The Last Flight (1931)

Party Animals

The Last Flight is one of the more unique movies to come out of 1930’s Hollywood (possibly in part due to the film being directed by German newcomer to Hollywood, William Dieterle). It didn’t hold my attention on first viewing with its surprising plotless structure but the odd nature of the movie made me want to give it another try. The Hemingway like Lost Generation film follows a group of Great War veterans leading a shallow and hopeless existence as they spend their nights drinking and partying in Paris while making no attempt to properly readjust to civilian life (“Well there they go, out to face life, and their whole training was in preparation for death”) – A tale which would be repeated throughout cinema with various wars.

The film is entirely driven by the rapport between the characters and the listlessness that covers their lives. Along the way, they met a metaphorical representation of their damaged states in the form of Niki (Helen Chandler). The first scene with this character really confused me on first viewing as it sounds like she’s saying she is holding a man’s “tea” rather than his “teeth”. Why the men would get so excited over this? It’s not clear if Nikki is a ditsy dame, constantly inebriated or just nuts. She doesn’t mind just standing and holding the teeth of a stranger who wants to go out back and fight and even keeps turtles in a hotel bathroom.

I do love the exquisite Paris nightlife circa 1919 as presented in the film with the suits and the drinks, you really get a sense of the all the good (if pathetic on a deeper level) times they have (even if it’s never explained how they fund their drinking adventures). Allow me to express my inner grumpy old man when compared to modern nightlife.

Richard Barthelmess gave some of the most memorable performances of the pre-code era, having the ability to convey the look of a damaged man as seen in the role of Cary Lockwood, the most sensible one of the ecliptic group. Likewise, there’s also Frink (Walter Byron) and his sexual misconduct (“He is a member of the wandering hands society and has a grouping good time”), in which the men are shockingly tolerant of his behaviour as they call him out and criticise his actions but never expelling him from the group. Even after an attempted rape on a train the men only tell him to apologise and to never get out of line again.

The Last Flight reuses footage at the beginning from Barthelmess’ previous war film, The Dawn Patrol; both are based on stories from John Monk Sanders and make for a great double feature. – The Last Flight is a film for a patient viewer but one which holds many nihilistic rewards.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.