A month ago I covered a collection of pre-code movies released through the Warner Archive Collection, 11 early sound films of varying quality and pleasure that all, in their own way, had a little audacity to them.
Those releases found an appreciative audience, apparently, if the Warner Archive Facebook page and Tumblr blog and Warner has continued mining their library of pre-1933 movies, the year the production code went into effect and started censoring Hollywood films in earnest. Here are the most interesting films I’ve been watching from this batch, plus a 2010 Warner Archive that I just caught up with, and which adds another dimension to the pre-code sensibility.
That release is The Last Flight (1931), Hollywood’s “lost generation” film, the story of four World War I fliers discharged after being shot down and injured. They are “spent bullets,” as one officer calls them with some sympathy, unfit for service but unprepared to reenter society. Richard Barthelmess and David Manners headline this one as buddies who survive being shot down but they are too damaged (emotionally and physically) to go back home, where they can’t face the pity sure to be lavished on them. So they live it up in Europe as if there was no tomorrow, drifting from one party and nightclub to another and, in turn, hitting on Nikki (Helen Chandler), a guileless rich girl who takes an interest in looking after these broken, directionless men. Hollywood never managed to get Hemingway or Fitzgerald right in this era (or any era, for that matter), but this film takes a respectable run at the same themes in the Hollywood vernacular: high society meets classic Warner street smarts as four Americans in Paris resort to witty repartee and hard-drinking antics to hide haunted souls. Behind the façade of easy living and knockabout camaraderie is a bleak portrait of the mental and emotional scars left on a generation of men broken the meat grinder of the first modern industrial war.
Written by aviator-turned-author John Monk Saunders (of Wings and The Dawn Patrol fame) and directed by German émigré William Dieterle, the film lacks a strong central personality and mostly meanders through the middle but that easy rhythm and directionless story defines their whole situation and sets up the devastating third act, where the group travels to Lisbon for the bullfights. After trying to drown their nightmares in drink, they try to create some kind of emotional sensation beyond crippling depression and give in to their most self-destructive impulses. Whether it’s to kick-start a deadened existence or simply continue to confront death until it finally gets the better of them is unclear, the effect is the same. Where most of the memorable artifacts of pre-code cinema liked to flaunt its defiance of social decorum, The Last Flight makes an effort to shake up and unsettle the viewer, and it succeesds.