Monday, June 17, 2013

Aerial Gunner (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Aerial Gunner, an unexpectedly interesting “B” from the Pine-Thomas unit at Paramount in the 1940’s, a World War II combat film Charles had downloaded from because after we watched the two Superman serials he started looking up other credits for Kirk Alyn, who played the Man of Steel in both and was the first (and quite frankly, to my mind, the best) live-action film Superman. Alas, Alyn has only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance in this movie — identifies him only as “Officer in Canteen” but I think I heard him addressed as “Sgt. Brant,” commander of one of three bombing planes in a mini-squadron somewhere in the South Pacific that’s just coming in as the film opens. It’s 9 p.m. and Brant’s plane and one of the others come through safely, but the third bomber is still out and it doesn’t arrive until 11:15. When it does, it’s being commanded by sergeant/lieutenant Jonathan Davis (Richard Arlen) but everyone else on board is dead — and Davis’s second-in-command, Sgt. “Foxy” Pattis (Chester Morris) — “Pattis” is the way it’s spelled on (the print we were watching, a reissue and/or TV print from something called “Medallion Pictures,” omitted the closing credits) but “Pettis” is what the other actors are calling him on screen — is missing. Davis is resting in bed after the arduous mission and he starts narrating the story in flashback, taking himself and Pattis back when they were young men in New York City and Pattis had a hatred for Davis because Davis was an assistant district attorney, Pattis’s father was an ex-con and every time Pattis père landed a job, Davis was around alerting his new employer to his criminal record and getting him fired. (One wonders how Pattis, Sr. was expected to rehabilitate himself if he kept getting that treatment!) When the Pearl Harbor attack happens Davis enlists in what was still the U.S. Army Air Corps (it was spun off into a separate service, the U.S. Air Force, after the war) and signs up to train to be an aerial gunner at HAGS — short for Harlingen Aerial Gunnery School, in Harlingen, Texas, just about 25 miles from the border and the town of Matamoros, Mexico. (Charles joked that the cinematographer, Fred Jackman, Jr., must have been inspired — or infected — by the way ¡Que Viva Mexico! was shot; though Eisenstein’s near-masterpiece was never actually finished and in 1943 only truncated and sloppily edited versions of his footage had been released, it still had an effect and just about everyone who shot a film in that part of the world, including Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, copied its “look” of heavily red-filtered sky shots so stark white clouds loom ominously over an almost black sky.)

At HAGS Davis finds out that Pattis is going to be his commanding officer and will get to determine whether Davis passes aerial gunnery school and gets the assignment it’s supposed to train you for — a place on a bomber’s gunnery crew — or washes out and gets disgraced. We also meet the other members of this ensemble cast: invention-obsessed private Lancelot “Gadget” Blaine (Dick Purcell, who looks oddly nerdy for an actor who would play Captain America in the Republic serial the next year); Jackson “Sleepy” Laswell (William Benedict), a cute blond twink who used to work as the night manager at a motel and is having a hard time adjusting to the Army’s crack-of-dawn wake-up calls; Henry “Jonesy” Jones (Keith Richards — obviously not the same one who’s in the Rolling Stones!); and Sanford “Sandy” Lunt (Jimmy Lydon, who was the star of Paramount’s Aldrich Family movies, their attempt to compete with the Hardy Family at MGM, and while Lydon didn’t make it to the Mickey Rooney level of mega-stardom he was a quite capable and personable actor), who’s determined to make good as an aerial gunner since his dad was a servicemember who was one of the first people killed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — though it takes quite a while before we learn that. The film takes this rather unlikely assortment of people through the HAGS training, which moves through progressively tougher simulations from ordinary target shooting at clay pigeons to firing at a sail being towed by an electric car on a circular train track, to firing a real gun from a real plane at a bomb-shaped target being towed by another plane. (It’s astonishing how much Paramount was able to show of the training without running afoul of their service minders, who were there among other things to keep them from revealing anything that might help the enemy.) Of course, while all this is going on there’s the expected rivalry between Pattis and Davis — Davis hits two clay pigeons perfectly but Pattis scores them as misses, and later Pattis speeds up the electric car carrying the target sail to try to get Davis to miss it, only he conks out and Davis has to rescue him from the runaway car — and it turns into a conventional love triangle when Sandy takes the two men to his home and they meet his sister Peggy (Amelita Ward), who aside from a blonde date (Barbara Pepper) we saw Pattis with in a civilian scene is virtually the only woman in the movie until her mother (Olive Blakeney) shows up later.

The film’s first dramatic climax occurs when Sandy is paralyzed with fear and is unable to fire his guns on his final flight test, but he invokes his right to a second test — and on that one he fires the guns O.K. but then loses control of them and ends up shooting down his own plane by accident, and though he and his pilot are both rescued, he dies thereafter. This causes Peggy to break off her engagement to Pattis, and at this point the cast members who have qualified get to go to war. There are scenes in the mess hall and elsewhere on the base — in one of which a young Robert Mitchum, of all people, turns up for an appearance even briefer than Alyn’s (he would have to wait two more years until another war movie, The Story of G.I. Joe, made him a star) — and eventually we get to the actual mission Davis, Pattis (who took being put under Davis’s command with the expected lack of grace) and the others were flying when the film opened. The other two bombers delivered their bombs and got back O.K., but Davis’s plane was ambushed by five Zero fighters, and the gunners were able to shoot all of them down but at the cost of severe damage to the plane — bad enough that they had to set down on Japanese-controlled territory while “Gadget” tried to repair the plane enough so Davis could take off and get it safely home. Pattis notices that there are Japanese snipers in the trees surrounding the field trying to pick them off — there’s an amusing scene in which one of the Japanese snipers is covered with branches to camouflage him in the trees, and he looks like a refugee from The Wizard of Oz — and he grabs a machine gun and holds them off long enough for the plane to get away, though of course he sacrifices his own life in the process. He doesn’t seem to mind this that much because just before the snipers started firing Davis showed him a letter he’d received from Peggy Lunt (ya remember Peggy Lunt?) saying that she’d decided that Davis was the guy she wanted to marry after the war after all. So Pattis gives his life to save Davis and the bomber, and Davis manages to get away but not before the snipers have taken out all his fellow crew members. The End.

Aerial Gunner is a good deal darker than most of the U.S. World War II movies made during the war, and it was not only produced by William Pine and William Thomas for their “B” company (to which Paramount had essentially subcontracted their low-budget output just as the war was starting) but directed (quite well) by William Pine personally, from a good screenplay by future director Maxwell Shane from an “idea” by Jack F. Dailey. It’s a good movie that puts a decently original spin on some old clichés, and Chester Morris and Richard Arlen were stronger actors than usually got cast in these things and did this love-hate bromance better than just about any pair in the classic era who weren’t named Gable and Tracy or Cagney and O’Brien. I found Aerial Gunner to be a better-than-average war movie and was particularly moved by the scene of Sandy’s funeral — in which his mom is presented with a pair of honorary gunner’s wings on his behalf — underscoring the military’s obsession with medals, awards and other physical commemorations of achievement, a part of military culture it’s really difficult for us confirmed civilians who’ve never served to understand.