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Aviation August: A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941)

Since the beginning of recorded history, men have worked to find a way to fly. The movies and airplanes grew up together, so naturally the movies romanticized and profiled the people who flew them. This month we watch some examples of flight on film.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: It’s 1941. The United States is still officially neutral in matters of World War II, but in all likelihood the clouds are gathering on the horizon. But that doesn’t matter as long as you are Tim Baker (Tyrone Power). He’s a cocky pilot (Hollywood loves cocky pilots), who decides to earn some quick cash by flying a bomber from Canada to England. After arriving in London, Tim happens to run into Carol Brown (Betty Grable) an old girlfriend that he is determined to win back. No better way to do that than to sign up for the Air Force, where she volunteers as a nurse, right? Perfectly logical. Tim is naturally bored with the training classes covering the basics that he has to endure, preferring instead to hang out at the night club that Carol sings at when not nursing, eventually winding up in a love triangle with his superior John Morley (John Sutton) over Carol. Naturally, Baker comes around and puts those lessons to use when battling it out with some Germans and wins Carol’s hand.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Tim is such a relentless flirt that it is hard to take his interest in Carol seriously. The competition for her affections seems to be the extra element that maintains his interest. Otherwise he'd be content with the flavor of the week. He still chats up every youthful skirt he sees and lies constantly in hopes of charming them. Power is a good-looking guy, but it seems to me Carol should be able to see through his game. She thinks she can, but her emotions get the best of her. Their theme song is "These Foolish Things," which is a perfect backdrop to their relationship.

RB: Originally titled The Eagle’s Squadron, the story outline was actually written by Darryl Zanuck (using the pseudonym Melville Crossman), inspired by the true stories of Americans that were volunteering to serve in the R.A.F. As of early December 1940, the Hollywood Reporter noted that Henry Fonda, Don Ameche and Mary Beth Hughes were slated to star. James Cagney and Fred MacMurray were also considered for the lead, although I kind of wonder how seriously they were considered. Tyrone Power was initially nixed because the original script called for his death at the end of the film. Perhaps Zanuck was more comfortable with this plot twist when using an actor that didn’t belong to his own studio? That could be. However, due to a combination of either objection from British government officials cooperating with the film, or preview audiences, this idea was scrapped and it was decided that the two big Fox stars should wind up together.

SG: He didn't have to die, but I would have preferred a different ending. Carol should have ended up with John. He was thoughtful and considerate and stable. I think the emotional, impulsive decision to engage in a relationship with Tim illustrates a common phenomenon with young people during the war. Doom was looming, so they grabbed happiness where they found it. They didn't plan ahead for the distant future because it wasn't promised. Unfortunately, I can't imagine many of those relationships, even if they lasted, we happy ones.

The studio incorporated some nightclub musical scenes so audiences could see Grable's famous legs. A few years prior, they were insured for somewhere between $100,000 or $300,000 (accounts vary).

This is an American film set in London during the Blitz. It is a point of view we don't often get to see in Hollywood movies set during the war, the air raid drills, then the real thing, the regulations on automobiles and other parts of daily life. It is a sanitized version surely. None of the people on the street seem to be in much of a hurry to find shelter, and no one inside the church John and Carol select for hunkering down seem worried about the bombs, or tired from being kept up late, or reactive at all.

RB: One of the things that attracted the British government to this project was the lightness of so much of the film. This isn’t really a war movie in the strictest sense, but it is a light romantic comedy that takes place during wartime. Lord Beaverbrook, the British air minister was pleased about the “comedy and romance” hoping that these elements “might lift the film out of the usual category of war plots”. What I find personally ironic about this, is that these are the same qualities that some modern critics blast about the film, complaining that we get to see no scenes of injured, homeless, and fatigued citizens. This is lazy journalism at best. One doesn’t watch vintage movies expecting stark realism. It’s as unfair to criticize A Yank in the R.A.F. for this as it is unfair to blame Great Guns, Buck Privates or any of a few dozen more wartime comedies for not showing a realistic view of war. It’s equally lazy to spend a great focus on the misogyny that the plot twists upon. Baker’s attempts to force himself onto Carol are completely inappropriate by today’s standards, but hardly unheard of in the realm of classic cinema. I hesitate to even mention it but seeing contemporary essays referring to his behavior as “positively chilling” is enough to make one’s eyes roll. If anything, you could accuse the film of relying on a trope that had been played out by the time, but to accuse Yank of anything extreme considering the time is not something that I can take seriously. Of course, I cannot condone Baker’s behavior, but I also cannot condone judging this sort of material with modern sensibilities, as it was created for audiences 80 years ago, not today.

SG: It is interesting how much has changed just in the past 30 years. I remember watching movies and TV shows as a kid where men forced themselves onto women, and it was treated as a romantic gesture. "Look how much I love you; I can't control myself when you're around." I didn't read this scene that way, probably because I disliked Powers' character so much.

RB: Speaking of audiences 80 years ago, they liked this movie a lot. It was the second biggest money maker for 20th Century Fox (following up How Green Was My Valley) and the fourth biggest money maker overall for the year. Bosley Crowther, the notoriously prickly New York Times reviewer, praised the performances of both Grable and Power and felt that while “one might reasonably complain that there is a little too much romance and not enough scrapping in the film…no one can say that the scrapping, when it comes isn’t lively enough”.

SG: There were plans for Archie Mayo to direct a follow-up titled A Tommy in the U.S.A. but nothing came of it. I think part of what makes the film successful with audiences even today is the action sequences. They are edited with swift cuts to keep the scenes moving, even though we don't get a lot of great shots of the actors as they fly in the dark of night. When the bombs drop, they light up their targets. It is clear that many of the interior plane shots were taken in a studio, and stunt fliers did the heavy lifting, but it isn't all rear projection.

RB: For my money, A Yank in the R.A.F. stands as a dated, but slickly paced and briskly directed piece of cinema. Tyrone Power and Betty Grable are both more than competent in their roles. I enjoyed the movie for the piece of escapism that it was always intended to be. Three and a half stars.

SG: With such a dud of a love story I can't rate it that high, but this is certainly a three star film. It's got a great cast, good action and it reflects its time.

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