On toughening up pilots, John Barrymore has this to say, “softness, weakness means death.”

night flight one sheet

This star studded effort from Clarence Brown by way of MGM casts Barrymore as the head of an early aviation company delivering mail throughout South America. The plot revolves around the happenings over a 24 hour period that sees both highs and lows for those involved in the company that John’s brother Lionel is also a member of, serving as a foreman of sorts dishing out John’s orders to the flyers.

“Just so someone in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday.”

With an epidemic in Rio, Robert Montgomery is called upon to begin the first leg of an emergency flight to bring in antibiotics from across the continent. While he’s making his dangerous trek, Clark Gable is in another plane attempting to get the mail bag to to the coast. From there it can be shipped overseas so those postcards can get delivered. Gable is going to have a rough go of it with weather, fog and mountain peaks.


While the thrills are in the skies, the dramatics are played out on land. John Barrymore is a stern company leader who expects planes to leave and arrive on time no matter the problems that they may face. Weather be damned! He presents a stone faced facade to the public yet he’s crumbling inside which is so perfectly performed as he faces down a distraught Helen Hayes over the possibility that her pilot husband, Gable, may be down and lost.

helen hayes night flight

The drama runs high and the performers are up to the task. Miss Hayes is the woman on the ground who slowly comes apart not knowing if Gable will be home before the night is through. She is joined by Myrna Loy as a young wife who has the same worries and fears as Helen over the possibility of seeing her man, William Gargan not returning from his scheduled flight to the coast line.

Matching the heavy drama and performances within are the special effects in this pre-code thriller from producer David O’Selznick. The use of models, buildings and flashes of lightning are prevalent as the planes make their way through the fog shrouded peaks and valleys of South America. Not all the footage is of the back screen projector variety either. There’s a wonderful clip of an early model aircraft flying over a snow covered mountain range giving audiences of the day a wonderful view of a sparse area they weren’t likely to see in a lifetime. Whether or not they actually believed it was Robert Montgomery’s character at the stick shall remain a mystery.


While Gable is the loving husband with Hayes waiting at home, Montgomery is the playboy type with “a girl in every port.” It’s notable for fans of the pre-code years to pay close attention to Monty’s scene in a nightclub that is obviously a brothel. An apparent working girl is rather ticked at Monty when he implies to her that he’s already been upstairs with another woman. I would assume if this title saw a re-release in the coming years, that bit would have been snipped.

Surprisingly, Gable has little to do here other then tug at the ladies heartstrings in the paying crowd over whether or not he’ll make it back to Hayes and live out a happy life. It’s the scenes with John and Lionel Barrymore that I took most delight in as a film fan. John was still on his game at this time and delivers a fine performance of a ruler with a tortured soul. To see him act opposite brother Lionel is to see two very different styles. One the aging matinee idol, the other the character performer employing tricks and hand gestures to claim the scenes as his own.

john and lionel

A worthwhile viewing for many reasons and recommended.