Review: The Last Flight (1931)

>> Wednesday, May 27, 2009

USA/B&W-76m./Dir: William Dieterle/Wr: John Monk Saunders/Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Cary Lockwood), David Manners (Shep Lambert), Helen Chandler (Nikki), Johnny Mack Brown (Bill Talbot), Elliot Nugent (Francis), Walter Byron (Frink)

After the First World War, many American soldiers chose to stay in Europe rather than return to the lives that they had held prior to the conflict. In large part, this was due to the fact that the art, entertainment, and alcohol of Europe provided a tonic that helped veterans forget the horrors that they had encountered during the war. However, practical considerations also played a part in the expatriate movement--the exchange rate for the U.S. dollar was generous, which made a hedonistic lifestyle more affordable; and Prohibition had taken a stranglehold back in the States.

The world of those disillusioned veterans was most memorably captured in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, and the book forever labeled the expatriates with the designation “the lost generation.” Unfortunately, when Hemingway’s book was adapted for the screen 31 years later, much of the spirit of that “lost generation” was lost in translation. Of course, Hemingway’s book was not the only exploration of the “lost generation,” and the 1931 film, The Last Flight, based upon a lesser novel, Single Lady by John Monk Saunders, managed to convey the emotions that the later film lacked.

The story of The Last Flight concerns four physically and emotionally wounded pilots who settle in Paris to drink themselves numb after the war. The foursome includes Cary Lockwood (silent star Richard Barthelmess) who has lost partial use of his hands, Shep Lambert (David Manners) who has a facial tic that can only be alleviated through booze, Bill Talbot (Johnny Mack Brown) an ex-athlete who always feels he has something to prove, and Francis (Elliot Nugent) whose experiences have left him lethargic to the point of narcolepsy. The boys meet up with a ditsy blonde (Helen Chandler) who seems to understand their emotional state and can almost match their staggering alcohol intake. Together they booze their way through Paris and Lisbon while trying to steer clear of an amoral, lecherous hanger-on (Walter Byron).

There are a lot of things wrong with The Last Flight. It is overwrought and overwritten (“There they go, out to face life; and their whole training was in preparation for death,” a military doctor muses theatrically), and much of the acting is just as melodramatic as the dialogue. As with many early talkies, some of the cast members project their lines as if they are trying to reach the back rows of a crowded theater, while other line readings are simply stilted. In addition, the carefree humor which the main characters use to mask their tortured souls is neither funny in word or delivery. One could justify the lack of humor due to the fact that the joviality is only a facade. However, it is more likely simply bad writing and bad acting.

Still, despite these shortcomings, The Last Flight is a surprisingly effective picture. While the words and performances are often overly flamboyant, the emotions presented are always true; and it is impossible not to become engrossed in the story of these lost souls. It doesn’t hurt that the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The Last Flight was German director William Dieterle’s first English language film, so it is not surprising that the film succeeds more through its images than its words. From the opening montage of the horrors of war to the last few somber scenes as the drunken band is whittled down one-by-one, the director proves to be a master of visual storytelling. The film would have likely been even more powerful as a silent.

For fans of alcohol-fueled films, this forgotten relic is an absolute feast. The characters live on a steady diet of martinis, with an occasional beer for sustenance. Nick Charles, Bluto Blutarsky, and Marion Ravenwood would have had a hard time matching these boys drink for drink. The Last Flight should be considered essential viewing for soused cinema enthusiasts.

One interesting side note--A young actor, by the name of Archie Leach, starred as Cary Lockwood in a 1931 theatrical production based upon the same book. After the brief stage run had ended, the actor adopted the first name of the character he had portrayed and from then on was known as Cary Grant.

Drinks Consumed--Martinis (gin), beer, champagne, a sidecar (cognac and cointreau), picon citron cocktails, vermouth, and unnamed cocktails

Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, the giggles, hangover, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--CARY: Well, the old guerre is fin.
SHEP: That’s right.
CARY: What are you gonna do now, Shep?
SHEP: Get tight.
CARY: Then what?
SHEP: Stay tight.

Video Availability--The Last Flight has never been officially released on video. However, a very nice collector’s copy can be obtained from Yammering Magpie Cinema. The photos accompanying this review came from that release.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Soldiers returning from World War II try to re-adjust to peacetime living with a little help from the local bar in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1947).

2 comments:

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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