Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Aviatrix - Part 2 - Wings and the Woman, and Flight for Freedom

The devil-may-care aviatrix of the 1920s and 1930s became a serious and somehow less fancy free figure in the 1940s. Wartime was not the arena for setting records, but in another sense the aviatrix seemed to have had her wings clipped in this new era where the great flyers were aces, and were in uniform, and were men. Though women pilots did help in terms of ferrying planes and pulling targets, they were not allowed in the combat air forces of the Army or Navy. The line was drawn between the genders in aviation that did not exist in the earlier decades of flight.

We continue our series on the aviatrix with two films from the 1940s: Wings and the Woman (1942), and Flight for Freedom (1943). They both illustrate a more self-conscious female pilot than in the first two films we discussed in last week’s post: Tail Spin,and Women in the Wind, both from1939. The wartime aviatrix was back to fighting the battle of the sexes.

Wings of the Woman was a British film (released in the U.K. as They Flew Alone) about the real-life Amy Johnson, who was a heroine in a British Empire that marveled over her skill and daring, and followed her exploits over their empire on which the sun, at least at that time, never set. She was the first woman to fly solo to Australia from London, and also the first to fly to Cape Town, South Africa.

Anna Neagle plays Amy Johnson in a really luminous performance. The film begins when Amy rebels as a teenager at her school uniform, particularly over the nineteenth century straw boater which she and the other girls must wear. She stomps on hers and manages to switch the rest of the class to the more modern straw Panama hat. It is from this incident that the introductory narration remarks: “And to all the Amy Johnsons of today, who have fought and won the battle of the straw hat - who have driven through centuries of convention - who have abandoned the slogan 'safety first' in their fight for freedom from fear - from want - from persecution - we dedicate this film.”

The film lauds her independence and her drive. As a young woman she attains college degrees, applies herself in different office jobs, but it is not until she begins her hobby of learning to fly where she feels the most satisfaction and the greatest sense of purpose for her intelligence and her energy. In the 1930s her exploits captivated the British public and she became famous. In close-ups of her perched in the cockpit the film becomes an intimate examination of not only her motives but of the great sense of freedom she feels while she is flying. One particular scene, where after several hours of exhaustion and despair, she finally sights her goal of reaching northern Australia, the relief and ecstasy on her face are more eloquent than any explanations of why would a young woman want to put herself through such a dangerous test.

The film explores in a more introspective way a woman’s need to excel and to feel the freedom of pursuing her own dreams, as well as the unusual freedom of just being alone. (Indeed, in the two films we discussed last week from 1939, there was a camaraderie in a community of female flyers; but in the two wartime films in this post, the ladies are truly solo, without the support of other women.) In the first two films that we discussed last week, which were more lighthearted and less introspective, we do not examine the women’s motives for being pilots. This may result in a less satisfying story; however there is, ironically, a greater sense of freedom and self command displayed in those earlier two movies by the women who never needed to be examined for their motives, never needed to explain why they were doing what they were doing, and never needed validation. They were just pilots, and that was jake with the men around them. In a sense, it was not a story about men and women; there were only pilots and non-pilots.

But the two movies we discuss today drag us back into the dismal realm of the battle of the sexes. Wings of the Woman handles it a bit more deftly. Anna Neagle meets Robert Newton, who plays the real-life husband of Amy Johnson, Jim Mollison. Like her, he is a headline-grabbing pioneer aviator who likewise has great success in long-distance flying records. They seem to be made for each other, equally understanding of each other’s work and each other’s need to fly. However, Mollison is a bit of a playboy, charming, unreliable, and Amy is not so much jealous as she is independent to the degree of being able to jettison Mollison from her life like so much overweight cargo. In an interesting scene, when she catches him in a dalliance, instead of bawling him out like a fishwife, she determines to set a new world record beating his old one, just because she can. Because Mollison is a flyer, he is far more chastised than if she had hit them with a frying pan. Eventually, however, they both realize it is not working, and they divorce. Amy Johnson never takes her married name, at least not in this movie, and in real life Amy Johnson did revert back to her maiden name after her divorce legally.

At one point, they decide to pursue a record together and they fly a plane from London to New York, where the headwinds are much more difficult to fly against going from east to west, but just before they reach their destination, the plane runs out of gas. It’s an eerie scene when we no longer hear the motor running and Mollison, whose turn it is at the controls, must fly the plane like a glider as they search the ground below for some place to land. They do crash, and though both are injured, they both survive the incident, which happened in Stratford, Connecticut. They are eventually brought to New York and receive a tickertape parade.

