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.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Come Fly With Me follows three flight attendants on their travels working for Polar Atlantic. Donna (Dolores Hart) and Bergie (Lois Nettleton) are seasoned employees, but Carol (Pamela Tiffin) is the new girl, an easily duped but passionate young woman with eyes for her pilot (Hugh O'Brien). Donna lets passenger Franz (Karlheinz Bohm) take her out on a date and discovers he is from a prominent but fallen family. Bergie goes out with Walter (Karl Malden) after he rescues her from harassment on their flight but is hesitant to get close to him when she discovers he has recently been widowed.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: I’ve heard the stories of flight attendants in the mid-century and all of the ridiculous standards that they were expected to uphold, but were they really expected to go on dates with the people on their flights? That sounds miserable, even in the context of this film. What’s even more interesting to me, is that the attendants in this film seem to willingly go along with it, just hoping that they can somehow get the best of the crop. It makes for an interesting movie, but I can’t imagine that it’s any way to live.
SG: I don't think they were obligated to go out with them. I think they wanted to go out with them. In the way that college was sometimes the chance for a woman to earn her MRS degree in this era, working for an airline was a way to meet wealthy bachelors.
There is a ridiculous date scene where Franz goes waterskiing in a suit. Perhaps we are to believe he is so skilled at his craft that he can navigate the waters without soaking his clothes?
RB: I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to believe that, but it is an example of out of place slapstick that crops up in films of this era. I feel like we’ve unspooled quite a few early 60’s films lately and this sort of thing does tend to crop up. Maybe it’s an attempt to appeal to more general audiences, as so many of these wound up playing the drive-in circuit for a couple of years after they finished playing stand-alone dates at traditional movie houses? Or maybe I’m reading into it too much, and it was just a sign of the times.
SG: History lovers have much to ogle. The opening credits take us on a ride heading toward John F. Kennedy International Airport before it was called that; it was still New York International. Stewardesses serve things like lobster to the passengers. Although the main characters work for Polar Atlantic Airlines, it is a clear nod to the defunct Pan American. The women are glamorous; airlines had restrictions on how tall, heavy and old a stewardess could be. The customer is always right, so they aren't permitted to discipline unruly children or aggressively put off drunken advances.
RB: The scenery was my favorite part of this movie, and I felt the urge to dig out my TWA swizzle sticks and whip up some sort of a vintage cocktail to go along with all of this midcentury modern goodness.
SG: Sounds good to me! Fashion enthusiasts will drool over the gorgeous clothes the women wear during their off-duty hours and wonder how they could ever afford all of them. It would have been a fun added element if the girls each wore the same dress on their various dates, sort of a throwback to the days of WWII when fabric was in short supply. On the other hand, I could see how that would detract from the indulgent nature of the movie.
RB: There is a fun, dreamlike quality to the entire film that I found quite pleasant, and the exorbitant fashion is just part of that goodness. While your suggestion is a practical one, as is often the case, practicality is a lot less fun than the wishful thinking that this film promotes.
SG: The film is based on the book Girl on a Wing by British author Bernard Glemser, later retitled as The Fly Girls. The title was originally going to be called Champagne Flight, but was changed to capitalize on the popularity of Frank Sinatra's 1958 hit. Frankie Avalon sings it as the credits roll, and I defy you not to get that song in your head while thinking of this movie.
RB: Um, I get that song in my head every time I think of the TITLE of this movie! It’s so inseparable that I even would hum the tune seeing the DVD case on the shelf, or knowing that it was on the docket for us to watch.
SG: Karl Malden is fantastic in this movie. He is boyish and charming and a believable romantic interest for Bergie. Considering we so often see him playing the second-tier characters, playing sexless cops or clergymen, it is refreshing to see him in a leading man part. He said he took the part not because it was particularly impressive or because he wanted to work with director Henry Levin, who he described as "absolutely lost with actors," but because he had never been to Europe and wanted to go.
Malden's memoir, which is excellent, contains musings on Hart and her decision to become a nun after making this film. "She adored spending time with my daughters and quickly became like a member of the family. She was happy to babysit with them and too particular delight in scaring them half to death with ghost stories, which she would read to them by candlelight in her darkened London flat. When the picture was over and we all returned to LA, Dolores remained close to my family, especially the girls." He remembered that when she decided to devote herself to the church, rather than to get married, she brought many of her "worldly possessions" over to give to his daughters.
RB: The Malden/Nettleton storyline is easily the best of the three that make up the film, I feel. There is a melancholy to Malden’s situation as he is simply looking for companionship that is very sweet. The others take this for granted, but, Walter, knowing what it was like to have this and then lose it, makes Malden the most sympathetic character. We’re supposed to somehow buy into Lois Nettleton being the least attractive of the attendants, but I never really allowed myself to follow the screenplay down that hole. For all accounts and purposes, she’s still charming and glamorous.
SG: Sure, I didn't think of her as being less glamorous, just more serious and maybe a little older.
The little boy in this movie (Alain Morat) who acts as a guide for Bergie and Walter reminds me very much of Gaetano Autiero in Summertime, right down to the cigarette smoking.
RB: Well, I just thought that was a stereotypical French thing. Oh, he’s a little kid and he’s smoking. Of course, he’s French.
SG: The movie was released in April 1963 and Dolores Hart did a tour across the country to promote it.
"A mixture of light-hearted romantic fun and soap-opera involvements, plus attractive Metrocolor-Panavision shots of Paris and Vienna, make this lightweight MGM release mildly satisfying springtime entertainment for the masses," wrote the Film Bulletin reviewer.
RB: The Warner Archive DVD is faded in some places (especially near reel changes), and I’m sure we don’t really get to see the Panavision as well as we could’ve nearly 60 years ago. This is
also a film that I doubt is on the list for any extensive restoration, so we’ll have to go by the potential for photographic greatness that we can see, which is great.
SG: We have watched movies where flight was a component of war, or a subject of exploration, a novelty. Here we have a film made when flight had been mastered enough for it to become a luxury commodity, an option for the wealthy, a status symbol. This fluffy movie is decadent and full of excess and I ate it up by the spoonful. Three and a half stars.
RB: It’s been a fun jaunt to get to see how our ideas of flight changed as we progressed through the decades. As we leave off in the firm midcentury, flying for pleasure was still only enjoyed by those of a certain income bracket, as you pointed out. I found Come Fly With Me to be a breezy, sometimes silly, always visually pleasant romp. While movies about flying continue to be made today, the sheen has worn off the industry and it’s safe to say that none of us will experience what is portrayed here. I give this a solid three stars as a fun look back into a past that maybe never really existed, but surely could never happen again.
Join us in September for our breakdown of an entire 13 part serial: Secret Agent X9.