Born: 15 July 1893, Ludwigshafen, Germany.
Died: 8 December 1972, Ottobrunn, Germany.
Directing career: 1923 – 1960.
Movement: Golden Age of Hollywood.
Traits: Trained in German theatre, Dieterle was one of the European emigré directors in 1930s Hollywood. His overall filmography as a studio director at Warner Brothers is diverse and erratic, but he was especially well-known for his rather conventional biopics and more interestingly for his eccentric and Romanticism-influenced films, such as The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) or Portrait of Jennie (1948).
Collaborators: Warren Low (Editor), Hal B. Wallis (Producer), Hans Dreier (Production Designer), Victor Young (Composer), Henry Blanke (Producer), Paul Muni (Actor), Joseph Cotten (Actor).
The Last Flight (1931)
Had I seen The Last Flight before I compiled my list of ’10 Must-see WW1 Films’, I might have had even more of a headache whittling it down to the final ten. Not particularly because The Last Flight does anything better than the 10 films I did end up choosing, but rather because it deals with the war in a way no other film I saw did.
Apart from the opening sequence — a fateful dogfight over France in which a US Air Force pilot (Richard Barthelmess) injures his hands and his best friend (David Manners) leaves with his eyes permanently scarred — we do not see any battle scenes and are instead whisked straight to 1919. The two former pilots, now united with two other ex-Air Force boys, have remained in Paris rather than returning home to the States. They form a quartet of marooned “spent bullets”, physically and psychologically dehumanised by their war experience, and now unwilling and unable to take life seriously again. Instead, they loiter around Parisian cocktail bars and become jointly enamoured with a young and rich heiress who represents to them all the hedonistic levity and fun they want to cling onto. Like very few Hollywood films of the 1930s that I’ve seen, The Last Flight sparkles in presenting to us the hours of hanging out between friends, doing little more than nothing. As quaintly distant as their all-night drinking parties may feel to us 90 years later, we still come to understand all of the necessary abandon that goes with exchanging the drag of flying death-trap machines for the lightness of a champagne lifestyle.
But, under the surface, just as all four of these men cannot help but reveal the underlying flaws they seek to suppress, we also get the sense that their bubble is bound to burst — perhaps the fact this film was made two years after the Wall Street Crash gives it a sense of foresight into the inevitable cul-de-sac the Roaring Twenties were headed for. Where this film feels so original and so strong is in this theme of the nihilist core under the devil-may-care joviality, suggesting that efforts to shake off the horrors and deaths of WW1 through nonchalant indulgence are nothing but doomed.
That said, what unfortunately does prevent this film being a bona fide classic of 1930s Pre-Code Hollywood (which it might otherwise have been) are budgetary and technological deficiencies. This was the German-born William Dieterle’s first Hollywood picture as director and clearly made on a tight allowance; all of it is studio-bound, even a train station sequence uses rear projection, and a bull-fight arena is suggested through use of stock footage. Equally clunky is the unavoidable difficulty of early sound technology with its heavy cameras and clunky recording equipment. Nonetheless, if you can see these minor flaws as being like the superficial nervous tics of the four ex-pilots, you reach the core wisdom of The Last Flight under the surface, a wisdom which remains impressively honest and unsentimental for its time. (December 2020)