Monday, May 29, 2017

Tonight's Movie: 20,000 Men a Year (1939)

20,000 MEN A YEAR (1939) stars Randolph Scott and Preston Foster in a 20th Century-Fox release about an aviation training school.

In the late '30s the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) began a program to train thousands of college students to be civilian pilots -- 20,000 men a year, as the title says.

The film's opening narration cards emphasize that these are civilian pilots, but with WWII raging in Europe, it seems clear in retrospect that it was also important for military preparedness.

In 20,000 MEN A YEAR, Randolph Scott plays Brad Reynolds, an airline pilot who quits his job after disobeying an order he (sensibly) thinks is dangerous. Preston Foster plays Jim Howell, a government employee who suspends Brad.

Brad opens a flying school, but business is hard to come by. He's thinking of closing up shop when he's able to start training young men from the local university to be pilots as part of the new government program.

Brad romances Ann (Margaret Lindsay), who is fearful of her brother Skip (George Ernest) learning to fly. Ultimately Skip uses his flying skills in an attempt to save Brad, along with Jim's brother Tommy (Robert Shaw), following an accident.

For a movie with Scott and Foster, two actors I really like, plus an aviation theme, it's a surprisingly dull 84 minutes. The action picks up a little due to the rescue sequence at the end of the film, but much of the film feels rambling and disjointed, with Foster's character disappearing for a long stretch of the movie.

I found it more interesting to learn about the pilot training program after watching the movie. For instance, I read in a Wikipedia article that thanks to the inclusion of historically black universities in the training program, doors were opened to African-American military pilots. (While there were no blacks portrayed in the film, Victor Sen Yung plays a Chinese-American pilot.) I appreciated that while the movie wasn't especially interesting, it did lead me to learn some wartime aviation history.

The screenplay by Lou Breslow and Owen Francis was based on a story by aviation specialist Frank "Spig" Wead. Alfred E. Green directed, with cinematography by Ernest Palmer. The flight sequences were filmed at Monrovia Airport.

20,000 MEN A YEAR is not available on DVD or VHS.


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