue a record together and they fly a plane from London to New York, where the headwinds are much more difficult to fly against going from east to west, but just before they reach their destination, the plane runs out of gas. It’s an eerie scene when we no longer hear the motor running and Mollison, whose turn it is at the controls, must fly the plane like a glider as they search the ground below for some place to land. They do crash, and though both are injured, they both survive the incident, which happened in Stratford, Connecticut. They are eventually brought to New York and receive a tickertape parade.

The years go by, and when war comes, Amy decides to volunteer for the Air Transport Auxiliary. The women are not allowed to fly planes in combat, but they are allowed to ferry planes across the Channel to Europe and to other spots on the globe where they are needed. Jim Mollison has volunteered as well for this duty, and in the movie Amy and Jim meet one last time, both in uniform, and shake hands, ruefully musing at their paths in life and how they have come to this same mission. As she goes to her plane, he watches her enter and she takes one last look back. It is a foreshadowing, and even if we did not know the true story of Amy Johnson, we kind of know what’s going to happen next.

Over the Channel, Amy’s plane goes down, and we see her parachute into the dark, cold waters below. The real-life event happened January 5, 1941. Amy’s body was never recovered. She was 37 years old. The movie ends, poignantly, with a shot of the interior of the plane with its open door from which Amy has jumped. On the floor of the plane lies her military cap. This is a nod to her war of the straw boater at the beginning of the film. It is a new hat, a uniform hat, signifying honor, purpose, and dignity, and service to King and Country. But like her balking at wearing the straw boater—there is no individuality allowed in a military uniform.

Our final movie, Flight for Freedom, was released the year after, in 1943. There are some similarities to Wings of the Woman: this film, though the character is fictional, is purportedly based loosely on the final flight of America’s most famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart; this film also features a romance with a male pilot; and this film also ends with the mysterious loss of the flyer over the ocean in a wartime world where her skills are useful, but she is still fighting the battle of the sexes.

Rosalind Russell plays the fictional Tonie Carter, who learns to fly under the tutelage of Herbert Marshall. He is a designer of aircraft in the early 1930s with dreams of establishing his own company. Fred MacMurray is a hotshot pilot, a brash playboy with no use for women flyers. He remarks, “Women ought to stick to what they were made for.” He is especially disdainful of women pilots because they steal headlines and he thinks the only reason they fly is to get their names in the paper. “I just don’t like women who try to be men.”

Eventually, they do begin a romance, on-again/off-again, because they are hardly ever in the same spot at once, but it is an unsatisfying if typical movie scenario:  We don’t really know why Rosalind Russell is attracted to Fred MacMurray; he’s really quite rude and obnoxious. I suppose the writers have thrown in her slavish attraction to a “man’s man” merely to prove that, despite the grease and dirt on her mechanic’s coveralls, she still a “real” woman.

Another person who at first disparages her is the restaurant owner of the private club where all the pilots hang out.  He is played by Eduardo Cianelli, though eventually he comes around when she becomes famous and he deeply admires her, welcoming her into the boys’ only club and giving her a small brass hook on his wall with a plaque with her name on it to hang her hat just like all the guys have.

But Roz is human and makes mistakes – not just about Fred MacMurray. In a flight from New York to Los Angeles she tries to fly very high above stormy weather to pick up some speed but in this era of unpressurized cabins, the high altitude makes her drowsy and she nearly crashes. Eventually, she makes the trip from L.A. to New York in 12 hours of straight flying and breaks a record. A lady reporter yells, “You got a boyfriend? What’s his name?” Of all the films we’ve discussed on the aviatrix, this one unfortunately is rife with sexism and it’s a shame to see Rosalind Russell play the poor sap, when we have seen her as the magnificent Hildy Johnson only a few years earlier. But it’s wartime now and the men are heroes, and the women are not supposed to compete.

The climax of the movie comes as Roz attempts to break a new flying record of circumnavigating the globe at the equator. On her first attempt when she lands in Honolulu for refueling, she receives a telegram from the Navy Department asking her to return as quickly as possible to Washington, D.C., because – well, it’s a secret. In the same way she never questions her undeserved devotion for Fred MacMurray, she never questions the order of the Navy Department.  She crashes her plane on purpose so that she doesn’t have to continue her record-breaking flight, and heads for D.C. Here she is told that the government wants her to try her flight around the world again, but to fly in the other direction toward the east so that the Pacific islands are the last leg of her journey. When she reaches a particular area of Japanese mandate islands, they want her to ditch her plane. She will land on an island where they have already stored food and provisions for her and, in time, a Navy ship will pick her up and bring her home. The reason for this is they want to attach cameras to her plane and film the Japanese mandate islands because they want to know where they are building airstrips. We have not yet entered the war at this point, but war is coming and the United States wants military intelligence without breaking any rules, tipping their hand, or ruffling any feathers. Roz agrees.

