As I myself get older, I bristle at the phrase "old movies" more and more. My first principle that un vrai film est un vrai film allows no room for what some might call ageist hierarchies. I get shirty even when the issue is raised in a relatively innocuous fashion. I remember going on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN back in 2003 to flog Premiere's "Hottest Sex Scenes" feature, and the very gracious Mr. Cooper mentioned, in a genial tone, that the top five pictures on the list were, and I quote, "relatively older movies." Hardly an unreasonable observation—the films in the top five were Blow-Up, Some Like It Hot, ...And God Created Woman, Vixen, and Last Tango In Paris (and this is what you get when you allow the likes of myself to be the sole arbiter and author of such a list, by the way; none of that Indecent Proposal bullshit for me, no sirree). And I gave him a reasoned, reasonable answer. But I remember thinking, with a little bit of hostility, "What do you mean by older, posh boy? You and Blow-Up are pretty much the same age." I'm like that, what can I tell you.
All this is by way of prefacing the statement of fact that The Last Flight, directed by German emigre Dieterle from an adaptation by John Monk Saunders of his novel Single Woman, is what you might call an inescapably old film. As notable and frank and moving as it is, it does creak rather conspicuously at times, and that's life. And if you can get around—or better still, actually appreciate—that, it's a terrifically noteworthy movie experience.
Flight, based in part on Saunder's own experiences (a World War I aviator, he also wrote Wellman's classic Wings, and won an Oscar for his script for The Dawn Patrol), tells the story of a group of damaged American Great War vets galivanting their way through Paris and Spain, fueled by massive amounts of liquor and all pursuing the same expat lovely, the enigmatic Nikki (a lovely Helen Chandler). Yes, the storyline does sound familiar, and yes, there is a bullfighting scene in here...Yes, Saunders' Single Lady would seem to owe a lot to Papa's The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, but what we're likely looking at here are accounts of near-parallel existences, rather than text theft.
The ringleader of the black-tie sporting group of heartbroken would-be wolves in this picture is Cary, played by silent film superstar Richard Barthelmess, and again he here puts paid to the too-much perpetrated myth that he couldn't carry a talking picture. The acting styles here are pretty much all on the slightly overemphasizing side of the silent mode, but the performances—Cary's pals are played by a group of the era's stars and future stars, names undreamt of in the Twitterific Kidcrits'™ philosophy, including Johnny Mack Brown and David Manners—are all earnest, unforced.
One aspect of the film that's rather bracingly prominent is its treatment of what I believe was not quite yet known as alcoholism. "What should I drink now, I suppose?" is a constant refrain with these characters, and they're all pretty explicit about the fact that they're looking for strong mood uplifters. Nikki is constantly wondering what such and such a cocktail is going to do for her. "It'll make you bark like a fox," Cary advises at one point. "But I don't want to bark like a fox." "It'll make you laugh and play." Yes—laugh and play is what these characters all want to do, and they think the drink is gonna help, and it never, ever does. Looking at one of Cary's crew, miserable in his cups, Nikki asks Cary what's going to finally help the guy get better. "He'll have to be...reborn," Cary says ruefully. It's a striking line, especially so when one puts together that this film was made about five years before the official founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, a recovery group that posits a "spiritual awakening" as key to a program of sobriety. Kind of in the same ballpark as a rebirth, I'd say. But such an option seems definitively out of most of these characters' reaches, and Nikki and Cary end up together more or less via attrition—all of Cary's comrades go by the wayside, victims of their war trauma and their powerlessness over alcohol. (And Saunders himself took his own life in 1940.)
One of those companions, Francis, seen above with the gun, is played by Elliott Nugent, who went on to become a very accomplished and celebrated playwright and director (he helmed the Bob Hope version of The Cat and the Canary, which I get all excited about here). Nugent also went on to have his own harrowing experiences with drinking and depression, which he recounts with admirable courage in his 1965 memoir Events Leading Up To The Comedy. Among the most heartbreaking bits in the account is his telling of the last days of his friend, the great James Thurber (with whom Nugent collaborated on the play The Male Animal), and what Thurber turned into as he "began his daily five-o-clock drinking." "He began to work on a bitter autobiography to be called What Happened To Me. [...] 'This will be the real truth, for the first time,' he told me. 'I can't hide any more behind the mask of comedy that I've used all my life. People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible—and so is life!'"
As for Nugent himself, he ends Events thusly: "I am learning to try to forgive myself, so much as is within my power. Pray for me, dear grandchildren—and for all good people of whatever religion who live in this lovely and often frightening world; God knows we need such petitions."