Cast & Crew
Frank R. Capra
After causing the loss of the big football game for his college, Lefty Phelps wins the respect of Panama Williams, a Marine flyer who has witnessed his defeat, when Lefty defends himself against accusations of throwing the game. Upon graduation, Lefty enlists in the Marine Corps flying school where Panama, an instructor at the school, befriends him. On the day of his first solo flight, Lefty is taunted by Steve Roberts, a fellow recruit, who reminds him of his humiliating defeat on the football field. His confidence undermined, Lefty crashes the plane, after which Panama rescues him from the burning craft, injuring his hands in the process. Lefty is taken to the hospital, where he falls in love with Elinor, his nurse. When the Marines are sent to quell a native rebellion in Nicaragua, Panama arranges for Lefty, who has flunked flying school, to accompany him as a mechanic. Before they leave, Panama shows Lefty a photograph of Elinor, explaining that she is the girl he longs to marry, and Lefty says nothing of his own feelings for her. Elinor, also sent to Nicaragua, is puzzled by Lefty's cool reception when she arrives at the base. Soon afterwards, the tongue-tied Panama asks Lefty to propose to Elinor on his behalf and Lefty reluctantly agrees. Panama's proxy proposal prompts Elinor to tell him of her love for Lefty, after which Panama accuses Lefty of betrayal. Their confrontation is interrupted by an urgent call for aerial support against a rebel uprising. Lefty is teamed with Steve Roberts, and their plane is gunned down in a swamp. Rather than join in the rescue mission, Panama reports in sick while, back at the swamp, Steve lies paralyzed with a broken back. After the rescue attempt fails, Elinor convinces Panama that Lefty never betrayed him, and Panama volunteers to fly a search mission alone. Just as Lefty cremates Steve's body, he hears the sound of a plane and looks up to see Panama. Upon landing, Panama is wounded, but Lefty deftly seizes the controls and soars airborne. When the plane loses a wheel, Panama tries to take control of the craft, but Lefty executes a brilliant solo landing. Sometime later, Lefty has won his wings and is now an instructor at the school with Elinor at his side.
Frank R. Capra
Jimmy De La Cruze
Frank R. Capra
Frank R. Capra
Maj. Mitchell Gray
Colonel Harry Lay
Capt. Francis E. Pierce
Like Wings and Hell's Angels, the plot here involves a romantic triangle that threatens to come between two friends, a conflict overcome by the requisite comradery and high-stakes action audiences expected from these films. In addition to the formula's use in other flying films of the period, it had also been employed very successfully by Capra in a previous hit film, Submarine (1928), in which the same two leading actors, Ralph Graves and Jack Holt, competed for the love of one woman, although that picture's action obviously took place at sea and not in the air. This time out, the duo tangles over a pretty nurse at the Naval air station in Pensacola, Florida. Holt is the seasoned flight instructor and Graves a Joe College type who enlists to "disappear" into the service after a nationally infamous wrong-way field run costs his school's football team the championship. The film's climax, and the two friends' reconciliation, takes place during a mission to rescue Marines ambushed in Nicaragua.
Both the football flub and the mission were patterned after stories then recently in the news. Capra and Graves were developing the story of this film when they attended the 1929 Rose Bowl game and saw UC Berkeley's Roy Riegels run the wrong way to make a touchdown that was then credited to Georgia Tech, giving them the game. Capra and Graves worked the incident into the plot involving Graves' character and used the notorious play as the opening of the film.
The U.S. really was involved in Nicaragua around this time, intervening against the rebel forces under resistance hero Augusto Sandino (who gave the name "Sandinista" to the country's revolutionary movement). The ambush and rescue were based on a 1928 incident in which five Marines were killed and eight others wounded by Sandinistas.
