We’ve finally reached a year in which all the films I’ve watched are sound films. Not only that, but sound technology has reached a point where it’s not so clunky as to be a distraction, and directors and editors are getting to grips with the style and pacing of sound pictures. It was an expensive film to make largely for that reason. Production began in the silent era – presumably, like “Wings”, as a response to the general fascination with aviation that accompanied Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 crossing of the Atlantic – but took so long that much of it had to be reshot for sound.
The film has some colour and tinted sequences – night scenes, as was the custom, are tinted blue, while the ballroom sequence is in two-strip Technicolor. The DVD must have been struck from the only surviving colour print – the one that was given to John Wayne by Howard Hughes in the 50s and only rediscovered in 1989.
Although inevitably melodramatic and stagey by modern standards, it represents a marked advance in storytelling on previous war adventures like “Wings” and “The Big Parade”, with their formulaic “boy loves wrong girl, boy suffers terribly in war but meets right girl in the process” story arc. This might be down to the intervention of James Whale, who insisted on a rewrite when he was brought in to direct after the changeover to sound.
The story follows three Oxford students (rather mature-looking ones, naturally) – two English Brothers – Roy and Monte – and Karl, a German. Helen, the love interest, is played by Jean Harlow in her first screen role. Although idolised by the naive Roy, she also gets entangled with Monte, which gives her the opportunity to coin the expression, ‘to slip into something more comfortable’.
In between the scenes of romantic drama, we get some spectacular set pieces, which really show us where the money went, beginning with a Zeppelin raid over London, which ends with the airship being shot down by Roy and Monte’s squadron. Their planes are damaged but they land safely, and in a particularly spectacular and beautifully hand-coloured piece of model work – or is it? – the burning wreckage of the airship falls out of the sky directly above them.
Later on, the brothers volunteer for a dangerous mission to destroy a German munitions depot. No expense was spared here. It really looks as if Howard Hughes and company built a full-size mockup of the depot – several buildings complete with roads, trucks, and all the other visible infrastructure – on an area the size of a couple of football fields – and bombed it to bits from the air. It’s an impressive sight, and is immediately followed up with a full-on aerial dogfight which pulls no punches about the brutality and horror of this type of combat.
Finally there is a dramatic showdown with the grandfather of all German-Officer parodies, complete with what must be the first recorded use of the lines “So we meet again!” and “For you the war is over!”. For all that, though, the climax is genuinely dramatic and emotional. Inevitably the film looks dated at times from our modern perspective but if you can slip into ‘1930’ mode, it’s more involving and far less clunky than most sound films from this period.
ALSO FROM 1930:
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: This deservedly legendary film, from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, shows the German experience of the First World with uncompromising frankness as it records the front-line experience of a group of schoolmates, hectored into joining up by their jingoistic schoolmaster, and promptly disillusioned as they are killed off one by one. The scenes of trench warfare are truly gruelling, on a par with “Saving Private Ryan” over sixty years later – a tour-de-force of early sound film editing and direction.
ANNA CHRISTIE: I got through whole silent period without watching a single film from one of its great legends, Great Garbo, so the sensation announced on the posters for this film – “Garbo talks!” – didn’t carry the same impact for me as it did for audiences of the time.
Early talkies have the reputation of being stagey and studiobound compared to the grand spectacle of the late silents, and this is a prime example. It’s scarcely more than a filmed version of the stage play on which it was based, with very little added in the way of cinematic technique. Garbo is magnetic though, in all her glorious glumness.
ELSTREE CALLING: A revue of stage entertainment, using the framing device of a television broadcast. BBC radio was only a few years old but amazingly its first TV service began this year. Evidently it caused enough excitement for Elstree to produce this forward-looking feature. The acts are a mixed bag to a modern eye – an assortment of American Vaudeville and British music hall and nightclub acts. The music and dancing are still impressive but the comedy is pretty dire. It has curiosity value as the revue segments were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and the dance numbers are stencil-coloured, probably one of the latest examples of the technique that dates back to the turn-of-the century Pathé fairy-tale films.
It’s a surreal experience at times, partly for the scenes of a frustrated home viewer trying to fix his faulty flatscreen (!) TV with a hammer and screwdriver, and especially for the “Taming of the Shrew” segment, a very free adaptation of Shakespeare which involves custard pies, a riderless motorbike being tamed like a lion, and an enraged Anna May Wong in a skimpy silver costume throwing piles of furniture down a staircase.