Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
This MGM star vehicle has been out of circulation since its original run in 1933, probably owing to legal issues related to the rights of the source story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. (Yeah, THAT Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – the guy responsible for “The Little Prince.”) It deals with a group of flyers in South America who are tasked with undertaking dangerous night missions in order to keep the mail on schedule – they’re a sort of aerial version of the Pony Express. When the pilots land, they go back to their wives and girlfriends, but a part of them remains in the air. They’re spiritually tied to its danger, its space, and its freedom.
It’s a hackneyed idea, and it’s presented with the taxidermied superficiality one expects of MGM. Worse, parts of the movie were cut after a poor preview, dulling some of the plot points considerably. But director Clarence Brown keeps the picture so visually and tonally unified that you glide right over the rough spots. Part of his strategy is to keep the camera moving through space, often craning emphatically to highlight actors and other points of interest. This provides a stylistic corollary to the aerial footage (a dramatic mix of live action and studio fakery), and it effectively underscores the theme of lives dislodged into great open spaces. Brown’s best flourishes come during the flight sequences, some of which take the form of elaborate montages. (The editing is by Hal C. Kern.) Filled with horizontal wipes and high-angle vignettes showing people waving at the planes overhead, these sequences convey the Olympian sense of freedom early flyers must have experienced as they soared above the earth. And in their fractured, space-defeating lyricism they force mental comparisons between aviation and the movies — two technologies which emerged around the same time, each of which went a long way towards splicing together the world.
The scenario lends itself to an ensemble approach, and MGM populated “Night Flight” with some of its best-known players. Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and William Gargan play pilots; Helen Hayes and Myrna Loy are their earthbound women; and John and Lionel Barrymore turn up as control station bosses overseeing the flight routes. (John is in full self-caricature mode; his eyebrows seem synced to the flutter of his bizarro tracking instruments.) Loy gives perhaps the best performance, effectively using her entire frame to communicate the complex of feelings that her husband’s flying inspires in her — it’s a mishmash of worry, jealousy, and arousal. I especially enjoyed one of her bedroom scenes with Gargan. Its rumpled, post-coital mood is of a sort one associates with European films.
“Night Flight” is sometimes claimed as an influence on “Only Angels Have Wings,” a not unreasonable charge considering Howard Hawks was serving as chief aid to Irving Thalberg while the movie was being made. But aside from the flying milieu and the South American setting the two films aren’t very similar. With its ensemble cast, its fractured plot, and its race-against-time theatrics, “Night Flight” plays more like a precursor to the disaster epics of the 1970s. It’s like “Airport” or “The Towering Inferno” in miniature.
“Night Flight” is available on DVD through Warner’s burn-on-demand line, The Warner Archive Collection. It also sometimes runs on TCM.