Night Flight is possibly the most forgotten all-star ensemble film ever made, thanks in no small part to the movie being withdrawn from public circulation for 69 years due to a copyright dispute. Although an all-star picture, Night Flight belongs to John Barrymore. The sight of him strutting and giving monologues in front of a giant map of South America is a magnificent sight to behold. He has the Warren William type role as a flight director for a Trans-Andean European airmail company in which he goes to extreme lengths to get the job complete while trying not to let empathy get mixed in. As a viewer I’m left to question are his actions justified or is he taking things too far? Considering the perils of early aviation should he even be sending men out at night and in such terrible conditions to deliver mail? However, he claims if they don’t send planes out to fly at night then the train service will overtake them and make the outfit an unviable business. He will even go to unethical measures such as lying to a pilot that there was nothing wrong with his engine after he reported otherwise to remove any fear he had. As seen in the film Command Decision starring Clark Gable, running an outfit like this you will have to make decisions which will make you unpopular. – “Ask the impossible, demand it!”
Viewers may be disappointed to find out Clark Gable has a mere four lines of dialogue in the entire film. Although this makes sense as the role doesn’t lend itself to many speaking opportunities as he is confined to the cockpit of a two-person plane in which communication is best carried out by passing written notes to each other – As a result, Gable’s scenes play out like a silent film. That said it wouldn’t be fair to say Gable is put to waste as the movie does a good job at increasing the tension of these scenes throughout the course of the film as the plane runs out of gasoline and encounters terrible weather conditions.
Robert Montgomery has the film’s most interesting character arc. It’s clearly evident that the guy is into prostitutes and during a particularly impressive sequence in which he comes close to death flying through a canyon in the Andes, he has to come to terms with this experience after landing. Thus he ends up favouring a friendly night with a very itchy Lionel Barrymore over booze and hookers. After he refuses to be called for duty on another flight his character disappears and we never find out what happens to him. Night Flight would also be one of Myrna Loy’s earliest ventures into the role of the perfect wife, going from the exotic to another form of typecasting, but there is no denying nobody could do it better than her.
Night Flight is full of picturesque luminosity in this rare non-Cedric Gibbons design at MGM. The film also stands out for its prevalent use of Star Wars style transitions and even one particular sequence which looks very much like the intro to the TV soap Dallas in this favourable and idealised representation of a much westernised South America in which there is little showcase of poverty.
The structure in Night Flight is held together by a subplot in which a serum package that has to be delivered across the continent in order to save a child’s life (the movie pulls no punches in the opening by showing a child’s funeral). No one involved in the flying, however, is aware of this package yet it turns out this was by accident rather than design as the inclusion of the serum package subplot was an afterthought. Producer David O’Selznick thought the film didn’t have enough tension and had these additional scenes inserted after the film was shot. However, I found this does succeed in holding the film together more. Likewise original cut of Night Flight ran at over two hours with the release version being 85 minutes – who knows what was left out?