The years go by, and when war comes, Amy decides to volunteer for the Air Transport Auxiliary. The women are not allowed to fly planes in combat, but they are allowed to ferry planes across the Channel to Europe and to other spots on the globe where they are needed. Jim Mollison has volunteered as well for this duty, and in the movie Amy and Jim meet one last time, both in uniform, and shake hands, ruefully musing at their paths in life and how they have come to this same mission. As she goes to her plane, he watches her enter and she takes one last look back. It is a foreshadowing, and even if we did not know the true story of Amy Johnson, we kind of know what’s going to happen next.

Over the Channel, Amy’s plane goes down, and we see her parachute into the dark, cold waters below. The real-life event happened January 5, 1941. Amy’s body was never recovered. She was 37 years old. The movie ends, poignantly, with a shot of the interior of the plane with its open door from which Amy has jumped. On the floor of the plane lies her military cap. This is a nod to her war of the straw boater at the beginning of the film. It is a new hat, a uniform hat, signifying honor, purpose, and dignity, and service to King and Country. But like her balking at wearing the straw boater—there is no individuality allowed in a military uniform.

Our final movie, Flight for Freedom, was released the year after, in 1943. There are some similarities to Wings of the Woman: this film, though the character is fictional, is purportedly based loosely on the final flight of America’s most famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart; this film also features a romance with a male pilot; and this film also ends with the mysterious loss of the flyer over the ocean in a wartime world where her skills are useful, but she is still fighting the battle of the sexes.

Rosalind Russell plays the fictional Tonie Carter, who learns to fly under the tutelage of Herbert Marshall. He is a designer of aircraft in the early 1930s with dreams of establishing his own company. Fred MacMurray is a hotshot pilot, a brash playboy with no use for women flyers. He remarks, “Women ought to stick to what they were made for.” He is especially disdainful of women pilots because they steal headlines and he thinks the only reason they fly is to get their names in the paper. “I just don’t like women who try to be men.”

Eventually, they do begin a romance, on-again/off-again, because they are hardly ever in the same spot at once, but it is an unsatisfying if typical movie scenario:  We don’t really know why Rosalind Russell is attracted to Fred MacMurray; he’s really quite rude and obnoxious. I suppose the writers have thrown in her slavish attraction to a “man’s man” merely to prove that, despite the grease and dirt on her mechanic’s coveralls, she still a “real” woman.

Another person who at first disparages her is the restaurant owner of the private club where all the pilots hang out.  He is played by Eduardo Cianelli, though eventually he comes around when she becomes famous and he deeply admires her, welcoming her into the boys’ only club and giving her a small brass hook on his wall with a plaque with her name on it to hang her hat just like all the guys have.

But Roz is human and makes mistakes – not just about Fred MacMurray. In a flight from New York to Los Angeles she tries to fly very high above stormy weather to pick up some speed but in this era of unpressurized cabins, the high altitude makes her drowsy and she nearly crashes. Eventually, she makes the trip from L.A. to New York in 12 hours of straight flying and breaks a record. A lady reporter yells, “You got a boyfriend? What’s his name?” Of all the films we’ve discussed on the aviatrix, this one unfortunately is rife with sexism and it’s a shame to see Rosalind Russell play the poor sap, when we have seen her as the magnificent Hildy Johnson only a few years earlier. But it’s wartime now and the men are heroes, and the women are not supposed to compete.

The climax of the movie comes as Roz attempts to break a new flying record of circumnavigating the globe at the equator. On her first attempt when she lands in Honolulu for refueling, she receives a telegram from the Navy Department asking her to return as quickly as possible to Washington, D.C., because – well, it’s a secret. In the same way she never questions her undeserved devotion for Fred MacMurray, she never questions the order of the Navy Department.  She crashes her plane on purpose so that she doesn’t have to continue her record-breaking flight, and heads for D.C. Here she is told that the government wants her to try her flight around the world again, but to fly in the other direction toward the east so that the Pacific islands are the last leg of her journey. When she reaches a particular area of Japanese mandate islands, they want her to ditch her plane. She will land on an island where they have already stored food and provisions for her and, in time, a Navy ship will pick her up and bring her home. The reason for this is they want to attach cameras to her plane and film the Japanese mandate islands because they want to know where they are building airstrips. We have not yet entered the war at this point, but war is coming and the United States wants military intelligence without breaking any rules, tipping their hand, or ruffling any feathers. Roz agrees.

