In the British film Wings and the Woman, about the adventures of real-life aviatrix Amy Johnson, two businessmen investing in her venture to fly from Britain to Australia marvel at the dangers of her flight and the triumph of her success when she lands in Darwin.
“A young girl is doing something extremely courageous and thrilling. It’s more than that. She’s driving a coach and four, or an airplane, which is even quicker – through centuries of convention and custom.”
“Yes, in a few short hours she’s broken a great gap in the fence that’s been surrounding our young women for generations. And now the young devils will come pouring through it after her. I can’t quite see the end.”
“There isn’t any end to it. What that young woman has done is the sort of thing that goes on forever.”
There is a growing sentiment these days to de-gender terms that have always been gender-specific: modern actresses calling themselves actors in apparent defiance to be labeled feminine, government bodies doing away with “councilwoman,” “alderwoman,” etc. Personally, I find this new disgust for feminine nouns an affectation, for there is nothing humiliating or demeaning in a feminine reference. A negative connotation comes in the use of the word; not of the word itself. Exalt the feminine; do not diminish it in a gender-neutral mask. Aviatrix is a feminine noun with panache and a noble heritage.
But the ladies of the films we’re covering over the next two weeks are also called “girl pilots.” This might well cause as much chagrin as smiles, but there was a need back in the day to mark the distinction—and we should remember that these ladies were revolutionaries. What should be remarkable to us is that these adventurous aeronautic exploits should include women, and society was captivated but not surprised. In some respects, Hollywood provided more gender focus on women and their stories than it does today.
The first two films we cover in today’s post: Tail Spin and Women in the Wind beautifully capture the esprit de corps of the aviatrix in an era of wood biplanes, open cockpits, and air races. Though these movies are rather like formulaic B-movies with simplistic plots, they are still a vigorous and spirited view of some devil-may-care women – and completely accepted by the men in their sphere.
Both stories were taken from books, the memoir of an aviatrix, and a novel. Tail Spin was first released in February 1939, starring Alice Faye as Trixie, the spunky lead who is a hatcheck girl from Los Angeles living a double life as an amateur aviatrix. She ditches work so that she and her pal Joan Davis, who plays a comic relief sidekick mechanic, “Babe,” can enter a cross-country race for prize money. Alice supports her mom, played by Mary Gordon, and her younger brother, so she needs the dough and the trip from Los Angeles to the celebrated Cleveland Air Races is just the ticket. At Cleveland there are additional races to enter, which involve speed and skill racing a course around pylons. One noted real-life aviatrix who competed in these races was Amelia Earhart.
At one point, Babe has to enter a contest jumping from the plane Alice is flying to earn more dough. Though she is sickened by the prospect, Babe parachutes neatly onto the target—something only a devoted sidekick would do.
“Babe” was a popular nickname for men or women, speaking of gender-neutral. Jane Wyman plays “Alabama,” and Kane Richmond plays “Tex,” more androgynous nicknames. Wally Vernon is Chick, and Edward Norris is “Speed.” You can tell how fun a movie is going to be by how many nicknames there are among the characters.
(It reminds me of the time my parents years ago were ordering flowers for the funeral of a boyhood pal of my father, but they had to scour the phone book to find out the man’s real first name. He had been known by his nickname since he was a little kid. Everybody in the Great Depression had a nickname, or you were nobody. Possibly some kids even had “Nobody” for nickname. You just had to have one. My parents and their friends had forgotten this man’s real first name.)
Nancy Kelly is another aviatrix, married to Edward Norris (or Speed.)
Oh, and Charles Farrell is “Bud.” Not the best nickname, I grant you, but all the good ones were taken.
Constance Bennett gets the flashy role as the chic and ferocious rival of Alice Faye. She is a spoiled rich girl – her father is played by the wonderful Harry Davenport. She has the whitest, flashiest flying jumpsuit and the best plane. Flying attracts all incomes and classes of society, and the clouds are a level playing field.
Everything in this movie is “swell,” except when it isn’t swell. Jane Wyman crashes here in the daring and quite stupid attempt to intimidate Constance Bennett on a trial run. She’ll be okay, though. Anybody who can land on her head in a plane crash and still give a whispered pep talk from the stretcher is a trouper. It’s Nancy Kelly who buys the farm – in a tragic series of scenes where we see her husband, Speed, crash; the other ladies comfort her, including Constance Bennett, who proves she’s a mensch after all. But Nancy’s will to live is gone, and she takes a swan dive in her plane, the wind blowing through her hair in a horrific and yet beautiful shot, and she grieves, but seems relieved to let the air and the moisture from the atmosphere smack her in the face as her last sensations of her earthly life.
