Christmas Gift Flying Movies

It is our habit – Laurel’s and mine – on Thanksgiving Day to start watching all of the 25 or so Christmas movies we own. Our Thanksgiving tradition begins in the morning with pumpkin pie for breakfast – face it, there’s never room for pie after gorging on turkey and all the fixin’s – so why not pie for breakfast? Along with our pie we watch the original 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street, in glorious black and white – a pox upon Ted frkn Turner and his horseshite colorizing process. We follow, that evening, with Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, starring Bob Hope and Fred Astaire, also in glorious black and white. Time progresses with a different favorite each night. Last night we watched Richard Curtis’ Love Actually. Tonight we’ll watch, Haysoos hepp me, The Family Stone, which takes Christmas family drama to untold heights … or depths.

But tomorrow is December 7th and, to a child born when I was, there was never a more important date in our country’s history. It will be the 76th anniversary of that infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and, despite Saint Laurel’s minor protests, we will watch movies related to that horrific slaughter, Christmas or no Christmas.

Which movies do you ask? Well, probably the best from an airplane geeks POV, is the 1970 American/Japanese co-production, Tora, Tora, Tora. Sure the script is clunky and the acting strained, but most of the facts are correct (unlike most Hollywood treatments) and the attack sequences – enhanced by some actual documentary footage – is unequaled.

A far inferior effort was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, with Ben Affleck at his wooden worst, and Kate Beckinsale at her most beautiful, reciting a script written by a tone deaf automaton, and, in a tragic miscasting, Alec, the wife-beater, Baldwin, as one of the greatest pilots in history, Jimmy Doolittle – a casting screw up of moronic proportions.

There’s a little known black and white film made shortly after Pearl Harbor called Air Force that is wonderful in many ways. It recalls a flight of B-17’s enroute to Hawai’i that arrived in the Islands just as the Japanese planes were attacking. The special effects are vintage early 40’s (you can almost see the strings attached to the model planes), it’s an all-American hatefest for the Japanese marauders, but it was directed by Howard Hawks and has decent acting contributions from John Garfield, Gig Young and Harry Carey.

While From Here to Eternity barely deals with airplanes, it evolves around the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the cast – Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine and even Frank Sinatra – kick ass.

There are also documentaries that feature the attack on Pearl that are compiled from actual documentary footage. Probably the best is the December 7th episode of the famous NBC TV series, Victory at Sea. If you haven’t seen it, buy the entire CD/Blue Ray set because it is epic television.
Another solid documentary account is called December 7th, 1941, A Day of Infamy. It too uses actual newsreel footage of the attack and is a worthwhile investment. There are even “CENSORED” images that block “secret” 1942 equipment. John Ford directed.

What about Christmas gift flying movies for the pilot in your life? There are a bundle of airplane-geek movies out there and I’ll do my best herein to list and rate my faves.

Maybe because it was the first flying movie I’d ever seen (released in 1954), The High and the Mighty, from the Ernest K Gann novel of the same name, is my all-time favorite. It stars the Duke, John Wayne, as a has-been co-pilot with a crash on his back, Robert Stack, in his learning-how-to-act days, and a cast of 30’s, 40’s and 50’s character actors and former stars. There’s Claire Trevor as a floozie, Jan Sterling as another, Laraine Day as a witchy wife (with a capital B), Robert Preston (the villain in Treasure Island), and Gonzalez Gonzalez (a Wayne favorite), along with a fine ensemble.
They’re all aboard a DC-4 enroute from Honolulu to San Francisco when something happens. The special effects are vintage, low budget 50’s, so don’t expect to be blown away by the visuals. But the acting is first rate from the screenplay by the author, and William Wellman directs. Wellman was a hero from WWI when he flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps, earning the Croix de Guerre. The High and the Mighty was produced in color – but it doesn’t detract too much from the story.
Buy it, watch it, enjoy it.

Speaking of Wellman, the first academy award for best picture was given to his WWI film, Wings, which debuted in 1927. The film is dated, the acting straight out of the silent film era – talkies were still a year away – but the flying sequences are remarkable for its time and it starred Clara Bow, ”The It Girl” from early motion picture days.