Just before this, Herbert Marshall, her longtime mentor and plane designer, has proposed marriage. His proposal is so sweet and awkward and we (or me, at least) rejoice at his being the better partner and a far more interesting man with whom to spend her life than the self-involved, if handsome, Fred MacMurray. Because she is on the outs with Fred, she accepts Herbert, but she tells him she must do her flight around the world first, and when she comes home, she will marry him.

The opening credits of the movie are placed over a vast map of the Pacific. When Roz meets the Navy officer who gives her instructions on her mission, they stand in a briefing room on which on one wall there is likewise a huge map of the Pacific. It is a good illustration because it dwarfs the people in the scene and it shows not merely how large a  body of water that is, but how little we know about it. Most of our armed forces, once we got into the war, were island hopping all across the Pacific somewhat blindly: many of those islands were really uncharted.

At this point, the movie intersects, or at least flirts with, the real-life ending of Amelia Earhart, possibly the most famous aviatrix of the 1930s. Her final flight in 1937 was an intention to circumnavigate the globe. She was lost and the mystery surrounding that event continues today, reviving the story in theories, controversies, and suspicions of conspiracies. One theory holds that she was captured by the Japanese army. Only this year that idea was floated again, and again dismissed. Possibly that theory was put forth first by this movie, Flight for Freedom, in which Rosalind Russell lands in New Guinea preparing for her final leg of her trip. She is to meet a navigator who will help her with the crucial filming and gathering intelligence over the Japanese mandate islands before they are to ditch the plane and hide out on that pinpoint in the Pacific until the Navy can retrieve them and the film. In a striking scene, again, a foreshadowing like in the last flight of Wings and Woman, Roz takes off from D.C., and Herbert Marshall bids her goodbye at the hangar.  We do not see her take off; instead, we have a view of Marshall standing alone, intently watching us as we pull away from him, leaving him smaller and smaller.  We hear the plane engine, but it is our view of his aloneness that foreshadows he is losing her forever.

She flies to the Pacific and meets her contact in a Polynesian wayside inn. The palm trees sway and the moon shines over the exotic island.

It’s Fred MacMurray.

They renew their passion for each other, and she forgets all about Herbert. Their postwar plans have Fred continuing to fly all over the world, but Roz will stay home with the kids.  But going back to the hotel desk to get her key from the sinister Japanese desk clerk, he tells her with snide confidence that he knows who she is, who Fred MacMurray is, what their mission is, and they will never succeed. They know all about the plans.

Roz goes back to Fred, but instead of telling him straight out that the jig is up, she asks him what he would do if he was flying alone and he knew the mission had been compromised, if there was no hope for his survival. He says cavalierly, and quite hypothetically, he thinks, that he would just keep flying until the plane ran out of gas.

She decides to do that. She takes off in the plane alone, sparing Fred’s life, and flies off into the vast sky over the Pacific Ocean. In a reprise of the early scene where she had tried to break a record and flew too high, making herself drowsy and nearly crashing, she decides that she will take this comfortable way out and she aims the plane straight for the heavens. The higher she goes, the less oxygen she has and she begins to fall asleep.

In these two movies, in which both our heroines meet their ends crashing their planes into the ocean, we know that their self-sacrifice is a common self-flagellation element to the wartime propaganda films. The women become symbols more than people, although we get to know Amy Johnson’s motives a little bit better than we do the fictional Tonie Carter. In the first two movies, Tail Spin and Women of the Wind, those women flyers faced sudden death in crashes pursuing records and shrugged it off with a kind of pragmatism that was almost heartless; the wartime films seek to demonstrate that their deaths are not without meaning, and that sacrifice is noble, and required—including, for Roz, the sacrifice of a career when the war is over.

These two women seem to have a yoke on their shoulders that the early 1930s aviatrix did not. Life has become very complicated, and not just because the planes have become more complicated.


