Friday, June 13, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Men Against the Sky (1940) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

MEN AGAINST THE SKY is an absorbing RKO "B" film released earlier this year by the Warner Archive.

Richard Dix stars as Phil Mercedes, a famous pilot who's grounded after mixing drinking and flying. Phil's sister Kay (Wendy Barrie), who's been in college studying drafting, quits school to help Phil through a difficult time.

While Phil goes to work as an auto mechanic, Kay finagles a job drafting at McClean Aircraft, where owner Dan McClean (Edmund Lowe) and his righthand man Martin Ames (Kent Taylor) are developing an experimental plane.

Dan and Martin don't want anything to do with the washed-up Phil, but Kay gives them Phil's design drawings, which might help save the company.

I love aviation films, and this is a good one as "B" movies go, with some nice dashes of humor to lighten the serious story. Edmund Lowe displays some of the same comedic skill which made him an enjoyable leading man in SEVEN SINNERS (1936) a few years before, while Barrie and Taylor (most recently seen in 1950's WESTERN PACIFIC AGENT) are an appealing team.

Dix always seems to have a certain pathos about him, which works well for his role as a record-setting pilot who lets his life spiral out of control.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Wendy Barrie's Kay is serious about a career in what was quite a male-dominated field in 1940. She has to go to dinner with the womanizing McClean in order to work her way into the job, but once she lands it she's taken seriously by Martin, even when it means telling her she's not doing a good job.

Later in the film Martin wants Kay to put aviation behind her and focus on making a home, but that doesn't last long, and one has a sense it's possible they'll have a working partnership going forward. Kay seems too enthused about flying to drop out of the field permanently.

Another unusual angle is that the movie includes footage of a plane that Howard Hughes had used to set a cross-country speed record in 1937.

The screenplay by Nathanael West was based on a story by John Twist, who also wrote the stories for recently seen films SINBAD THE SAILOR (1947) and THE SEA CHASE (1955).

Nathanael West was also the author of the RKO "B" classic FIVE CAME BACK (1939), which also starred Kent Taylor and Wendy Barrie, along with Chester Morris and Lucille Ball. A novelist (THE DAY OF THE LOCUST), West died suddenly in a car accident in 1940.

MEN AGAINST THE SKY runs 75 minutes. It was directed by Leslie Goodwins and filmed in black and white by Frank Redman. The supporting cast includes Granville Bates, Grant Withers, Donald Briggs, and Pamela Blake.

The Warner Archive DVD is a nice print. This film is recommended for those who, like myself, enjoy the RKO "B" films or movies about flying.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.


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