Not to be confused with the animated series of the 1960’s this spectacular example of technicolor was aimed at movie going audiences during WW2 and served as both big screen entertainment and propaganda for enlistment in the fight against Germany and Japan.
Released by 20th Century Fox, Thunder Birds, plays like any number of James Cagney/Pat O’Brien efforts for Warner Brothers, Devil-Dogs of the Air, being a prime example. In other words it’s the story of a young flyer played in this instance by John Sutton subbing for Cagney (minus the cockiness) who shows up at flight training school under the tutelage of Preston Foster in lieu of O’Brien. Like Cagney and O’Brien, both our leading men at Fox will fall for the same girl. In the earlier film of 1935 it was Margaret Lindsay, here it’s Gene Tierney.
I suppose this is as good a time as any. I’d say there are three legitimate reasons to watch this William A. Wellman film. First off would be for plane enthusiasts eager to see some wonderful footage of the aircraft used in the film while in flight. Secondly is the use of technicolor, it really is a beautiful film to look at. But these two reasons pale in comparison to the third reason. Yes it’s to see the drop dead gorgeous, Gene Tierney, whose beauty demands and receives the full technicolor treatment.
Our film takes place in Arizona where Chinese, English and American young men are being trained to fly and subsequently sent overseas to take their place in battle. Foster arrives at the camp looking to volunteer as a flight instructor and is taken on by a former pal now running the school for the military played by Richard Denny. In little screen time at all we’ll discover that he’s also a former lover of Miss Tierney and intends to win her back and settle down to the married life. For the record, Foster was 42 and Tierney 22 at the time of the film’s release.
When we see Gene make her entrance it’s taking a bath in the water tower on the ranch she calls home and again, the technicolor look is …… well …… stunning.
Foster is assigned to take on the young Brits that have arrived at the flying school which puts him in direct contact with the young John Sutton. Turns out that Foster flew alongside the young man’s Father during WW1 as a member of the Lafayette Escadrille. If you know anything about the career of our director, Wellman, you’ll know he was often associated with airplane movies including the classic Wings of 1927 and 1954’s The High and the Mighty. It should also be pointed out that “Wild Bill” himself was a real life member of the Escadrille during the first world war.
Sutton is a doctor by trade and not much for heights but following the death of his brother in the R.A.F. he feels compelled to join the family tradition and take to the skies just as his brother and father had. He’ll confide to Foster the importance of his making good despite the obstacles ahead of him including air sickness. This presents the opportunity for a flashback sequence that sees Sutton telling his Grandmother of his intentions. In an elongated cameo, Dame May Whitty, gives a marvelous performance as a woman who sees the sacrifices the men in her family have made in the world wars first hand.
Now for the melodrama to creep into our story.
While on a day pass, Sutton and pal Richard Haydn, find themselves chasing skirts in town and one look at Miss Tierney has Sutton following her around town like a puppy dog. Seeds of jealousy are quick to sprout when Foster sees the pair flirting and smiling like young lovers. In grand Hollywood style, Sutton in a matter of screen minutes will let Foster know he’s in love with the gorgeous technicolor Queen. The lines in the sand are clearly drawn.
Back to training. Can Sutton overcome his deficiencies in flight, pass his solo test and somehow win the hand of the fair maiden?
Drama, drama and more drama lay ahead mixed with some comical bits involving Miss Tierney and the Military Brass. If anything, she proves she could sway the Brass with just a glancing smile. As for the propaganda message within the script, that will come from Miss Tierney towards the fadeout as she does her best to rally the movie goers to take up the fight against tyranny and bring home the victory.
What Thunder Birds presents us with is a “B” film’s script that has been given the “A” budget treatment. By no means a classic the look of the film demands a classic film lover’s attentions. With all due respect to both Foster and Sutton who do fine work here, the film’s look, budget, director and leading lady somehow cry out for bigger names in their roles. Easy to point out nearly 80 years later and with the war raging at the time named actors were drying up but since we’re at Fox, Tyrone Power, automatically comes to mind for the Sutton role and I guess we can leave Foster in the accompanying role or maybe even bring in a Brian Donlevy?
But that’s all a what if so let’s move on and not forget the number one reason to sit in on Thunder Birds. It’s to take in the breathtaking beauty of Gene Tierney who looks as if she’s just stepped out of the cover of the latest Cosmopolitan magazine.
A first time viewing for me thanks to a DVD I picked up recently if you too are looking to witness this shining example of technicolor from the studio era.