Have a look at the career of real-life aviatrix Maude Tait, a record-breaking flyer who beat Amelia Earhart’s record, a lady from my hometown – over at my New England Travels blog.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Aviatrix Part 1 - Tail Spin and Women in the Wind

The word aviatrix seems almost an anachronism; a word representing the adventure of pioneer women who embraced technology and danger and achieved celebrity in a brief era where, despite the feminine noun, opportunity to achieve celebrity in daring feats was gender-free. Today and next week’s post, we will soar with these women in four different movies: Tail Spin and Women in the Wind, both from 1939; and Wings and the Woman (1942), and Flight for Freedom (1943).

In the British film Wings and the Woman, about the adventures of real-life aviatrix Amy Johnson, two businessmen investing in her venture to fly from Britain to Australia marvel at the dangers of her flight and the triumph of her success when she lands in Darwin.

“A young girl is doing something extremely courageous and thrilling. It’s more than that. She’s driving a coach and four, or an airplane, which is even quicker – through centuries of convention and custom.”

“Yes, in a few short hours she’s broken a great gap in the fence that’s been surrounding our young women for generations. And now the young devils will come pouring through it after her. I can’t quite see the end.”

“There isn’t any end to it. What that young woman has done is the sort of thing that goes on forever.”

There is a growing sentiment these days to de-gender terms that have always been gender-specific: modern actresses calling themselves actors in apparent defiance to be labeled feminine, government bodies doing away with “councilwoman,” “alderwoman,” etc. Personally, I find this new disgust for feminine nouns an affectation, for there is nothing humiliating or demeaning in a feminine reference. A negative connotation comes in the use of the word; not of the word itself. Exalt the feminine; do not diminish it in a gender-neutral mask. Aviatrix is a feminine noun with panache and a noble heritage.

But the ladies of the films we’re covering over the next two weeks are also called “girl pilots.” This might well cause as much chagrin as smiles, but there was a need back in the day to mark the distinction—and we should remember that these ladies were revolutionaries. What should be remarkable to us is that these adventurous aeronautic exploits should include women, and society was captivated but not surprised. In some respects, Hollywood provided more gender focus on women and their stories than it does today.

The first two films we cover in today’s post:  Tail Spin and Women in the Wind beautifully capture the esprit de corps of the aviatrix in an era of wood biplanes, open cockpits, and air races.  Though these movies are rather like formulaic B-movies with simplistic plots, they are still a vigorous and spirited view of some devil-may-care women – and completely accepted by the men in their sphere.

Both stories were taken from books, the memoir of an aviatrix, and a novel. Tail Spin was first released in February 1939, starring Alice Faye as Trixie, the spunky lead who is a hatcheck girl from Los Angeles living a double life as an amateur aviatrix. She ditches work so that she and her pal Joan Davis, who plays a comic relief sidekick mechanic, “Babe,” can enter a cross-country race for prize money. Alice supports her mom, played by Mary Gordon, and her younger brother, so she needs the dough and the trip from Los Angeles to the celebrated Cleveland Air Races is just the ticket. At Cleveland there are additional races to enter, which involve speed and skill racing a course around pylons. One noted real-life aviatrix who competed in these races was Amelia Earhart.

At one point, Babe has to enter a contest jumping from the plane Alice is flying to earn more dough.  Though she is sickened by the prospect, Babe parachutes neatly onto the target—something only a devoted sidekick would do.  

“Babe” was a popular nickname for men or women, speaking of gender-neutral. Jane Wyman plays “Alabama,” and Kane Richmond plays “Tex,” more androgynous nicknames. Wally Vernon is Chick, and Edward Norris is “Speed.” You can tell how fun a movie is going to be by how many nicknames there are among the characters.

(It reminds me of the time my parents years ago were ordering flowers for the funeral of a boyhood pal of my father, but they had to scour the phone book to find out the man’s real first name. He had been known by his nickname since he was a little kid. Everybody in the Great Depression had a nickname, or you were nobody. Possibly some kids even had “Nobody” for nickname. You just had to have one. My parents and their friends had forgotten this man’s real first name.)

Nancy Kelly is another aviatrix, married to Edward Norris (or Speed.)

Oh, and Charles Farrell is “Bud.” Not the best nickname, I grant you, but all the good ones were taken.

Constance Bennett gets the flashy role as the chic and ferocious rival of Alice Faye. She is a spoiled rich girl – her father is played by the wonderful Harry Davenport. She has the whitest, flashiest flying jumpsuit and the best plane. Flying attracts all incomes and classes of society, and the clouds are a level playing field.

