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Aviation August: Lilac Time (1928)

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: WWI has recently been in the news, as a forest fire in Slovenia has been exploding land mines left behind from the war. It seems appropriate that during our spotlight on films featuring aviation that we should start with the first war to feature battles between aircraft.

Lilac Time is the story of a French girl (Colleen Moore) billeting soldiers from the Army Air Force during The Great War and her romance with one (Gary Cooper). Although the plot takes place early in the war just before the Americans entered the conflict, it is surprising to see Jeannie and the soldiers living relatively well. We see them eating chicken for dinner, which seems like a banquet compared to the staving villagers we are used to seeing in WWI films. Jeannie punishes Phillip for his rude behavior by serving him the feet and the neck while everyone else indulges in the desirable parts.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: We’re somehow used to seeing signs of joviality in movies about WWII, probably all of those service comedies coming back to haunt me, but we really don’t see that much in films about the first global conflict. I immediately harkened back to The Big Parade while watching this, with its scenes of friendship and camaraderie, but at least as I recall, there are no scenes of people being silly and having fun. The only other thing I can think of regarding WWI and joking around would be a few Charley Chase shorts that were to come 5 or 6 years after this.

SG: There is no accounting for Jeannie's dramatic shift in feeling for Phillip. Good looks can only take you so far. This is the biggest flaw of the film, because it hinges on our belief that these two are meant to be together, if only the war weren't working to keep them apart. Cooper and Moore are a bit of an odd couple. They're both appealing, but they're very different types. Cooper dated Clara Bow and had a tempestuous relationship with Lupe Velez. Moore seems like a child in comparison.

RB: I couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of chemistry here, however, I do wonder if we aren’t seeing the entire picture, so to speak. The copies of this film that are circulating among collectors appears to run right at 90 minutes. However, Harrison’s Reports notes an original running time of just shy of 100 minutes. While I didn’t notice any major leaps in footage, I can’t help but wonder if we are missing out on some character development.

SG: I certainly hope it existed at some point. The first half of the film feels like a series of comic ideas mashed into the background of WWI. The second half shifts to high drama. Refugees are fleeing their homes, Jeannie is going back in hopes of reuniting with Phillip, bombs are falling. They feel completely disconnected and more time should have been taken to bridge the gap.

RB: This is a very ambitious film, but sometimes it’s hard not to get the impression that it is too ambitious. This was definitely a blockbuster film for 1928, and like today, sometimes a blockbuster film can be too willing to cover too many bases. I enjoy a good light comedy, as I enjoy a good action film, but sometimes it can be difficult when a movie tries to be both. Especially when, in this case, it plays like two different movies with the same characters attached together.

SG: Moore is a talented actress. She is cute and fun in the lighthearted scenes, and she is equally capable in the dramatic parts. Her exasperation at the ambulances who speed by the place crash site is palpable. She also acquits herself well in a scene with an enemy flier. It is a shame that most of her films are only available on the grey market.

RB: About half of Moore’s films no longer exist at all, so it’s actually worse than that. I like her too, and think that she’s an expressive well-rounded actress. However, I do tend to prefer her work in comedies more, like the delightful Why Be Good?. Tragically, Moore did donate prints of many of her films to the Museum of Modern Art, where they were allowed to decompose.

SG: I hate hearing stories like that. It really was the luck of the draw. Even those people who worked to preserve their films didn't always succeed.

Offscreen, Moore was going through turmoil in her marriage to John McCormick. He was a drinker who had a difficult time keeping a job and whose jealousy of his wife's career caused him to meddle in it sometimes to her detriment. In the late 20s, he began to manage her and purchased the rights to Jane Cowl's successful play Lilac Time for her. He signed director George Fitzmaurice who he knew from their work at First National and recruited Adela Rogers St. Johns to adapt the story to suit Moore's personality. Carey Wilson wrote the script. McCormick saw Cooper in Wings and decided he was just right for Lilac Time. He estimated that the production would cost a million dollars, a big budget at that time.

RB: Warners took over First National shortly before the release of Lilac Time, and they didn’t have a ton of faith in it. Obviously, they were wrong. It was a BIG hit, bringing in $1,675,000.00, on luxurious $2.00 admission tickets.

