Friday, April 30, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Thunder Birds (1942)

THUNDER BIRDS, subtitled SOLDIERS OF THE AIR, is one of 20th Century-Fox's wonderful morale building films of early WWII. THUNDER BIRDS follows in the footsteps of A YANK IN THE R.A.F. (1941) and was followed itself by titles such as CRASH DIVE (1943). All depict the training and deployment of a military man who spends his free time competing for the love of a beautiful girl.

The girl in this case is Kay, played by 21-year-old Gene Tierney, who looks incredibly gorgeous in Technicolor. The military man is young British pilot Peter Stackhouse (John Sutton of A YANK IN THE R.A.F.), who is being trained by Kay's old flame Steve (Preston Foster). Unfortunately Peter has difficulty with heights and motion sickness, which makes it a bit difficult to succeed as a pilot!

It's a short film, at 78 minutes, and nothing particularly special in terms of the script (by Lamar Trotti) or acting, yet it succeeds as very pleasant entertainment, and it's fascinating when viewed from an historical perspective. The opening and closing narration about how the American, British, and Chinese pilots will help win the war is quite stirring.  One can well imagine that the confident attitude depicted in the film would have been reassuring to audiences viewing the film less than a year after our entry into the war.

The Fox Technicolor is worth the price of admission in and of itself, whether it's the vividly colorful opening credits, Gene Tierney's green eyes, or the desert vistas. James Wolcott described the film as a "Technicolor whooper dooper," a phrase he borrowed from critic Bosley Crowther. Wolcott goes on: "The yellow trim of the planes slices through the azure sky amid fluffy popcorn clouds as if blur and haze had been permanently banished from the West. But it's on Tierney that the colors truly sing, the red of her lipstick matching her cowboy boots and the spiffy cut of her powder blue Dale Evans outfit lyrically topped with a red neck-chief that...spells romance better than any of the mush spooned out in the script."

The good supporting cast includes Reginald Denny as a member of the R.A.F. You can read more about his real-life aviation background here.

Richard Haydn, Dame May Whitty, George Barbier, and Joyce Compton are also in the cast. Janis Carter is one of the Red Cross trainees.

The movie was directed by William A. Wellman.

This film is available on DVD. Brief extras include newsreel footage of Gene Tierney christening an airplane and putting her handprints in front of the Chinese Theatre.

The movie also turns up from time to time on Fox Movie Channel.


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