Just before this, Herbert Marshall, her longtime mentor and plane designer, has proposed marriage. His proposal is so sweet and awkward and we (or me, at least) rejoice at his being the better partner and a far more interesting man with whom to spend her life than the self-involved, if handsome, Fred MacMurray. Because she is on the outs with Fred, she accepts Herbert, but she tells him she must do her flight around the world first, and when she comes home, she will marry him.

The opening credits of the movie are placed over a vast map of the Pacific. When Roz meets the Navy officer who gives her instructions on her mission, they stand in a briefing room on which on one wall there is likewise a huge map of the Pacific. It is a good illustration because it dwarfs the people in the scene and it shows not merely how large a  body of water that is, but how little we know about it. Most of our armed forces, once we got into the war, were island hopping all across the Pacific somewhat blindly: many of those islands were really uncharted.

At this point, the movie intersects, or at least flirts with, the real-life ending of Amelia Earhart, possibly the most famous aviatrix of the 1930s. Her final flight in 1937 was an intention to circumnavigate the globe. She was lost and the mystery surrounding that event continues today, reviving the story in theories, controversies, and suspicions of conspiracies. One theory holds that she was captured by the Japanese army. Only this year that idea was floated again, and again dismissed. Possibly that theory was put forth first by this movie, Flight for Freedom, in which Rosalind Russell lands in New Guinea preparing for her final leg of her trip. She is to meet a navigator who will help her with the crucial filming and gathering intelligence over the Japanese mandate islands before they are to ditch the plane and hide out on that pinpoint in the Pacific until the Navy can retrieve them and the film. In a striking scene, again, a foreshadowing like in the last flight of Wings and Woman, Roz takes off from D.C., and Herbert Marshall bids her goodbye at the hangar.  We do not see her take off; instead, we have a view of Marshall standing alone, intently watching us as we pull away from him, leaving him smaller and smaller.  We hear the plane engine, but it is our view of his aloneness that foreshadows he is losing her forever.

She flies to the Pacific and meets her contact in a Polynesian wayside inn. The palm trees sway and the moon shines over the exotic island.

It’s Fred MacMurray.

They renew their passion for each other, and she forgets all about Herbert. Their postwar plans have Fred continuing to fly all over the world, but Roz will stay home with the kids.  But going back to the hotel desk to get her key from the sinister Japanese desk clerk, he tells her with snide confidence that he knows who she is, who Fred MacMurray is, what their mission is, and they will never succeed. They know all about the plans.

Roz goes back to Fred, but instead of telling him straight out that the jig is up, she asks him what he would do if he was flying alone and he knew the mission had been compromised, if there was no hope for his survival. He says cavalierly, and quite hypothetically, he thinks, that he would just keep flying until the plane ran out of gas.

She decides to do that. She takes off in the plane alone, sparing Fred’s life, and flies off into the vast sky over the Pacific Ocean. In a reprise of the early scene where she had tried to break a record and flew too high, making herself drowsy and nearly crashing, she decides that she will take this comfortable way out and she aims the plane straight for the heavens. The higher she goes, the less oxygen she has and she begins to fall asleep.

In these two movies, in which both our heroines meet their ends crashing their planes into the ocean, we know that their self-sacrifice is a common self-flagellation element to the wartime propaganda films. The women become symbols more than people, although we get to know Amy Johnson’s motives a little bit better than we do the fictional Tonie Carter. In the first two movies, Tail Spin and Women of the Wind, those women flyers faced sudden death in crashes pursuing records and shrugged it off with a kind of pragmatism that was almost heartless; the wartime films seek to demonstrate that their deaths are not without meaning, and that sacrifice is noble, and required—including, for Roz, the sacrifice of a career when the war is over.

These two women seem to have a yoke on their shoulders that the early 1930s aviatrix did not. Life has become very complicated, and not just because the planes have become more complicated.


Have a look at the career of real-life aviatrix Maude Tait, a record-breaking flyer who beat Amelia Earhart’s record, a lady from my hometown – over at my New England Travels blog.

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