SG: WWI was a hot nostalgic topic. This film was released only a decade after Armistice so it triggered many emotions among contemporaries. The success of films like The Big Parade and Wings show that it was popular among movie audiences.

The aerial sequences are impressive. Dick Grace, who did flying stunts in Wings, and broke his neck during one of them, also worked in this film. He was in charge of choreographing the flight sequences as well as organizing a team to perform them. He chose Ross Cook, Charles Stoffer, Frank Baker, B. M. Spencer, Lonnie Hay, and Clement Phillips, a group of men from a variety of backgrounds but all competent fliers. They dubbed themselves "The Buzzards." Grace said, "From the beginning until the last man alive, we said, we'd stand for one another and for the right kind of leadership, and we agreed that if there were a death among us that gap would never be filled." Grace and location manager Frank Ward considered filming in Texas where Wings shot their flight footage, but California was preferable. They found a place in the mountains between Los Angeles and San Diego. Grace himself performed the climactic crash on his birthday. "One of these days all of those dead ships, ships which I have murdered, will get together and frame on me, and they'll reincarnate their abused spirits into one and send that one back for me to crack up. Then it may be my time to join the Squadron [of Death]," he wrote in his memoir.

RB: The aerial stunts are something to behold, and are one of the most attractive things about this film. They’re impressive and exciting, just as enthralling as the more famous stunts in Wings. For me, they were the main attraction and were a lot of fun to see.

SG: Soundtracks were becoming popular, so a one-hundred piece orchestra created a score for the film. ("...In the hiatus between silent and sound movies, when the industry couldn't make up its mind any more than a hippogriff..." wrote St. Johns.) Unfortunately the print we saw, a muddy washed-out dupe, did not include this soundtrack. It likely included the song "Jeannine I Dream of Lilac Time," which was issued as sheet music with Moore on the cover.

RB: While most people did get to see the film with the original soundtrack, that’s not entirely possible today (three discs are missing, and while some are optimistic about their existence, they have not turned up yet). Back in 2013, Jack Theakston in a post on Nitrateville expounded on some of the soundtrack issues. Through a series of complicated circumstances, Lilac Time was released with optical sound (an RCA owned process called Photophone), and presumably due to the poor quality of the dub, was panned at the premier. By the time of the August 3rd east coast premiere in New York (at the Central Theater), it played with a one-hundred piece orchestra due to Union disputes over the sound equipment. Within a couple of weeks, that conflict was resolved, and the film was sent out with a Western Electric soundtrack. Since the film was still in general release when the Warner Brothers/First National deal was finalized, it’s possible that some cities did receive Vitaphone branded discs for the film, as it was still in general release for quite some time after this.

The copy of the film that we viewed, I suspect was a DVD copy of a VHS release from Critic’s Choice video back in the ‘80’s, which seems to be where most of the collector copies today come from, while we wait for an official release or restoration from Warner Brothers. This copy, as you mentioned, faded and muddy with no signs of the original score, likely came from a print that was licensed by United Artists back in the late-60’s for 16mm release. United Artists, in the 70’s issued the film on 8mm as well, and there have been rumors of unauthorized prints sold by Thunderbird Films as well, although those rumors have also been disputed. Either way, we do know that 35mm material does exist on this film, and is highly sought after, largely praised at the occasional film festival that it gets trotted out at.

SG: The film premiered at the Cathay Circle Theater in Beverly Hills. New York mayor Jimmy Walker played M.C. and a huge blanket of a thousand American Beauty roses was on display with a gold banner that read, "Jamais amour ne meurt" or "Love never dies." It later played at New York's Astor Theater for six months.

This movie has all the elements to make it a great movie, but the disjointed storytelling really detracted from the quality moviemaking. I wanted to like this film more than I did. 3 stars.

RB: The story behind the film and its cultural importance in film history is more interesting to me than the actual movie was, although I’d welcome the opportunity to see it in a format closer to how it was intended. As is, however, I felt that I had seen a film that had a greater reputation than it deserved. I’ll concede 3 stars, but I had honestly expected and hoped for more.

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