Everything in this movie is “swell,” except when it isn’t swell. Jane Wyman crashes here in the daring and quite stupid attempt to intimidate Constance Bennett on a trial run. She’ll be okay, though. Anybody who can land on her head in a plane crash and still give a whispered pep talk from the stretcher is a trouper.  It’s Nancy Kelly who buys the farm – in a tragic series of scenes where we see her husband, Speed, crash; the other ladies comfort her, including Constance Bennett, who proves she’s a mensch after all. But Nancy’s will to live is gone, and she takes a swan dive in her plane, the wind blowing through her hair in a horrific and yet beautiful shot, and she grieves, but seems relieved to let the air and the moisture from the atmosphere smack her in the face as her last sensations of her earthly life.

The aerial photography and simulations of flight through rear-screen projection in this movie is really quite good, the dramatic aerial flying in the movie was choreographed by Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz.  Some of it is actual footage from the Cleveland Air Races – including some of the crash scenes. There is an element of fatalism in many Depression-era movies that is ironically surprising to those of us today though our view generally is that we live in a much more brutal era.

Alice gets in trouble, too.  First, her plane is sabotaged, and then next in her showdown race with Constant Bennett, but Bennett lets her win and in turn, Alice let’s Constance have her fiancé back – Tex, whom she had been romancing for a lark.

Alice sings “Are You in the Mood for Mischief,” in a moonlight tryst with Tex. It’s not a musical, but it’s Alice Faye. She has to sing.

The most interesting aspect about this movie is that the women are not demeaned or diminished by their male counterparts. Flying is not presented as being part of a male world and they are not shown as underdogs in a battle of the sexes. They have nothing to prove. They are already achievers because they have entered this rare world of daring explorers of a new frontier. Actually, the male roles are secondary in the story. Though we might be amused noting there is a separate hangar for the ladies’ planes.

The men get a bigger part in the story of Women in the Wind, released a few months later in April 1939, but the focus is still on the ladies. Kay Francis is the aviatrix here – or the girl pilot if you must – trying to win the Los Angeles to Cleveland air race for the prize money so she may pay for her brother’s operation.  Played by Charles Anthony Hughes, he had been a pilot, too, but now he lies in Victor Jory’s hospital. Doc Jory encourages Kay to use her flying skills to get the dough.

Eve Arden, Hollywood’s most beloved wisecracking sidekick, plays “Kit,” another pilot and Kay’s pal. She is the one with the crash this time – but she’s okay.  In the hospital with her head beautifully bandaged, she’s still wearing makeup and her beautifully manicured nails didn’t even chip.

William Gargan plays the lead male role, a conceited playboy pilot who’s all in the news for breaking the world record. His name is “Ace.” You didn’t think we were going to get away from a movie about pilots without at least one Ace, did you?

His comic sidekick – every hero has to have one – is “Stuffy,” played by Maxie Rosenbloom, whose real-life nickname was “Slapsie-Maxie,” I’m sure you’ll recall, from his boxing days.

Kay charms and tricks William Gargan into lending her his world record-breaking plane for the big race. He’s a pompous jerk but a nice guy at heart who just needs to be taken down a peg. This is accomplished more by his harridan ex-wife, played by Sheila Bromley, than by Kay. We last saw William Gargan in Swell Guy (1947) with Ann Blyth, in a much-reduced supporting role as the dopey elder brother of the star, Sonny Tufts. However, being able to turn to character roles saved and prolonged many acting careers. Unfortunately, Kay Francis, who may or may not have relished dopey minor roles in the future, was facing the inevitable descent of her stardom and the end of her film career in only a few more years. This was her last film for Warner Bros., with which she had a long contractual feud. She resented being pushed out of the stable and resisted it for as long as she could. She may or may not have relished this unchallenging role.

Her nemesis in this movie is Sheila Bromley, Ace’s ex-wife, who is a wicked conniver, but who also turns out to be a mensch in the end. We see among the aviatrix club there is above all a unity and mutual respect for each other, the women for the other women, the women for the men, and the men for the women.

These ladies in their silk scarves and leather flying helmets carry themselves with the confidence, a sense of humor, a playful camaraderie, and resilience at the hard knocks in life – including literal unhappy landings – that brought us through the Depression and made us look up, not only to the sky when a single biplane crossed over our towns, but to look up to and admire the women who flew.

Come back next Thursday for a look at two more films, made in wartime, about the exploits of two more lady fliers: Wings and the Woman with Anna Neagle and Robert Newton, and Flight for Freedom with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray.

Meanwhile, next Tuesday on my New England Travels blog, I'll be discussing one such real-life aviatrix who competed in the Cleveland Air Races, a girl pilot from my hometown -- Maude Tait.

Related Products