by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Flight Lieutenant, second in a series of movies featuring Evelyn Keyes TCM showed, and while it was hardly as good as the first one — the marvelously inventive The Face Behind the Mask — it was still pretty good. Directed by Sidney Salkow from a script by Michael Blankfort, ostensibly based on an “original” story (quotes definitely appropriate!) by Richard Carroll and Betty Hopkins but really drawn from the cliché mill that had fed virtually every previous movie made about aviation, Flight Lieutenant opens in 1932, a decade before it was made. Pilot Sam Doyle (Pat O’Brien) is being investigated for a crash in which his co-pilot, Thompson, was killed; the investigation board decides they can’t say for sure whether he was responsible for killing his colleague, but because he was drunk when he took the plane up they revoke his pilot’s license for life. What’s more, they publicize his involvement in the crash, and Mr. Thompson (Warren Ashe), brother of the man killed in the accident, uses his influence to make sure that Sam can’t get another job, even in fields having nothing to do with aviation.
Sam turns over his savings to Thompson’s attorney, Joseph Sanford (Jonathan Hale, playing the part essentially as a Warren William type), to use to raise the late Thompson’s daughter Susie — despite the fact that he has a son of his own, Danny, whom he eventually also turns over to Sanford as guardian and funds his care by going to Dutch Guiana and flying for a cargo service there — and incidentally giving Columbia a chance to reuse the sets of a primitive airport they’d built for Howard Hawks’ amazing melodrama Only Angels Have Wings three years earlier. Using the last name “White” — his late wife’s maiden name — and insisting that his son go by “White” as well, Sam poses as the head of the Guianan airline instead of just another put-upon employee of the real boss, and the years go past until the film settles in 1940. By then Danny White, née Doyle, has grown up to be Glenn Ford, Susie Thompson has grown up to be Evelyn Keyes, and the two have developed one of those quirky Frankenstein-esque love affairs in which they’ve had the physical proximity of brother and sister but, since they aren’t actually related biologically, they’ve also fallen into a romantic (though not sexual, this still being a Code-era movie) relationship.
Danny, who was so in love with what his father did for a living that he’s never seriously considered any career options besides flying, joins the Army Air Corps as a cadet and does well in training until Mr. Thompson is assigned to take charge of the school — and once Sam makes it back from Guiana to see Danny graduate and win his wings, he and Thompson meet up again and Thompson makes it clear he’s neither forgiven nor forgotten. Nervous at having to take his flying test with the man who hates his father and blames him for the death of his brother, Danny freezes up at the control of his plane and then flees the training school without bothering to find out whether he passed or not. Instead, he goes to Guiana with the intention of working for his father, and dad tries to get him a job with another airline and keep up the pretense that he owns the outfit he’s really just an employee of — but Danny figures it out and ultimately Sam persuades him to return to the U.S. and complete his training.
Danny passes and becomes a test pilot, and there’s a big to-do about Danny’s latest scheduled test flight of a new monoplane interceptor (up until then virtually all the military aircraft we’ve seen have been biplanes even though they were obsolete by 1942; still, the U.S. Army Air Corps persisted in training its pilots in biplanes, which caused some problems early in the war when the ill-prepared pilots had to transition to state-of-the-art monoplane fighters in actual combat). Looking over the model of the interceptor, both Danny and Sam independently realize that its tail assembly is unstable, and Sam tries to persuade his son not to test-fly the plane. The two meet up in the hangar just before the scheduled test flight, and just as you’re thinking, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have Sam punch out Danny and take the plane up himself,” they have Sam punch out Danny and take the plane up himself, where he pushes the plane past its 600 mile-per-hour cruising speed, the tail breaks up, the plane (represented by a pretty fake-looking balsa-wood model) crashes and Sam redeems himself in death, while Danny and Susie presumably live happily ever after assuming he survives the actual war (which the U.S. had been officially in for six months when this film was released).
Though the plot of Flight Lieutenant is pretty much a rag-bag of familiar clichés, it has its points: for once Pat O’Brien gets a role with some dramatic definition and complexity, and though he’s working with a hack director like Sidney Salkow instead of a visionary like Robert Florey, cinematographer Franz Planer shoots a lot of the film as out-and-out noir (notably a sleepless night father and son spend together in the same room, both of them agonizing about the state of the new experimental plane) — even though the gimmick of the disgraced pilot flying illegally and redeeming himself by dying was pulled better two years earlier at Warners in Captains of the Clouds with O’Brien’s frequent co-star, James Cagney, as the self-sacrificial airman and Dennis Morgan as his sacrifice’s principal beneficiary.