The thirties saw the beginnings of country wide air travel for the chosen few who could afford it including stops for refueling was happening. The romance of air travel, airmail and travel in general with grand hotels built by railway and steamship companies with literally in the air for those that could. Hollywood did their bit with Aircraft pictures of the thirties such as THE DAWN PATROL (1930), HELL’S ANGELS (1930) and a personal favorite and early John Ford 1932 picture AIR MAIL . Enter Richard Barthhelmess and Sally Eilers in CENTRAL AIRPORT from First National.
William Wellman takes the “control stick’ in this photoplay of stunt pilots, love, rivalry and daredevil flying with customary skill and dash. The early 1930’s and you have the skies filled with the stunt planes at carnivals and air shows. Aviator Jim Blaine (Richard Barthelmess) and his younger brother Neil (Tom Brown) rival for the love of lady parachutist Jill Collins (Sally Eilers). Jim Blaine is a disgraced commercial pilot as he is blamed for the crack up while on a flight during a storm that he failed to heed warnings.
The story clips along nicely as Wellman opens up with a strongly staged storm sequence in Amarillo which he concentrates on the storms effect on its airport manager. The sequence is well shot showing the thunder and rain coupled with the worried yet calm expressions, reports of missing flights flash by all giving the scene a look of dire consequence.
The storm clears and we see a lone plane searching is when we first see Jim Blaine’s body around which is strewn wreckage. Blaine wakes up to see the plane yet is to weak to move. He summons his strength in wonderfully over dramatic track shot that follows his desperate crawl over to get a mirror to reflect the sun which he succeeds in doing.
We next see Blaine in the hospital reading a newspaper where he learns his fate of being blamed for not heeding a warning.Out of work as a flyer Blaine returns home by train to his father and mother played Grant Mitchell and Claire McDowell.
In the Blaine home is his younger, sweatered brother Neil (Tom Brown) who now has a job flying and idolizes his older brother. Blaine Sr gets Jim at Bank where he works but of course he craves the excitement. Driving home Jim hears plane and stops to watch it only to find a parachutist hanging from a tree who happens to be Jill Collins (Sally Eilers).
Wonderful interplay between Eilers and Barthelmess in their moments with Sally hanging in a rather form fitting breeches and shirt. Lots of playful if not inuendo goes on between the two including a rather suggestive flip to get out of the tree involving the locking of legs around Barthelmess’s neck. The moment ends with both Sally and Jim friends and a very nice warm laugh from Jim that I never knew Barthelmess had.
Their relationship blossoms to seemingly covert stays in adjoining rooms. Jim and Sally loudly say their different room numbers and collect their keys to go up in the elevator together all wonderfully deadpaned by the hotel desk clerk who knows the real score. This was precode fun as you see Jim open the door of Sally room and slip into her embrace as the door closes fast. Even included is a risque morning shot with Jim Blaine reaching in his bed for Sally only to find her gone.
Years go by and Neil Blaine is a man now complete with very nice suit, proper hat and a pencil mustache like Errol Flynn. He meets Jim in hotel restaurant one morning when he sees Sally for the first time and the sparks fly. Wellman does another strong moment here as Neil and Sally indulge in some farce like rapid movement as he tries to get close to here only to get stopped by the closing the Woman’s washroom door. The rivalry grows between the brothers as does the flying dangers all staged with great thunder and rain. Mistaken motives, Love lost and love found, the loss of an eye all make for a story against the back drop of the flying thirties.
Sally Eilers is wonderful in this as she does her best with tough scenes shot in the rain trying to look not soaked and still smiling.
Eilers never made it as a big star yet she was always solid is supporting roles. CENTRAL AIRPORT put her in the spotlight as a ‘good girl” which she does well. She add some color and energy to Barthelmess who tends to be one dimensional sometimes relying on his ‘Silent film” brooding. This is evident when Eilers shouts her lines as a she reveals that Sally and Neil are victims of a mistaken motive” for being found in each others arms in bed.
Richard Barthlemess is still strong is not being reacted upon by both Tom Brown as his brother Neil and Eilers playing Sally. Make no mistake his is the anchor of the picture which he does well delivering solid lines readings and pathos when needed. He also has the presence on screen to carry out the role of Jim Blaine (maybe Rick Blaine is a distant relative) with authority and conviction that the audience would believe in the tradition of Richard Dix and others like him
Fresh faced Tom Brown gets to be the happy youth that grows up in his brothers shadow only to perhaps eclipse it at films conclusion. Neil ages in a very short time with the aid of wardrobe and facial hair yet still maintains his rather bright voice. Neil’s posture does not change as the film progresses to a rescue sequence of a passenger aircraft this is passable in picture of this nature as not a lot of time spent on aging as these were churned out fast.
Try to find not credited John Wayne as a flyer in a crash in this one? Character actor J Carol Naish swigs a bottle quite well as a passenger who goes overboard. Louise Beavers shows up in a moment as of course: a maid. James Ellison who went onto a big career in B pictures as a cowboy and detective is pilot. Stalwart Irving Bacon who made hundreds of appearances in film and Television is short roles takes a bow as a weatherman. Charles lane who some may remember as Mr Bedlow, “the revenuer” from PETTICOAT JUNCTION and Foster Phinney in THE BEVERLEY HILLBILLIES Television series and many more is the radio operator in the opening storm sequence. Glenda Farrell’s name appears on poster yet she is not listed in credits leads me to believe she may have been a passenger on the crashed aircraft or an office person.
Is CENTRAL AIRPORT (1933) a programmer? Yes it is but its worth one to see if not for the action sequences, the flying stunts which all have the same engine sounds. Great fun as these pictures were intended to be. These pictures like TEST PILOT (1938 )with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy plus Wellman’s own MEN WITH WINGS (1938) were all similar in their aviation references. High risk occupations such as race car driver in pictures like THE CROWD ROARS (1932) also got to be vehicles (no pun) for romance and sometimes treachery. Try to find not credited John Wayne as a flyer in a crash in this one? Fun films all just don’t get caught speeding.