Dive Bomber (1941) is a pretty, pretty movie.
The dainty mix of its color schemes and the rather feminine sensibility of its Technicolor palette is a strange but pleasing contrast to the macho world of naval pilots putting themselves in great danger.
So, too, is the interesting, although I’m sure coincidental use, of cigarette smoking as a male bonding ritual. Usually in classic films we’ve come to view the sharing of cigarettes, the dramatic pause in the middle of dialogue to light up, the smoke that curls from one’s lips and over the shoulders of one’s partner as a kind of foreplay between a romantic couple. Here, it’s all part of being one of the guys. It shows comradeship, good will, a "safe" way to demonstrate (or mask) deeper emotions. Ultimately, a cigarette case, as trophy and mark of identity becomes heartfelt tribute.
And this is such a pretty, pretty movie.
It's also going to be a long post. Please keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times.
According to the AFI website the movie was filmed between March and May of 1941. The United States would not enter World War II until the end of that year, but the war was already a year and a half old. There are only a couple of small references to the war raging in the rest of the world, but there is still that underlying tension to the shenanigans of the peacetime pilots with their devil-may-care attitude towards war and women and the dangers of flying.
Of course, all this is more deeply sensed today than it was by audiences in 1941. Many Americans back then felt it was likely we would go to war, but did not know when. We know now what, when, where, and how awful it was, and that it began for us only three months after this movie premiered in August 1941.
Much like our look here in this previous post at Navy Blues (1941), which shows an even more lighthearted frolicking among gunnery trainees, yet there is still a sense of foreboding for us.
Revell kits. They look so much like shiny toys. (Do kids still make plastic model kits, or was that a Boomer thing?)
Airplanes with yellow wings, floating in an azure sky, the rich chocolate brown bomber jackets, and the myriad of Easter egg pastels that will parade later on in civilian dress…one pretty movie.
Flynn muses to his assistant, and everybody’s habitual sidekick, Allen Jenkins, “We represent the uncertainty of life for those pilots. No wonder they don’t love us.”
They are all transferred to the naval air base in San Diego, where Toomey and MacMurray are assigned the job of teaching Flynn to fly. More harassment. Add to this Ralph Bellamy, who plays a curmudgeonly research physician. Flynn becomes his assistant and receives his sarcasm, which he returns in kind.
Some of the other pilot trainees and grounds crewmen you may spot in this movie, although I admit I didn’t, are DeWolf Hopper, and Alan Hale, Jr. - the future skipper on Gilligan’s Island, and Creighton Hale. Herbert Anderson has a few lines, he later went on to a featured role opposite the wonderful Ann Sheridan in the above-mentioned Navy Blues.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) in this previous post here plays a bellboy.
When he first arrives as a civilian, he and Errol Flynn have a minor fender-bender car accident that evolves into a fistfight. Later on in the film Stevens becomes one of the handful of guinea pigs for the experiments conducted by Ralph Bellamy and Mr. Flynn. Apparently, according to IMDb, so did Gig Young, but I missed him.
It was also her first romantic pairing of four with Errol Flynn, some twelve years her senior. She caused a minor stir in the press for refusing to kiss Errol in this movie. The story made the rounds, but here it is from The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) , April 25, 1942:
"'That won't do at all.' she told the director, 'It's not in character.' And she argued so convincingly, the scene was cut." This from a girl who refused to start her contract at Warners until she completed her last college course. And would not allow the studio to change her unusual first name and all-too-common last name. This girl was trouble in an upsweep hairdo.
Here’s that previous post on the tall girl. Again.
Robert Armstrong. You will remember him from these previous posts of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and King Kong (1933). The rascal of the 1930s here is the more knowing and somewhat more tired middle-aged man. He plays an engineer whose job is to help redesign and refit aircraft to match the specifications that are the result of Ralph Bellamy’s research. Robert Armstrong and Ralph Bellamy may not be terribly pretty like just about everybody else, but it’s great to see him.
I have to mention when all the pilots graduate in a ceremony at San Diego, I wondered why the band played “Semper Paratus,” which is the Coast Guard march, not the Navy’s?
He is. He is very pretty. But, he’s still got pilot fatigue even though he’s trying to hide it, and when he leaves to fly his British plane to Canada, he crashes. MacMurray, in a moving scene - he looks as though he has been crying - volunteers as a guinea pig for Bellamy’s tests. We get to watch what seem to be very primitive experiments, but no less frightening because of their apparent technological crudeness.
They still haven’t found the problem of how to fly very high and not suffer illness. The men and the doctors are severely stressed.
“What’s New,” a lazy, romantic song of wistful parting that somehow does not foreshadow all the partings that would come in the months ahead.
Look at the outfits of the ladies, muted peach and blues, the turquoise, lime green, cream-colored shirts. You could show this as an Easter movie if there weren't so many gol-darned plane crashes. Pretty.
Apollo 13 (1995) where the crisis of the space capsule being unable to return to earth must be solved by the men on the ground with very rudimentary methods. All solutions begin in the human mind.
And by drawing on the tablecloth. And playing with Alexis’ lipstick.
The lipstick is a very pretty shade of red.
Both Flynn and MacMurray take to the air in some very scary dive sequences. Fred MacMurray eventually succumbs to pilot fatigue and he is grounded. He is consoled in what is one of the few foreshadowing moments of our involvement in the war, “Kind of tough to be yanked out of a ring when the main event may be about to start.”
But, one more test must be performed before their invention can be approved. MacMurray takes it on himself to fly the test.
MacMurray performs his test successfully, but crash lands and is killed. (Yeah, spoiler-schmoiler.) In the final scene we see Errol Flynn flying off to join a squadron with the Pacific Fleet. We know he is going to Pearl Harbor, and we know what will happen there. It is with poignancy and sadness that we realize he does not.
In tribute to his pal, he drops MacMurray’s gold cigarette case, which he retrieved from the crash, into the ocean, tossing it out of the cockpit of his airplane.
The last shot of the squadron flying towards the rays of the sun is brilliant enough to make you want to shield your own eyes.
Who says macho can’t be pretty?
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.