Monday, July 11, 2016

Olivia and the Pilots

Cass Harrington (George Brent) is a Navy flyer through and through, with a family history in the service.  His father was a highly regarded flyer for the Navy, and his brother Jerry (John Payne), also career Navy, wants to join Cass in the Air Corps, though Cass would rather Jerry stay in the submarine service.  Cass is in love with Irene Dale (Olivia de Havilland), but once Irene meets Jerry, she wonders if she has made the wrong choice - Cass is too wrapped up in his work designing a new fighter plane to pay her much attention.  When the brothers both end up at the Naval Air School in Pensacola, where Cass is an instructor, it's clear that something's got to give.  Wings of the Navy (1939) tells the story of these three individuals and of the making of a Navy airman.

In the July 2016 issue of TCM's Now Playing, Robert Osborne writes that Olivia de Havilland, who had signed a contract with Warner Brothers to star in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), "...considered [Wings of the Navy] the absolute nadir of her career.  It was as far afield from Shakespeare as one could get...."  While this isn't the worst film ever made (and probably not her worst either.  There is, after all The Swarm...), it's not all that good.  However, in many ways (according to this TCM article), it was this film that helped Ms. de Havilland appear in her most famous role - she was so irritated that she had been forced to do Wings of the Navy, she redoubled her efforts to land the part of a lifetime - that of Melanie in Gone With the Wind
Really, this film is an advertisement for the Navy, and a means for Warner Brothers to inform the public on the state of the armed services.  It was evident that a war in Europe was in the offing, and the Brothers Warner had already shown their dislike of fascism in 1937's Black Legion.  Shortly after this film was released (February of 1939), Warner Brothers would be the first studio to openly brand Nazi Germany as an enemy in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (released in May, 1939) [PBS History Detectives].  With its emphasis on the flying service, Wings of the Navy is a documentary praising the U.S. Navy Air Corps.  Even the New York Times review felt that "the educational part [of the film] is so interesting that we return to the romantic part... with a feeling almost akin to pain."   The advertising for the release also (discussed on WarnerBrothers.com)  displays the studio's primary interest in creating this film:  "'For all the world to witness that America will not be unprepared!' [it declared] —and backed it up with bravura footage shot at Pensacola Naval Station in Florida and North Island Naval Station at Coronado, California."
 
Because this really is a documentary-type film focusing on the military, the interactions between Brent and Payne, and between Frank McHugh (as Scat Allen) are pretty good, and while we always want to see more of Ms. de Havilland, the love story is pretty pointless - just a way to have the girlfriends agree to come with their dates to see the planes.
There are several surprise appearances in the movie, not the least of which is the appearance of Frank McHugh, who brings both humor and gravitas to the role of Scat, a man who has joined the Air Corps to perfect his flying skills.  He is not planning on a career in the Navy - he plans to return to his profession as a crop duster after his term is over, but Scat ends up being the voice of reason in most situations.  Also appearing are John Litel as Commander Clark, and Victor Jory as Lieutenant Parsons.  Jory's part is so small that if you blink, you might miss him!

Much as Ms. de Havilland disliked the film, she did not immediately escape it.  According to this article from the AFI Catalog, she ended up reprising her role (with George Brent and John Payne) in the Lux Radio Theatre production of October 1940.  While we agree with her, it is not all that wonderful a film, we'll leave you with a clip of Ms. de Havilland and Mr. Payne: