Monday, October 19, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Thirteen Hours by Air'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

“Thirteen Hours by Air” (Paramount, 1936) stars Fred MacMurray as an airline pilot. This was early in his career, when he was in his devil-may-care mode – far different from the roles he played in his later, Geritol-may-care mode.

If you only know MacMurray from “My Three Sons,” you should give his early films a try. Instead of just reacting to the latest antics of Chip, Ernie and Robbie (not to mention Uncle Charley’s sputterings), he is suave, charming, knowing, even cocky, but not in an off-putting way. Years later he would put a darker spin on this character as Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity,” but here his goal is not murdering anyone’s husband but merely getting his plane to California on time.

But although MacMurray’s character doesn’t have his mind on murder, he definitely fancies himself as a lady killer, and the quarry in question here is passenger Joan Bennett.

The film is a mix of comedy and suspense, the latter provided by two mysterious characters – one (played by Alan Baxter) who definitely seems up to no good. (Was Baxter ever up to any good? ) The other character (played by Brian Donlevy, minus mustache, and, like MacMurray, just starting out) may or may not be a doctor.

Much of the comedy is provided by Zasu Pitts, who is in charge of a bratty kid portrayed by Benny Bartlett. I like Zasu, but a little of her can go a long way, and here her character is on a cross-country plane trip, so I could have used a little relief from the comedy, though her airsickness scene did make me laugh.

The airplane and airport sets seem realistic (or at least not very fanciful), and there’s a doozy of a sequence set in a snowstorm. But if you’re looking for hyperrealism, book another flight: At one point here, MacMurray throws a gun out of an airplane door while the plane is in flight, and in another scene, his co-pilot – also in midflight – opens his window to scrape some ice off.

Then again, this was made during the Depression, so maybe they couldn’t afford air pressure.

Before the film, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Hare Lift,” in which the wascally wabbit does battle with Yosemite Sam on a plane that’s out of control.

It’s always great to see these Warner cartoons on a big screen, with an appreciative audience. It’s the way they were meant to be seen, and director Friz Freleng’s timing of Warren Foster’s gags is impeccable. I think one reason so many Warners cartoons hold up so well is that they had to be a certain length, and every foot of film, every frame, had to count, as they do here.

And only Bugs could get away with stopping the crashing plane at the last possible moment and telling us that this could be done with no sweat because the plane had “air brakes.” He tells us this with a look that almost dares us to groan, implying that if we did groan, we wouldn’t be cool like Bugs. And who doesn't want to be cool like Bugs?

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