Last night's cocktail reception began on a rather subdued note in the Kennedy Center atrium. The 200 guests, largely corporate executives and media types, had just seen Bo Svenson, his craggily handsome face set in a determined smile, going down into the ocean in his vintage Curtiss Fledgling biplane.

After everyone had a chance to down a drink or two, the atmosphere lightened notably -- but the consensus was that the 22-minute "Night Flight," a television adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupery's classic short novel, "Vol de Nuit," was not the usual prime-time television fare.

Svenson, a graduate of "Walking Tall" and "The Great Waldo Pepper," said he liked working on this picture "because it's offbeat; hopefully we'll make people take notice. If people see something like this on prime-access television time, they might realize they don't have to see garbage."

He said that the show is a sign that the Singer Co., which sponsored and produced it for an unofficially reported $500,000, "wants to be taken seriously."

Comparing it to "The Gong Show," which usually occupies the slot in which it will be shown, he said, "The 'Gong Show' was great for what it was, but let's not make it into a national institution. That kind of show is a sad comment about people who are supposed to be charting the course of the Western world."

Barry Jagoda, now of the National Security Council and formerly media adviser to the president and CBS producer, was less enthusiastic. "The idea od quality television for a small audience of 10 to 15 million people is just around the corner," he said. "Unfortunately, this is not a very good example of quality television. It's a very nice film, but not the quality TV we're all waiting for."

The picture is currently the subject of a major media blitz by Singer, which has scheduled special showings with the actors in attendance in New York, London and Paris. Each of the guests received a (Night Flight" tote bag after last night's showing at the American Film Institute, containing a bottle of Guerlain's "Vol de Nuit" perfume as well as the Singer Co. magazine and a paperback copy of the Saint Exupery nobel.

"Of course Singer will get get some direct attention from this film about the diversity of the company, "conceded Lawrence F. Mihlon, vice president of corporate relations and producer of the film "Everyone who watches this show will know we do other things besides sewing machines."

Perhaps coincidentally, Celine Lomez, who plays the wife of the doomed pilot, noted that "I had a scene where I am sewing in the original shooting, but it was edited out."

One of the things Singer is into besides sewing is aircraft. "We make inertial guidance systems," said one Singer executive at the reception. "If we had been doing that in 1930, there wouldn't have been any picture. The poor guy just didn't know where he was until he looked down and say the ocean under him."

In contrast to the rickety plane in the film, Trevor Howard noted, he came over in a Concorde. "You leave London in the morning and arrive here in time for breakfast."

Svenson, who used to pilot jets for the U.S. Marines, said that he flew the plane in the film, "but I was not hired as a pilot but because I'm just a good actor." Nonetheless, he added, "tomorrow I fly into Teeterboro Airport in New York, where I have to land the Curtiss in front of the press corps. I'll probably bounce it." Prior to such glamorous antics, Svenson said he had put in time as a race-car driver, short-order cook and life-insurance salesman. "I fly as little as possible now," he said, "because I believe in the law of averages."

One mild criticism of the film was given by Mrs. Livingston Biddle, who said she though that "perhaps there was more of a message in the book." Curiously, she uttered no more criticisms after, a few minutes later, Sevenson enveloped her in a massive hug, then bent his 6-foot, 6-inch frame to kiss her hand.

The Morse Code SOS signal was heard all through the picture -- "Dit-dit-dit, dah-dah-dah, dit-dit-dit," -- forming a sort of sonic leitmotif, but there were no signs of distress from the Singer executives at the receptions.

Trevor Howard may have been speaking for them in the film when he delivered its most solemn statement: "We do not ask to be eternal. All we ask is that the objects we live by do not lose their meaning."

Another message was drawn from the picture by presidential assistant Greg Schneiders.

"Fly commercial," he said.