A weak honorable mention is China Clipper, a 1936 fictionalization of Juan Trippe’s early years building Pan American into the world’s most famous air carrier. Pat O’Brien plays a one-dimensional version of Trippe whose single-minded pursuit of his goals alienates all around him. Humphrey Bogart has a medium-sized role.

If you like early aviation, Jimmy Stewart – a pilot in real life – plays Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder’s 1957 version of The Spirit of St Louis based on Lindbergh’s account of his epic flight. Stewart was just a kid when, over 33 hours and 30 minutes on May 20-21, 1927, Lindbergh changed the world.
The story sticks with Lindbergh’s early flying career and culminates with the termination of his flight at Le Bourget Field. The flying sequences are good and Stewart, although nearly 50 trying to play the 26 year old Lindberg, is wonderful. The film was shot in color, but that fact doesn’t detract too much from the story.

A not-so-well-know 1939 film features a young Cary Grant – it’s called Only Angels Have Wings and it’s probably my second favorite. Jean Arthur plays the love interest, with a young Rita Hayworth playing a toots and former lover of Grant. There’s a solid supporting cast: Thomas Mitchell, silent film star Richard Barthelmass, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery, Jr, Sig Ruman and John Carol among others.
Grant is running an airline in Columbia and trying to keep his pilots alive – and not always succeeding. Arthur is an entertainer who hops off a banana boat and falls in love with the hero. Most of the special effects are ridiculous, but there are some spectacular flying sequences flown by Paul Mantz. Directed by Howard Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings is a marvelous period piece that always delivers the goods. Of course, it’s filmed in glorious black and white.

No Highway in the Sky is a low-budget 1951 version of Neville Shute’s novel of the same name. Jimmy Stewart plays a nerdy aeronautical engineer who is convinced that the new British turboprop, the Reindeer, has a flawed tail plane design. When a Reindeer crashes, Stewart is sent to the Labrador crash site to learn what happened. On the flight he meets gorgeous stewardess, Glynnis Johns, who looks after him, and world famous movie star Monica Teasdale, played by Marlene Dietrich, who takes a shine to him when he explains that their airplane might crash into the North Atlantic.
Jack Hawkins plays Stewart’s boss, Ronald Squire plays the CEO, Kenneth More plays the chippy co-pilot and Janet Scott plays Stewart’s daughter. It’s a delightful black and white thriller with Stewart at his goofy best.

Now, if it’s war flicks that rev your engines, probably the best aviation war film ever made is Twelve O’Clock High. Gregory Peck owns the film as an Army Air Corps General who takes over a hard-luck bomb group and tries to instill some discipline and pride in its flight crews. Dean Jagger steals virtually every scene he’s in playing Peck’s adjutant.
Most of the aerial footage was from actual Army Air Corps cameras. After the first few minutes, you barely know you’re watching a black and white movie because the acting and the action is so good. Henry King directed and Jagger won an academy award for his performance. Excellent support came from Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Paul Stewart The film was released in 1949.

Another decent WWII flying flick is Mervyn LeRoy’s 1944 film, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. Spencer Tracy plays Jimmy Doolittle – a tad stiffly (but a far better portrayal than the wife-beater Baldwin) – as he gathers a group of pilots to train to fly 16 B-25’s off the carrier Hornet on a secret April 1942 mission to pay Japan back for its treachery at Pearl Harbor.
Some of the flying sequences are great, the cast includes Van Johnson, Robert Walker, and a young Robert Mitchum, among others – all familiar faces from the 1940’s. The script, by Dalton Trumbo – one of the screen writer’s blacklisted because of Joe McCarthy in his commies in Hollywood quest – is of note.

Maybe in another blog, I’ll mention some flying flicks from the modern era – say, post-1960. There might be one or two. For now, see if you can find some of these films and let me know what you think. And, if you don’t like black and white films after viewing the best of this list, maybe you need your eyes checked – or your taste.
Mele Kalikimaka.

Posted in Whimsy