Sunday, February 08, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Flight Nurse (1953)

FLIGHT NURSE (1953) is a rewarding Korean War film written by Alan LeMay and directed by Allan Dwan.

I love Joan Leslie but wasn't expecting a great deal from this film, and it proved to be a nice surprise. LeMay, who also wrote the very good GUNFIGHTERS (1947), reviewed last week -- and who may be best known for writing THE SEARCHERS (1956) -- wrote a mature, affecting screenplay which has appealing lead performances by Joan Leslie and Forrest Tucker.

Leslie plays Lt. Polly Davis, who as the movie begins is just starting work as a flight nurse aiding the wounded as they are transferred from front line camps in Korea to military hospitals. Forrest Tucker plays Capt. Bill Eaton, the air ambulance pilot she works with most often.

Polly faces many difficult situations with courage and good cheer, living by her personal credo that when the going gets tough, the tough pause to put on lipstick. Even when a plane is about to ditch in the water, she takes a moment to apply lipstick, thereby calming the wounded soldiers aboard the crippled plane.

Polly is in love with Capt. Mike Barnes (Arthur Franz), but their long separation during the war ultimately causes Polly to question whether she wants a quiet life in small-town Texas with Mike or to continue in the military. Bill, meanwhile, has loved Polly and looked out for her from the day they met, when he admiringly exclaimed to his copilot "That does it!" and announced he was going to have to take her away from her boyfriend.

This movie was made on a budget, with the Korean War strictly back projections and stock footage, but it's to the movie's credit that it really doesn't matter. The sincerity of the lead performances and a good script are sufficient to make a believable and entertaining film. Both Leslie and Tucker are warm and persuasive, and even though Franz also plays a very nice guy, Tucker's Bill proves himself to be such a class act that one roots for Polly to finally see things his way.

It's taken me a long time to warm up to Tucker, as he so often plays villains -- he was evil personified in GUNFIGHTERS -- or, as I commented about GUNSMOKE IN TUCSON (1958), sometimes his characters are rather stodgy. At the time I saw GUNSMOKE IN TUCSON, which I otherwise loved, I wrote " date I'm still waiting for the movie which makes me a fan of Forrest Tucker."

Well, it finally happened. I completely loved him in FLIGHT NURSE, where he gives a subtle and moving performance. For instance, watch closely when he kisses Joan Leslie goodbye in the life raft, as he quickly glances around afterward to see if anyone else was watching. He didn't care enough about an audience to stop himself, but he had to kind of check around afterward! Small moments like that make the character very real.

Likewise Leslie, who just turned 90 on January 26th, is completely charming. In the wrong hands her character could be too much of a rah-rah cheerleader, but Leslie provides depth along with effervescent good cheer. It's very understandable that Bill would spend just a few minutes with Polly and decide she was the girl for him.

The last third or so of the film is an extremely well-staged disaster and rescue sequence, with the damaged plane filled with evacuees having to set down in the water. Again, the acting -- including Jeff Donnell as capable, unflappable nurse Lt. Ann Phillips -- makes this sequence quite gripping. Donnell's role is relatively small but she gives an authoritative performance and has moments to shine, such as when she orders the panicky soldiers in the life rafts to start singing.

Earlier in the film I also liked a scene where Polly, having done all that was physically possible for a seriously wounded soldier, takes a moment to pray for him. Her assistant, Sgt. Swan (James Holden), approaches and asks Polly what she was saying. She matter-of-factly replies "I was talking to God," and then they move on to the next thing. I appreciate when a film quietly depicts religion as an integral part of daily life, as it is for so many people, rather than something to hide.

There's a certain amount of war-era flag-waving that goes on in the film, with Leslie providing voiceovers to stock footage, but this also makes the film a valuable souvenir of its era.

This Republic Pictures film runs 90 minutes. It was filmed in black and white by Reggie Lanning.

At the time of this writing, FLIGHT NURSE is available on YouTube. It could disappear at any time, so anyone interested in the film should make it a point to check it out promptly.

I hope that at some point in the future this movie will be available for purchase from a company such as Olive Films, which recently released another film Joan Leslie and Allan Dwan made for Republic in 1953, WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED. I'll be watching and writing about that one in the fairly near future!


Blogger Rick said...

It took me decades to appreciate Forrest Tucker. In my case, it had nothing to do with his villainous roles. Matter of fact, my primary exposure to him was as the lovable sergeant on F TROOP. But that was just goofy, broad mugging.

He was just a big lug to me, neither good nor bad.

Then, a few months ago, I saw him in something and thought afterward that he was surprisingly good. Which made me realize that I'd seen him in several movies in the last couple of years and after each one...I thought he was surprisingly good. At that point I realized the guy really was good and I should stop being surprised.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing that, Rick! I hope that, like you, I'll keep on being "pleasantly surprised" -- and then surprised no longer. :) I sure enjoyed this film.

