Saturday, November 7, 2015

China Clipper (1936)

China Clipper is a 1936 First National Pictures aviation drama inspired by the early history of Pan American Airways. The flying sequences are the highlight but it’s quite a good little movie.

Dave Logan (Pat O’Brien) had been a pilot in the First World War. He’d given up flying in order to get a respectable job with prospects (being newly married). Then he sees the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindberg and the flying bug bites him again. Dave Logan is a going into the aviation business.

Business is the operative word. Logan is not interested in being a barnstorming pilot. He wants to run an airline. A real airline, on the grand scale. He even has a visions of operating a trans-Pacific air service, even though people keep assuring him that such a thing is impossible.

Trans Ocean Airways gets off to a rocky start, with bankruptcy a constant threat. Logan’s faith in the future of aviation is however unswerving. The future of his marriage seems far less assured. 

Logan recruits a few of his old flying buddies from the First World War, including Hap Stuart (Humphrey Bogart) and Tom Collins (Ross Alexander). He also has the services of visionary aircraft designer Dad Brunn (Henry B. Walthall), who shares his faith that one day giant airliners will fly the Pacific. 

As his marriage breaks up Logan starts to change. He is even more driven (not a bad thing  in that those pioneer aviating days) but he seems to be becoming less human. He drives his people very hard indeed, perhaps too hard. Nothing matters to Logan apart from the airline.

Finally Dad Brunn comes up with an aircraft design that can make Logan’s dreams a reality - the famous China Clipper (in reality a Martin M-130 flying boat). The problem is that the airline has to make the first trans-Pacific flight before a certain date, otherwise they lose their landing rights. So it’s a race against time - and against a typhoon.

The movie balances melodrama and exciting flying sequences extremely well. Very wisely they elected to make the aircraft the real stars and we see a lot of them. Much of the footage is of the actual China Clipper (you can clearly see the Pan American markings on the aircraft even though in the movie the airline is supposed to be Trans Ocean Airways). This movie is reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ great aviation movies of the 30s like Ceiling Zero and Only Angels Have Wings - the emphasis is on the heroism of man against nature. Of course it goes without saying that the Hawks movies have a lot more depth and complexity. China Clipper is much more upbeat and optimistic.

Pat O’Brien doesn’t shout as much as usual. He seems to be aiming for subtlety here and he does a reasonable job. It would have been interesting to see what Bogart might have done with the lead role a few years later but in 1936 he didn’t yet have the acting chops for it. As it stands Bogart he’s fine as the cheerful if sometimes rebellious Hap Stuart and his performance is all the more effective for being deliberately underplayed. Hap is a brave man and he doesn’t need to make a song and dance about it. He relies on calmness, competence and efficiency.

Ross Alexander is breezy and engaging as the loyal Tom Collins. Beverly Roberts is solid as Logan’s wife Jean but the part is badly underwritten. Marie Wilson provides comic relief as the girlfriend Tom Collins just can’t get rid of. This comic relief is kept to a minimum but what there is of it is quite amusing.

Director Ray Enright’s career did not reach any great heights but he keeps things moving along briskly.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD release provides no extras but a good transfer. 

China Clipper is very much a movie for aviation fans. There are lots of cool 1920s and 1930s aircraft, especially flying boats and lots of flying. It avoids most of the expected clich├ęs of aviation movies - the driving ambition of Dave Logan and the quiet heroism of the pilots is enough to carry the film without requiring any bad guys or conspiracies or complex sub-plots. The epic trans-Pacific flight is what this movie is all about and that’s what it concentrates on. Fine entertainment. Recommended.

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