Air Mail (1932)

Seven years before Howard Hawks put his stamp on Only Angels Have Wings (1939), John Ford used some of the same story material—a group of aviators flying through treacherous mountain passes in terrible weather, the girl who wants to keep their leader grounded, the flyer trying to redeem himself after a single act of cowardice in his past—and made them his own. The film marked a rare trip to Universal for the director (he was looking for extra money in the face of salary cuts at his home studio, Fox), where producer Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted to compete with other big aviation dramas like The Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels (both 1930). For the film, the studio built a special effects soundstage complete with miniature sets, a full water tank and a gantry overhead for flying model planes. Ralph Bellamy stars as the group’s stoic leader, with Gloria Stuart as his concerned girlfriend and Pat O’Brien as a hotshot flyer whose womanizing gets him in trouble. At first, the stars didn’t understand Ford’s attention to seemingly minute details, but the finished film reveals a coherent view of the world, with the details clearly establishing the pilots’ isolation on their remote base at the foot of the Rockies.

(d. John Ford, 84m, 35mm)