Best wishes,

7:01 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Glad you "get" Tucker now, Laura. As you say, sometimes it just needs the right film to bring the reason to watch this guy to light.
"FLIGHT NURSE" sounds appealing and we can but hope it is one of the Republics that is going to be available for issue at some stage.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'll look forward to seeing this. It sounds great.

2:41 PM  
Blogger John G. said...

FYI, there's a guy selling this movie on eBay for $18.99 (w/tax). The same person is also selling "Lucky Jordan" with Helen Walker and Alan Ladd. I'm really tempted there, but $19 for a DVD-R likely taped off TV is a little steep. Not sure who the studio was for "LJ", but that one seems like it should be out as an official release.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Thanks for the review, it sounds like one I should watch before it gets away!

I like Jeff Donnell, and I'm glad you gave her a mention. I'm always pleased when someone else notices an obscure actor that I'm fond of:-)

I don't know if you've seen it already, but Tucker is also a rough-hewn lead in the quirky and entertaining Republic Pictures western California Passage (1950). The film affords an excellent character role for Charles Kemper, and, as of now, is on youtube as well.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, I'm glad I finally found one where Tucker "clicked" for me. Now I'm curious to see more of his films including revisiting JUBILEE TRAIL for the first time in decades.

I sure hope FLIGHT NURSE will be more widely available at some point in the future!

Jacqueline, I have a feeling you'd enjoy this film -- good movie plus it's an interesting depiction of a particular time and place.

John G., LUCKY JORDAN is one of countless films from Paramount Pictures which are controlled by Universal and are unavailable in official DVDs. We get a few of them at a time from the Universal Vault or TCM Vault Collections, but Universal really needs to come up with a plan to make these movies available, they're part of our cultural heritage. At least there's more hope for some of the Republics which are coming out from Olive Films although I wish they'd release even more! :)

Maricatrin, if you check out FLIGHT NURSE I'd be curious to know what you think. It's a "little" movie yet I thought it had great entertainment value, and if you like Jeff Donnell you will appreciate it all the more.

Thanks very much for the tip on CALIFORNIA PASSAGE, I've never seen it and it just so happens I've got that in my viewing stack...I can see I'm going to need to bump it up higher!

Best wishes,

7:31 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

A postscript, watched CALIFORNIA PASSAGE late this evening and enjoyed it very much. Review coming in a day or two!

Best wishes,

12:07 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Laura, I'm very glad you enjoyed California Passage, I'll look forward to reading your review.
(And I'll let you know when I see Flight Nurse... hopefully tomorrow.)

5:19 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I've seen this one now, and I liked it too. As you've said, the sincerity of the production really carries it along. Joan Leslie in particular deserves credit for remaining a believable human being throughout.

I also thought Ben Cooper did very well in a small but memorable scene that could have gone over the top but didn't. He seemed to be recalling the atrocity bit-by-bit from his memory, and be still a little in shock from the horror of it. The always reliable Morris Ankrum also seemed very natural and convincing as the questioning officer. Some viewers might be bothered by this scene and other 'anti-Commie' content, but I believe truth has always been considered a good defense against libel.

You're probably already aware of this, but when you mentioned a good special-effects scene at the end, I guessed that Republic's top special effects team, Howard and Theodore Lydecker, might have had a hand in it. Sure enough, they are credited with work on the film. (Someone on youtube has posted a whole video with examples of their work; the second half has a lot of their miniatures:

Lastly, I'll say that this film strongly reminded me of Kipling's poetic tribute to war nurses, The Dirge of Dead Sisters:

"Now and not hereafter, while the breath is in our nostrils,
Now and not hereafter, ere the meaner years go by—
Let us now remember many honourable women,
Such as bade us turn again when we were like to die."

10:52 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Very glad to know you enjoyed FLIGHT NURSE also, Maricatrin. Thanks for taking the time to share your feedback! I hope more people will check it out. Everyone in the cast was very good, and I hope you enjoyed Jeff Donnell too :)

Thanks for adding some interesting information regarding the special effects! As well as for the lovely poem.

Best wishes,

3:42 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Hi Laura, it's a pleasure, and oh yes, a good part for Jeff:-)

I see that my two links didn't come through, oh well. Anyone interested can just do a YT search on "Lydecker Brothers" and turn it up. And there is a lot more of the Kipling poem, but it can also be easily found by a title search.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks! I hope to check Google this weekend re the special effects. :)

Best wishes,

1:03 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Just a follow-up: your review has inspired me to do a music video for the film:-) In keeping with the flight theme, I used Dolly Parton's "Eagle When She Flies."

I'll give posting the link a try, in case some of your other readers might like to take a look.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing this lovely video, Maricatrin! I think anyone who enjoys the movie as we do will enjoy it also.

Best wishes,

10:30 AM  

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