Although crashes were staged with miniatures, the aerial shots were all real, with the actors actually going up in the air for their scenes, shot by intrepid cameramen from planes flying close by. This was hardest on Jack Holt, who had a fear of flying he had to quickly overcome to convincingly play the rear gunner. "He had to stand up in the rear cockpit exposed to the fury of the prop wash," Capra noted in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title (MacMillan, 1971). "And pulling up out of sharp dives overloaded his shaky legs with three Gs." Capra thought Holt had lost his newfound nerve during the shooting of one sequence when the actor refused to stand up and fire on cue, despite repeated attempts by Capra, the cameraman, and the pilot of Holt's plane to rouse him for action. Capra was furious with his star for ruining an elaborate and expensive take until he found out the reason for Holt's reluctance. His parachute had accidentally deployed in the cockpit, and Holt had to remain seated on top of it (holding on for dear life with bleeding hands) or else it would have unfurled, yanking him from the plane into the engine and certain death.
Flight was shot in the summer of 1929 at the Columbia studios, at a Marine air base in San Diego, and in the foothills of La Mesa, California, standing in for Nicaragua. The production employed 220 men to build a complete flying field and a permanent 20-foot bridge in La Mesa. The Marines put 28 airplanes and numerous personnel, including Nicaragua veteran Francis Pierce as adviser, at the company's disposal.
Most of the action footage was shot silent with sound dubbed in later, earning the picture praise as one of the most fluid of the early talkies. Capra shot 100,000 feet of film alone in the single sequence of the pilots bombing the rebels; it took three days to watch the rushes. Columbia had to put three editors on the picture to get it finished in time for its September release.
Studio head Harry Cohn was so sure he had a hit on his hands that he opened it with full Hollywood premiere ballyhoo in the prestigious George M. Cohan Theater in New York. The confidence was justified; Flight was a major critical and commercial success at home and abroad, although some reviewers objected to its politics in light of the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua.
Capra pulled out the starring team and the action-romance formula once again in Dirigible (1931), with Fay Wray as the love interest they compete over. Graves and Holt were teamed in six pictures together; Graves was directed by Capra in five movies and Holt in four. Holt went on to become a popular Western hero of the next two decades before his death in 1951. Graves continued acting, writing, and later directing and retired from movies in the late 1940s. He died in 1977.
Producers: Frank R. Capra, Harry Cohn
Director: Frank R. Capra
Screenplay: Frank R. Capra (dialogue); Ralph Graves (story); Howard J. Green (uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph Novak, Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Harrison Wiley (uncredited)
Film Editing: Gene Milford, Ben Pivar, Maurice Wright (uncredited)
Cast: Jack Holt (Panama Williams), Lila Lee (Elinor), Ralph Graves ('Lefty' Phelps).
by Rob Nixon
Director Frank Capra was upset with 'Holt, Jack' 's refusal to stand up in the plane that was flying, until he learnt that Holt had been playing with the ripcord. The parachute had opened, and had Holt stood up he would have been dragged out of the plane. A red ribbon was tied to Holt's ripcord for the remainder of filming.
Motion Picture News lists this film's length as "two hours," although modern sources list the running time as 110 or 116 min. A modern source credits Art Black with props. According to publicity information contained in copyright files, the film was shot in the summer of 1929 at the Columbia studios, on locations at the North Island Marine Flying Base, San Diego, where Columbia employed 220 men to build a complete flying field, and in the foothills of La Mesa, CA, where Columbia built a permanent twenty-foot bridge. The foothills of La Mesa filled in for Nicaragua, with Digger Indians from Ramona, Santa Ysabel and Pala playing the Nicaraguans. The airplane crashes were done with models, although aerial shots of the actors were taken from real planes, without the use of process shots of trick photography, and the sound recording and Capra's direction took place over radio waves. Actor Jack Holt's plane crashed during filming, but he suffered only minor injuries. Columbia advertised it as the "first all-talking aviation epic." Capra and Graves' story was based on American military intervention in Nicaragua in the 1920s, when Marines ended a revolt by the rebel leader Sandino. The opening football sequence was based on the famous backward run by Roy Reigals on New Year's Day 1929 in the University of California-Georgia Tech Rose Bowl game. The Marines placed twenty-eight airplanes and numerous personnel at the service of the company, including advisor Francis E. Pierce, whose service in Nicaragua in 1928 lent authenticity to the battle sequences, directed by Harry Lay. The film was dedicated to the U.S. Marines. Howard J. Green is given partial writing credit in a modern source.