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Aviation August: Tail Spin (1939)

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: Alice Faye is a beautiful hat check girl at a popular nightclub who asks her boss for a leave of absence and a loan of $150 to care for her mother at home who must undergo surgery. It turns out she wants the money to enter an aerial race and counts on the prize money to repay her debts.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Flying was a BIG deal in the 30’s, as we were still smitten with Lindbergh, Earhart and various other flying superstars. These sorts of rag-tag competitions seem like a lot of fun, and there were instances of these sorts of “powder puff races” happening. It’s interesting to consider this sort of extravagance during a time when people were struggling to put food on the table. It’s easy to consider class struggles being a distinctly 21st century thing, but this film, and an awful lot of others like it prove that wasn’t the case. Perhaps in the 30’s, it was easier for people to dream about the fantastic, carefree lives that the folks in films like this (always near broke, but never worrying about it too much; surely it’ll all work out) lived in. It seems like an attractive world to me.

SG: The cast list alone is worth the price of admission. Faye is gorgeous and spunky as ever as Trixie, a flyer who always bets on herself, even if the odds are always against her. Constance Bennett is the streetwise socialite who wants to prove her ability to do more than just charm men and spend money. Nancy Kelly is in love with another pilot played by Edward Norris, who I was thrilled to see. He is the handsome and amused future husband of Miss Jones in the Our Gang short Teacher's Beau. ("You stole my woman; I want you to get out of town.") Joan Davis is the comic sidekick of Faye, and Jane Wyman has a small part in the group. Charles Farrell plays a mechanic and Harry Davenport plays Bennett's father. Of course you can't have Alice Faye in a movie without hearing her sing, and here they force the issue in an awkward but pleasant way with "Are You in the Mood For Mischief?"

RB: The cast is really what drew me to this film in the first place. You’ve got Alice Faye playing against type, while Nancy Kelly and Jane Wyman are on the way up. Constance Bennett, at one time the highest paid woman in Hollywood was sliding down, and there are more fantastic character actors than you can shake a stick at. In addition to the ones you mentioned, I’ll also note Kane Richmond (in just a few years to be immortalized in Republic’s Spy Smasher) and Jonathon Hale (unbilled), who had just kicked off a lengthy run as Mr. Dithers in the Blondie series over at Columbia.

SG: As a historical artifact, this movie is fascinating. In one air race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, the planes require multiple fuel stops. They also have sliding glass doors that allow the pilots to expose themselves to the rushing air. Although flying in an open cockpit plane is a dream of mine, I imagine breathing with that rushing air in your face could be quite difficult, especially in a moment of stress.

RB: There is something that is still romantic and intoxicating about flying in the 30’s. Films like this make you think that anyone with access to a plane that is daredevil enough can take to the skies for adventure. Even serials like Tailspin Tommy show that with enough chutzpah kids can get in on the flying escapades as well.

SG: The amount of rear-projection used in this movie is startling. It makes sense to use it during some of the flight scenes; these actresses didn't really learn to fly for the film. However, it makes no sense why the stars couldn't walk in front of a group of extras into an airplane hanger, and it impedes the action when the ladies are shown running to a crash site on a treadmill, forcing them to run slowly and daintily with stricken looks on their faces.

RB: This was noticed at the time as well, as you mention below. It definitely seems unnecessary.

Which celebrities can you identify?

SG: I wished the nightclub where Faye earns her living would be the bookends of the film, but unfortunately it only appears in the beginning. Movie fans will no doubt ogled the walls as I did which are filled with star caricatures.

RB: I’m glad I’m not the only one who was slowing down those scenes to take in all of that great art!

SG: The movie was shot between September 24 until early December of 1938 at Fox. Wyman was on loan from Warner Brothers.

RB: I’ve seen a couple of pieces online alluding to this as being a B-movie. That’s definitely not the case. Theater owners were encouraged to create large displays outside their theatres to sell the film, and Fox even took additional initiative by sending out the Tail Spin Air Tour, two cross country flights over the course of 10 days. There would be two routes taken across the country, each hitting nine cities and carrying “two famous women flyers and five lovely starlets from the studio (Mary Healy was likely the most notable of the starlets)”. This crew would hand deliver the prints of the film to each city, drumming up doubtlessly a huge amount of publicity.

SG: Motion Picture Report wrote, "If one is in search of excitement, Tail Spin has its quota but the story is weak and and the ethics dubious." The Catholic Legion of Decency called it objectionable in part.

The Box Office Digest said, "Director Roy Del Ruth, with all his skill in handling the broad air panorama and the individual scenes for intermittent sparking values, could not overcome the material that was probably called 'story' when the picture was started."

"As usual, airplane pictures do some business. But the flying these gals do stretches the credibility a long way... And I know darn well the public did not believe they were flying those planes," said A.E. Hancock of the Columbia Theatre in Columbia City, Indiana.

RB: “Plenty of sob stuff, and the pace could be a lot faster” said Mayme P Musselman at the Princess Theater in Lincoln, KS. But it was relatively well received all around. Others noted the similarity of this film to a Warners film released a few months later Women in the Wind, with Kay Francis and William Gargan. I’ll have to look that one up.

SG: There is a fair amount of hoke in this movie. It feels constructed and you can see how the threads fit together and where they're going. But if you like these kinds of movies, like I do, where the cast is more impressive than the film itself, and where the past is on full display, from the primitive greenscreens to the misogyny, this movie will be worth a look in spite of its flaws. 2 and a half stars.

RB: I had a pretty good time with this movie. The large amount of character actors and popular names playing against type gave me similar vibes to a lot of the sorts of films that we screen at the Picture Show, so I was naturally a fan of that. It did wind up leaving me a bit cold though. While it definitely has its charms, I’ll agree that it’s hard to muster more than two and a half stars out of this one.

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