12 August 2013

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: FLYING HIGH

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Planes is about planes. Talking planes with faces, no less. And while I can name no other movie about anthropomorphic planes racing one another, it was far and away the best opportunity this summer offered for the Curtiz/Flynn collaboration that I try to make part of this series every year.

I say "movie about the U.S. Navy air program made during the run-up to American involvement in World War II", you might or might not make any assumptions about the result, but I promise this: Dive Bomber doesn't meet those assumptions. Though it's full of tense scenes of men in planes, it's not an "adventure" or a "thriller" in the remotest degree, and though the plot hinges on the conflict between three prickly military men, it's not remotely character-driven, and while it overtly wants to drum up U.S. support and enthusiasm for the all-but-inevitable war (it premiered on 12 August, 1941, and was released later that month), there's nothing rah-rah or patriotic about it like there is for damn near every other military-themed film that came out around the same period. It is, unexpectedly, a procedural about the intersection between medical science and aeronautics.

It's not that good, frankly, but before we go jumping ahead to that point, it's surely worth taking stock of the perfect storm of the events that led to it being such a odd little time capsule. Firstly, it was the eleventh feature in six years directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn (not counting The Case of the Curious Bride, where Flynn was little more than a glorified extra), and the eleventh where Curtiz (a taskmaster and workaholic) and Flynn (a rape-happy libertine) could barely control their hatred for each other - it would, in fact, prove to be the final Curtiz/Flynn picture, as it was almost immediately into the production of They Died with Their Boots On that even "barely controlled" proved too difficult for Flynn. And oh, how you can tell. I am not generally a Flynn partisan, but there's a certain cheerful flourish of movie idol-charm that marks every single other one of his performances that I have seen (which is not even a majority of his lead roles), but in Dive Bomber, he's just sullen and dour, while the director's camera eye looks at other characters as much as humanly possible: there are numerous shots where the staging even favors Ralph Bellamy over Flynn. Ralph Bellamy! He was the very flesh-and-blood embodiment of The Average-Looking Dude That You Didn't Pay Much Attention To, a person you cast in your movie specifically because you could trust him not to pull focus. And Curtiz gives shots to him!

Secondly, anyway, it was a military film by Curtiz, who didn't actually make very many, but when he did, was able to really play to his great interest in setting and story instead of character (his disinterest in humans certainly contributing to his toxic relationship with Flynn, and many other actors besides). Dive Bomber might tell a tale pf humans solving a thorny problem, but it's really "about" Navy planes: that is, in fact, almost certainly the thing that is most fascinating and interesting to a modern viewer (who, like a '40s viewer, has seen this basic plot explored in other places, but unlike a '40s viewer, has very little patience for anything that doesn't apologise for its melodrama or bury it in irony), that it depicts in such vibrant Technicolor (courtesy of the team of Bert Glennon and Winton C. Hoch, one of the best Technicolor specialists of the day) the flashy-looking military planes of the immediate pre-war era, relics of an extremely narrow window of history that are not, outside of this movie, depicted in such full-color glory, especially with the earnest, enthusiastic contributions of the U.S. Navy to give the filmmakers as much access as they wanted, the better to make the Navy look as complex and lively and boisterous as a surprisingly non-propagandist propaganda picture could make it.

Thirdly, it was made when everybody in the United States was fascinated by the specter of war, but not invested in the war, so unlike legitimate "war movies" of the months and years to follow, Dive Bomber has no great actions of brave men to valorise. Instead, it presents a shockingly dry, technical process for 132 minutes - when, other than the immediate prologue to World War II, would audiences have flocked to see a film about military reasearch and development with absolutely no dramatic stakes presented within the movie itself, other than, "the pilot and the doctor quarrel a lot"? And flock they did - Dive Bomber was one of Warner Bros' biggest hits of 1941.

The film is about the nettlesome problem of high-altitude blackouts: Lt. Doug Lee (Flynn) is the assistant to flight surgeon Cdr. Lance Rogers (Bellamy), who has been assigned to solve the problem of altitude sickness, which prohibits the pilots of dive bombers from flying high enough to actually fulfill the function of dive bombing. The pilot that serves as their contact for this task is Lt. Cmdr. Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), who has a bitter history with Lee: back in Pearl Harbor, as seen in the movie's opening sequence, Lee was unable to save the life of one of Blake's best buddies, who died of the very same altitude sickness that Lee and Rogers now hope to prevent, and Blake has always assumed since then that the doctor was just an over-educated little dick who doesn't know the first thing about pilots or planes. There's a woman involved - there's always a woman involved - Mrs. Linda Fisher (Alexis Smith), who creates a triangle of sorts between Lee and Blake, but the script by Frank Wead and Robert Buckner is far, far more interested in the interplay of the three men of three different temperaments working on a job than it is on wimminfolk, and Mrs. Fisher's actual impact on the movie is quite muted.

There isn't anything "wrong" with Dive Bomber, except that the whole thing is so stretched-out and bland: it is absolutely fascinated by the nuts and bolts of the beautiful planes that the Navy fliers get to show off, and with the technological advancements that put American military can-do at such a vastly higher level than you'll see those darn Nazis reaching, and I don't think anybody in the world could deny that the best-made, most engaging, and most unique elements of the film are those which most prominently feature aircraft. Plainly, it's what Curtiz is most interested by: his banal staging of the character drama is among the worst stuff I've ever seen in that director's career, which is usually marked by such breathless efficiency and poppy, distinctive character beats. Only MacMurray, of the entire cast, feels like he's playing the actual military officer that he's been handed, and there's a horrifying thread of comic relief between Corpsman "Lucky" James (Allen Jenkins) and his shrill ex-wife (Dennie Moore), that is neither comic nor relieving, and every new scene in this vein feels like it adds another 20 minutes to the film's running time.

Other than breathtaking exterior Technicolor photography, though, Dive Bomber also isn't doing anything "right", and beautiful shots of pretty planes only gets you so far, especially with the passage of seven decades making this a period piece rather than a snapshot of The Modern Military. Two-and-a-quarter hours is a lot to spend with this plot, and these characters, in whom the filmmakers and actors seem to believe not at all; the story is just not interesting, and the people it happens to are practically dead. Now, historical time capsules have their place, and the fan of WWII-related American filmmaking - I am proudly one of them - has much reason to seek out Dive Bomber and study with delight its depiction of what people found interesting in the middle of 1941. But it is not, in and of itself, what people have found interesting at any time since, and the film lacks the propulsion that makes all of Michael Curtiz's best films so entertaining. This is a docudrama at best, and that director, with those actors, was not the right man to make a docudrama; if, indeed, a docudrama about this process was ever going to be more than a curiosity and historical footnote.

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