Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"The Lost Squadron," or Aces High











(Caution: Spoilers ahead, and we aren't talking about the wings of the biplanes.)

Richard Dix made his film debut in 1917, and although he was active in sound films until 1947, his looks and acting style were very much out of the silent days. He was a beefy guy, usually in take-charge roles, and in 1932's "The Lost Squadron" he is Gibby, the official (during World War I) and then unofficial (after the war) leader of a ragtag group of flyboys -- Woody (Robert Armstrong), Red (Joel McCrea) and Fritz (Hugh "woo woo" Herbert).

The movie opens on Armstice Day, 1918, and as soon as Gibby's watch reads 11 a.m. on November 11 he stops shooting at his German targets and gallantly salutes them.

On the ground, the guys celebrate by getting drunk and then they return to America, and various disappointments -- Woody is broke, thanks to a cheating business partner; Red is out of a job (he passes it up so that an older co-worker won't be fired to make room for him) and Gibby comes home to his love, Follette (Mary Astor), only to find another man in her opulent apartment. "I've been bad, Gibby," she says. Awkward!

So the boys are out on their own again, and then time passes pretty quickly -- we go from the victory parades in 1918 almost immediately to the crash of 1929. (Really? What happened to the roaring '20s?)

Anyway, it's 11 years later and Red, Gibby and Fritz, against all odds, are still hanging together, being bums and stuff. They have hopped a freight to California because Woody is there, working as a stunt pilot in movies for autocratic director Von Furst (Erich Von Stroheim), a preening Prussian with a production company logo that looks suspiciously like a swastika.





"Meet my husband -- he's recently
 divorced from Norma Desmond."
Von Furst is known for encouraging dangerous stunts -- and lo and behold, he is married to Follette ("they say he beats the behoozis out of her," Woody tells Gibby).

Before you can say "madame is the greatest star of them all," all the flyboys are working for Von Furst -- and Gibby and Follette have had a reunion, much to the displeasure of her husband. This really puts Von Furst in a bad mood, although for him it's a short trip, and he takes it out on his cast and crew:



Gibby also has eyes for Woody's sister (Dorothy Jordan), nicknamed "Pest" because she chides Woody about his constant drinking. Unfortunately for Gibby, the Pest has eyes for Red. If Richard Dix represented the leading man of the 1920s, Joel McCrea was the shape of things to come -- tall, effortlessly handsome and already performing with the relaxed manner that would serve him so well into the 1930s and '40s.

"The Lost Squadron" takes a wonderfully dark turn when Von Furst sabotages Gibby's plane. But Woody secretly takes out the plane instead, and ends up seriously killed. In revenge, Red captures Von Furst and holds him hostage in the hangar (say that three times fast). Then there's a struggle with a gun, and Von Furst ends up ventilated. This leads to a great scene where Fritz, Red and Gibby prop up the dead Von Furst to throw suspicion off themselves:



But Gibby knows that the jig is up, and as the squadron leader it's up to him to do something about it:



"The Lost Squadron" offers a cool look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood of 1932, and it screams "pre-code" in its portrayal of Follette sleeping her way to the top, in Woody's drinking and even in allowing a lead character to get away with murder. The script is co-written by Herman Mankiewicz and was the first picture to credit David O. Selznick as Executive Producer. The movie isn't exactly up to the level of Mankewicz's "Citizen Kane" or Selznick's "Gone with the Wind," but it builds to a suspenseful, atmospheric and even darkly funny climax in the airplane hanger. The movie begins with "Auld Lang Syne" being sung at the end of the war and concludes with the same song, accompanying a pair of ghostly fliers in the haunted sky.

15 comments:

  1. As a fan of pre-Codes in general and aviation pre-Codes in particular, I would love to see this - shame it hasn't had a DVD release or even a VHS one as far as I can see! Anyway it sounds as if there are some similarities with the great film 'The Last Flight' in the portrayal of hard-drinking First World War pilots who can't settle down to peacetime life - also sounds like a great part for Mary Astor. I'll hope to see this one, David, and in the meantime really enjoyed your excellent review. Judy

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  2. I'm with Judy - this looks like a fab part for Mary Astor.

    Great review of what appears to be an underrated movie. Loved the references to "Sunset Boulevard" and the clips you've posted.

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

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  3. It's an unexpected movie starting where it does and ending where it does. Things certainly get surreal in Hollywood. The nature of the town?

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  4. I've never heard of this film, but it sounds like it may have been one of the inspirations for George Roy Hill and William Goldman's 70's film "The Great Waldo Pepper". This was a nice write-up, and I would also like to see this sometime, if nothing else because it has Astor and Joel McCrea in it.

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  5. Excellent write-up, as always, David! I was completely unaware of this movie, but I would definitely like to see it. Ironically, just a few minutes before I read your post, I saw a picture of Dorothy Jordan on Facebook and wondered who she was. I will have to find out!

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  6. Thanks for the great review and the clips! Mary Astor, Erich von Stroheim and Joel McCrea in the same film? What a killer lineup! (Literally, too!)
    I liked your point about the jump from 1918 to 1928. It reminded me of the 30-second montage that took care of the whole Great War in "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
    Fabulous job! This is another film that is going into the to-watch stack.

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  7. This has been on my "must see" list for quite some time and now, after reading your review, I MUST SEE it! Thanks for a great review.

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  8. David, I very much enjoyed your post about THE LOST SQUADRON. As if having our gal Mary Astor in the cast wasn't already worth the price of admission (so to speak), they've sweetened the pot with Richard Dix, Erich von Stroheim, and young Joel McCrea, well before THE PALM BEACH STORY! I also enjoy your playful, zesty writing style. I'll keep an eye out for this one; thanks for joining us here at the Mary Astor Blogathon!

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  9. I need to watch more pre-codes, and this may be one. I've been watching a lot of Joel McCrea lately, so it would be great to see him very young. Mary Astor and, specially, Mr. Stroheim only add to a great cast.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

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  10. Fun post, and a nice contribution to the blogathon. Love those aviation movies, and the cast is great.

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  11. Cute post. I've never seen this, but Stroheim looks like he had a ball making this. What they did in the Pre-Code era is unbelievable

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  12. Before I forget, as others have mentioned, your captions were priceless and I got a good laugh from the Von Stroheim caption.

    There is nothing better than a good aviation film with a duel for a womens heart and cheesy lines thrown in for good measure.

    Another thing about this film that I recall and you've brought back to me here is the wonderful nicknames like Pest, Red and Gibby.

    While LS isn't my favorite film of this genre or even era, It has stood up well and it feels real even with some of the scenarios not all that believable.

    You've given us a nice little glimpse at the film.

    Page

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  13. Thanks to all of you for dropping by! I admit this movie isn't a towering achievement, but it's fun to watch and, to me, really pays off in atmosphere. And I'm always up for watching Von Stroheim chew scenery. But I still can't figure out why these guys hung around together for over 10 years.

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  14. Why haven't I seen this film? It looms like a great role for Astor, a wonderful role for McCrea and I do love Von Stroheim. Thanks for bringing this film to my attention. I have obviously overlooked it somehow!

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  15. where can one obtain this film...it is obviously around..???

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