Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 24, 2012)
For a who’s who of 1930s cinema, we go to 1933’s Night Flight, a star-studded air-based drama. A polio outbreak in Rio leaves the doctors in need of medicine, as the town runs dry. They locate a supply in Chile and hire an air service to transport the serum to Brazil.
Sounds simple, but circumstances collude to interfere with the journey. This is the initial flight for the night transport system, so it’s an untested run. The plane also encounters a severe storm that sends it off-course and endangers the mission – along with the lives of all involved.
This DVD release of Flight received substantial attention because the movie had barely been seen since 1942. Due to rights issues, it’s essentially been out of circulation since then, so this DVD represented its initial screening for the vast majority of viewers.
Plenty of movies haven’t gotten much play over the decades, so what makes Flight noteworthy? The cast. As I alluded at the open, the film provides a roster packed with the day’s biggest stars. We find both Lionel and John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Helen Hayes and Robert Montgomery. That’s a group that accounted for 10 Oscar nominations and five awards (including an honorary one granted to Loy), so it certainly represents a lot of talent.
Unfortunately, Flight goes down as a pretty big waste of all that talent. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s a bad film, because it’s not. Essentially an early entry in the disaster genre, the movie boasts some real strengths. Effects look shockingly good for their age; the flying scenes are relatively convincing, so they hold up well after almost 80 years.
The flying elements also provide pretty nice excitement. These add spice to the movie and still give us thrills that satisfy. They’re restricted by the limits of those relatively good but dated effects, but they’re still reasonably solid and they make this a fun flick.
So why do I deem it to be a waste of talent? Because this is essentially a light action flick that doesn’t need so many heavy hitters. You’ll notice that my plot synopsis fails to include any character names. I omitted them because they’re essentially inconsequential; the movie revolves around action and narrative, not characters. I won’t call them interchangeable, and the actors do fine in their roles, but Flight would’ve worked just as well with a less-notable cast.
Of course, one could say the same about all those star-filled disaster flicks of the 1970s. I suspect Flight featured so many prominent actors for the same reason the 1970s films used that formula: their presence adds heft to otherwise insubstantial flicks. The performers give the movies a level of credibility that would be absent with less famous personalities.
Flight may end up a victim of elevated expectations, though. It’s an inconsistent film, as it doesn’t balance its various characters and situations well, but it’s usually a fun one, so it makes for a breezy 85 minutes.
However, when you find a movie that’s gone unseen for generations and that features some of early Hollywood’s biggest names, you anticipate something more than a zippy popcorn flick. If you enter Night Flight with hopes that you’ll discover a lost classic, you’ll feel disappointed. If you take it for the light entertainment it is, though, you’ll probably enjoy it.