The Last Flight (William Dieterle, 1931)

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myrnaloyisdope
Joined: Mon Jan 07, 2008 7:41 pm
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The Last Flight (William Dieterle, 1931)

#1 Post by myrnaloyisdope » Sun Dec 07, 2008 3:06 am

Well I searched the boards and found only one passing reference to this film, so I thought it needed its own post.

I've now watched the film 3 times in the past couple weeks, and it's impressed the heck out of me. I think it might be the best picture on the so-called "Lost Generation", and is the closest I've seen a film come to capturing the spirit of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises". The film is probably best known for being Dieterle's first American film, and being scripted by Wings author John Monk Saunders .

What makes the film so great I think is the fact that nothing really happens. Here's a brief synopsis: 4 ex-pilots in 1919 Paris led by Richard Barthelmess, drink constantly, meet a single girl (Helen Chandler), and then go to Lisbon and drink some more. It's a film that is entirely driven by the rapport between the characters, and the pervasive ennui that covers each of their lives. All the characters are broken, and disenchanted, with alcohol being the only evident solution. The film also has a lot of quirky humor as well, which increases the sense of ennui, as none of the characters are able to speak honestly about their disenchantment and instead hide behind their whimsy.

The entire film is such an oddity, a character driven, almost plotless film about alcoholics. It does fit in with some of the other anti-war films of the era, although it's never explicitly anti-war. But I think the success of All Quiet on the Western Front meant a lot of pacifist films were made in the pre-code era. But I still think it's remarkable that the film was scripted, filmed, and completed without it would seem any attempt to Hollywood-ize it. My guess is that it slipped under the radar because it was essentially a Warner Bros programmer, with little invested in it's success or failure. I can't imagine the film found much of an audience in 1931, given how strange it was, and even now I find it tough to describe.

As for Dieterle's direction, well it's pretty standard, simple and effective, although he deserves much credit for understanding the script, and trusting the actors to keep up (which they do). I would have to think an German import like Dieterle was perfectly suited to direct such an un-Hollywood film, given his unfamiliarity with Hollywood. In the hands of a lesser director, or even a Hollywood director the film would likely have undergone script changes, or simply have had a few interesting moments and might be a mild curiosity. What Dieterle does is make the film cohesive and purposeful.

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david hare
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 8:01 pm
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Re: The Last Flight (William Dieterle, 1931)

#2 Post by david hare » Sun Dec 07, 2008 5:18 am

Very interesting post, miss loy!

I was totally ignorant of this title and have obvously never seen it. I do think Dieterle is an all too often neglected figure by auteurists, and he's worthy of more than the old "subject for further research " label.

There may well be a subgenre of precode American pictures which seem to circle around people getting drunk - another one is Tay Garnett's fascinating if somewhat wayward Her Man with Helen Twelvetrees, and more importantly a trio of perverse gleeclub singers who may well be sexually interested in each other, and who are given to getting smashed and providing diversion for the audience during breaks in the peripatetic action. I recommend it without rez of course.

Back to Dieterle, one of several astonishing privileged moments in Desplechin's Conte de Noel (and the film has more of them than a Bach Cantata) is a sublime scene in which the youngest (teenaged) family member who is suffering some undefined mental illness stumbels around the darkened house and stops dead when he appears to see apparition of some sort of totemic Fox, while Desplechin cuts back and forth to a TV screen playing the incredible Puck and the Donkey scene, and then the Fairies taking Puck heavenward from Dieterle's fabulous MIdsummer Night's Dream. It makes your hair stand on end.

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lubitsch
Joined: Fri Oct 07, 2005 4:20 pm

Re: The Last Flight (William Dieterle, 1931)

#3 Post by lubitsch » Tue Dec 09, 2008 9:02 pm

myrnaloyisdope wrote:What makes the film so great I think is the fact that nothing really happens. Here's a brief synopsis: 4 ex-pilots in 1919 Paris led by Richard Barthelmess, drink constantly, meet a single girl (Helen Chandler), and then go to Lisbon and drink some more. It's a film that is entirely driven by the rapport between the characters, and the pervasive ennui that covers each of their lives. All the characters are broken, and disenchanted, with alcohol being the only evident solution. The film also has a lot of quirky humor as well, which increases the sense of ennui, as none of the characters are able to speak honestly about their disenchantment and instead hide behind their whimsy.

The entire film is such an oddity, a character driven, almost plotless film about alcoholics. It does fit in with some of the other anti-war films of the era, although it's never explicitly anti-war. But I think the success of All Quiet on the Western Front meant a lot of pacifist films were made in the pre-code era. But I still think it's remarkable that the film was scripted, filmed, and completed without it would seem any attempt to Hollywood-ize it. My guess is that it slipped under the radar because it was essentially a Warner Bros programmer, with little invested in it's success or failure. I can't imagine the film found much of an audience in 1931, given how strange it was, and even now I find it tough to describe.
Dieterle remembers the film in his autobiography very warmly and apparently the film was a success with critics and public which I find also quite surprising because it's more something you could expect from Antonioni. Not regarding the style of course, but as you said it's an almost plotless collection of episodes where the characters are propelled by ennui and an unwillingness to look into their own feeling which they cover up with funny games which form the bulk of the picture. The film doesn't explain much except for a scene with a doctor who sketches the attitude of the characters but already the female character remains more or less unexplained during the whole film (a very remarkable performance by Helen Chandler).
Dieterle further wrote proudly that the film was labeled a forgotten masterpiece in a 1970 retrospective in London. 40 years later it still seems to be forgotten.
These are the cases which really make me mad. Films who are thought to be great by pretty much everyone who has seen them, but are seen nevertheless by very few persons. Maybe someone could talk to the studios and it would be possible to do a set of almost unknown masterpieces, every one presented by a famous critic like Ebert, Bordwell and so on.
THE LAST FLIGHT is at least shown in the USA on TV and might find its way in a Warner pre-Code set, other films are off even worse.

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HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: The Last Flight (William Dieterle, 1931)

#4 Post by HerrSchreck » Tue Dec 09, 2008 11:27 pm

Well my ears are perked up. Time to start rifling around.

And er *cough* uh, the part sounds more than just a bit ironic for Ms. Chandler, one of Hollywoods most tragic alcoholics. Bramwell Fletcher didn't have any lines in this, did he?

Seriously, Dieterle's treatment by history has been scandalous. I'm elated MoC will at least be bringing Devil & Daniel Webster to the UK. The man was a brilliant filmmaker who caught fire virtually from the start. Even his very first works as a director (see Geschlecht in Fesseln/Sex in Chains from '28) reveal that combo of muscular visuals and delicate tempo and performance, and the very strong intelligence of the man himself.. reflected in his treatment of the material he handled.

After all, the guy had on the job training working with the best of them, as an actor. Jessner, Carl Mayer, Oswald, Murnau, Paul Leni. For starters.

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