The aerial photography and simulations of flight through rear-screen projection in this movie is really quite good, the dramatic aerial flying in the movie was choreographed by Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz. Some of it is actual footage from the Cleveland Air Races – including some of the crash scenes. There is an element of fatalism in many Depression-era movies that is ironically surprising to those of us today though our view generally is that we live in a much more brutal era.
Alice gets in trouble, too. First, her plane is sabotaged, and then next in her showdown race with Constant Bennett, but Bennett lets her win and in turn, Alice let’s Constance have her fiancé back – Tex, whom she had been romancing for a lark.
Alice sings “Are You in the Mood for Mischief,” in a moonlight tryst with Tex. It’s not a musical, but it’s Alice Faye. She has to sing.
The most interesting aspect about this movie is that the women are not demeaned or diminished by their male counterparts. Flying is not presented as being part of a male world and they are not shown as underdogs in a battle of the sexes. They have nothing to prove. They are already achievers because they have entered this rare world of daring explorers of a new frontier. Actually, the male roles are secondary in the story. Though we might be amused noting there is a separate hangar for the ladies’ planes.
The men get a bigger part in the story of Women in the Wind, released a few months later in April 1939, but the focus is still on the ladies. Kay Francis is the aviatrix here – or the girl pilot if you must – trying to win the Los Angeles to Cleveland air race for the prize money so she may pay for her brother’s operation. Played by Charles Anthony Hughes, he had been a pilot, too, but now he lies in Victor Jory’s hospital. Doc Jory encourages Kay to use her flying skills to get the dough.
Eve Arden, Hollywood’s most beloved wisecracking sidekick, plays “Kit,” another pilot and Kay’s pal. She is the one with the crash this time – but she’s okay. In the hospital with her head beautifully bandaged, she’s still wearing makeup and her beautifully manicured nails didn’t even chip.
William Gargan plays the lead male role, a conceited playboy pilot who’s all in the news for breaking the world record. His name is “Ace.” You didn’t think we were going to get away from a movie about pilots without at least one Ace, did you?
His comic sidekick – every hero has to have one – is “Stuffy,” played by Maxie Rosenbloom, whose real-life nickname was “Slapsie-Maxie,” I’m sure you’ll recall, from his boxing days.
Kay charms and tricks William Gargan into lending her his world record-breaking plane for the big race. He’s a pompous jerk but a nice guy at heart who just needs to be taken down a peg. This is accomplished more by his harridan ex-wife, played by Sheila Bromley, than by Kay. We last saw William Gargan in Swell Guy (1947) with Ann Blyth, in a much-reduced supporting role as the dopey elder brother of the star, Sonny Tufts. However, being able to turn to character roles saved and prolonged many acting careers. Unfortunately, Kay Francis, who may or may not have relished dopey minor roles in the future, was facing the inevitable descent of her stardom and the end of her film career in only a few more years. This was her last film for Warner Bros., with which she had a long contractual feud. She resented being pushed out of the stable and resisted it for as long as she could. She may or may not have relished this unchallenging role.
Her nemesis in this movie is Sheila Bromley, Ace’s ex-wife, who is a wicked conniver, but who also turns out to be a mensch in the end. We see among the aviatrix club there is above all a unity and mutual respect for each other, the women for the other women, the women for the men, and the men for the women.
These ladies in their silk scarves and leather flying helmets carry themselves with the confidence, a sense of humor, a playful camaraderie, and resilience at the hard knocks in life – including literal unhappy landings – that brought us through the Depression and made us look up, not only to the sky when a single biplane crossed over our towns, but to look up to and admire the women who flew.
Come back next Thursday for a look at two more films, made in wartime, about the exploits of two more lady fliers: Wings and the Woman with Anna Neagle and Robert Newton, and Flight for Freedom with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray.
Meanwhile, next Tuesday on my New England Travels blog, I'll be discussing one such real-life aviatrix who competed in the Cleveland Air Races, a girl pilot from my hometown -- Maude Tait.