Saturday, January 22, 2011

William Dieterle's Masterful But Mostly Forgotten The Last Flight

Miriam Bale, in a recent issue of Film Comment, said of William Dieterle's 1931 Lost Generation movie The Last Flight, that it is "the best film version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises that never was."

With more than mere similarities to Hemingway's iconic post-WWI novel, Dieterle shows us a group of four pilots, all injured, in both body and soul, from the devastation of war, making their way through the bars and nightclubs of Jazz-age Paris.  "Get tight and stay tight" one character matter-of-factly states when asked what he will do after the war.  Somewhere along this parade of inebriation, these ex-flyer ex-pats, always nattily dressed, and just as nattily sauced, meet a young, near-sighted woman, who just may be even more lost than they.  She is of course taken on as their mascot, and, in this age of pre-code wanton cinematic decadence (though still seeming quite tame by today's anything-goes standards), much more, if only in allusion and/or innuendo.

The film stars Richard Barthelmess, David Manners, Johnny Mack Brown and the strange beauty, Helen Chandler as the effervescent, and quite peculiar Nikki.   "Hey, what kind of girl do you think Nikki is?" Bill (Brown) asks Cary (Barthelmess), to which he replies, "I think she's the kind that sits down on phonograph records."  I am not exactly sure what this means, but it is certainly something that makes both Nikki, and the film's dialogue in general (which is filled with seeming nonsensical, or perhaps even surrealist lines), stand out amongst the more typical fare (in both character and dialogue) of the early talkie era.  And though this is the story of these pilots and their post-war disillusionment (a rather popular subject in both film and literature at the time) it is Chandler's adorably off-kilter Nikki, with those faraway eyes and seeming oblivious nature, that acts as the proverbial glue that holds both these men and this picture together.

Risque and randy, with inevitable tragedy for these lost souls, this Lost Generation, Dieterle's film is a unique combination of both hard-hitting message moviemaking and an hypnotic sentimentalism that digs deep into the heart of this quite sentimental critic.  Dieterle, who was a typical hard-working studio director of the times, would never gain the vaunted auteur status that many of his compatriots would later garner during the 1960's revitalization of filmic history, but then again, his output, but for here or there, is probably not worth such recognition, though he is surely worth getting much more recognition than he is usually afforded - which is pretty much none at all.  

After coming over from Germany (where he worked as an actor/director and whose best known work was the homosexual-themed prison movie, Sex in Chains), in the wave of Hitler-driven emigration that brought Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch and others to the Hollywood fold, Dieterle made a career out of making solid, but rather typical pictures like The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola and Juarez.  Dieterle's Pre-Code output had an interesting international flair to it (mainly attributable to the looser artistry of European filmmaking of the 1920's) even if he did often fall flat later on in his career.   

The Last Flight is now considered one of the great forgotten masterpieces of its day (as well as giving Cary Grant the first half of his stage name, after playing the part of Cary on stage) and is easily one of the most smartly written (as well as most cock-eyed written) motion pictures of the Pre-Code era.  Even though it was a tragedy and not a comedy, the screwball ethic that was born around this same time, managed to come through in the film's great dialogue and pacing, as well as, strangely enough, in the film's melancholy dark humour and surrealist mentality.  Now, thanks to Warner Archives, The Last Flight is out on DVD, and hopefully will be able to drop the forgotten part off of that aforementioned moniker of forgotten masterpiece.

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