This is not a film for the faint at heart. It's tough-minded and there is nothing uplifting about it. Every second of it is a condemnation of war and its barbarity. It's also well-paced and to the point - in a brief 73 minutes we learn all we need to know about the life of this flyer squadron in general and about Jerry Young in particular.
Fredric March is excellent as a man who is much too good at his job, and who is tormented by the demons of those who he has killed or have died with him. Early in the film, he is devil-may-care - excited to begin fighting the good fight, as he sees it. But, much like the men in The Way to the Stars (1945), that eagerness doesn't last long, and in Jerry's case, gives way to horror and despair.
One scene that is especially striking occurs late in the film. Jerry is on R&R, and is attending a dinner party in the home of a wealthy family. After being bombarded by congratulations on his kill record and on his bravery, he attempts to leave. However, more is in store - the wife of the family brings down her small son, a lad of about 8 who wants to know all about the war. "Don't you like to kill the enemy" "What do they look like when they fall? Are they on fire? Do they explode with a great, big bang?" the eager child inquires. The look of revulsion on March's face tells us all we need to know of the agony he is experiencing.
This is a very early effort in Cary Grant's career, and so the character we get is very different than the actor we are used to from his later films. Henry can come across as petulant at times, but Grant is able to demonstrate Crocker's resentment and anger at what he feels is a bias on Jerry's part. Crocker is NOT an attractive character - in one scene, we watch as he shoots at an enemy pilot who has parachuted from a disabled plane. At the same time, it's hard to argue with his rationale - a dead man is not going to kill either Crocker or his colleagues. In the end, we appreciate the grudging respect that Jerry and Henry have for one another; but where Henry feels that morals have no place in war, Jerry cannot disassociate from his ethical code, no matter the cost. Mr. Grant was not originally cast in the part - it was intended for Gary Cooper, who had to bow out due to conflicts (AFI catalog).
Carole Lombard had already appeared in 37 silent and sound films, including The Racketeer and No More Orchids, both starring roles. Her work here is very short - she is only in about two scene, both towards the end of the movie. Regardless, the scenes are crucial in better understanding Jerry Young. Ms. Lombard's character doesn't even have a name - she is billed as The Beautiful Lady - however you will remember her after the film ends. Importantly, these are not the start of a romance, rather, it is a woman who comprehends far too well what this soldier is going through, and who seeks a way to relieve his pain, albeit temporarily. Ms. Lombard had hoped for more to do in the film; alas it was not to be (TCM article). The next year, she would finally get the opportunity to show her comedic chops in Twentieth Century; her real breakthrough was in My Man Godfrey in 1936.
Jack Oakie spent much of his career in comedies; while Mike gets the humorous lines, his part is in no way comedic. None of us were particularly fans of Mr. Oakie, but he's very good in this role. It is perhaps the kind of part he should have had more of an opportunity to perform.
Most of the reviews were positive: The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Pre-code.com blog all expressed their regard for the film. Only Variety logged complaints. We wondered if this film might have had an impact on the pacifism that kept the U.S. out of World War II until 1942. It surely is a film that makes it clear that war is pointless.
We'll leave you with this scene between Mr. March and Ms. Lombard.