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.
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 "...to 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!