In an early scene of "Jet Pilot," Air Force colonel John Wayne recalls an old love affair: "It was a beautiful friendship that gradually ripened into complete apathy." But his response to Janet Leigh, a Soviet pilot who has just flown her Mig into Alaska, is far from apathetic.
The young Leigh, 22 at the time "Jet Pilot" began shooting in 1949, looked almost as adorable as the young Ingrid Bergman, and her proud bosom had been accentuated to knock your eyes out. The first sight of her inspiring torso comes when she wriggles out of her flight overalls -- and as Wayne and a colleague stare in awe, a jet roars over the base, underlining the unveiling with a supersonic wolfwhistle.
"Jet Pilot," condemned to ridicule and obscurity for a generation, is perhaps the happiest rediscovery in the Biograph's new revival series of movies produced (and sometimes directed, in a manner of speaking) by the late Howard Hughes, who toyed with filmmaking and studio ownership (he ran RKO into the ground after becoming the distracted, absentee landlord in 1946) from the late '20s through the late '50s.
When Hughes trusted talented directors and refrained from interfering, he usually got movies any producer could be proud of: Howard Hawks' "Scarface" or Lewis Milestone's version of "The Front Page," for example. But Hughes also had an undeniable flair for promotion -- illustrated by the success of stiffs like 1930 aviation melodrama, "Hell's Angels" (which shares the bill at the Biograph with "Jet Pilot") and a mind-boggling Western aberration called "The Outlaw."
"The Outlaw" began shooting in 1940, and with Hughes behind the camera, remained in production for three years. Hughes touted the young Jane Russell as a sex star, a claim she would eventually justify. At the same time, the content of "The Outlaw" was being systematically misrepresented to create the impression of the most sexually explicit movie ever made in Hollywood.
When it first opened in San Francisco in 1943, the movie inspired open derision. Hughes and publicist Russell Birdwell had their minions write indignant letter and make irate phone calls to the authorities, supposedly in the name of outraged morality, until the police department finally took the bait, confiscated the print and turned "The Outlaw" into a box-office hit.
Nevertheless, Hughes withdrew "The Outlaw" after salvaging the San Francisco premiere and kept the rest of the American moviegoing public waiting until 1947, when the movie was at last released nationally and proceeded to clean up. Its appeal to straight audiences remains a mystery. Russell is an authentic bombshell, but she's kept on the periphery of an exceedingly weird triangle, which finds Thomas Mitchell, as Pat Garrett, getting hysterically jealous because Walter Huston, as his old pal Doc Holiday, begins palling around with Jack Beutel, as an indolent young hustler called Billy the Kid. "The Outlaw" was kinky all right, but not in the sense a mass audience had been led to expect.
Hughes had a greater talent for wasting the filmmaking resources at his disposal. After the war he announced a promising partnership the Preston Sturges that fizzled. He hired Jerry Wald and Norma Krasna to supervise production at RKO but insisted on approving every decision himself while remaining inaccessible. The studio's production simply dried up, and RKO lost $20 million in the first five years of his capricious proprietorship.
In 1957, Hughes released "Jet Pilot." Jules Furthman supplied the tangy script, a screwball romance which exploited Cold War antagonism as the latest context for a traditional bedroom farce. High-flying professionals Wayne and Leigh are immediately attracted to each other (the beautiful aerial sequences are designed as mating ballets with F-86s and F-94s that seal their romantic bond). And though she complicates things by being a spy rather than a defector, all's well that ends well. The American Way of Life -- cheerfully symbolized by succulent steaks, flattering clothes, Palm Springs weekends and the virile, easygoing Duke -- proves too appetizing to resist.
A later generation nourished on the gothic myth that the Cold War imposed a sense of dread so pervasive and chillling that Americans spent all their time cringing may be pleasantly disillusioned by the good-natured facetiousness of "Jet Pilot."
Josef von Sternberg directed Furtherman's script, renewing a canny association that began years earlier on classic romances like "The Docks of New York," "Morocco" and "Shanghai Express." Furthman had helped sustain this savory tradition in collaboration with other writers and director Howard Hawks in "Only Angels Have Wings," "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep." Wayne and Leigh reenact a sassy, truly egalitarian romance once contrived for teams like Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Though not as slick as those earlier teams, Wayne and Leigh are enormously likable and humorously sexy together. One suspects that the radiant, yummy Leigh might have become a more important star if Hughes had managed to release the film promptly. He left the principal shooting to Sternberg but supervised the aerial footage himself, engaging the splendid William Clothier as head cameraman and the legendary Capt. Charles Yeager, Mr. Right Stuff himself, as technical adviser and head stunt pilot. yThese astute choices were neutralized when Hughes, in love with the planes and determined to have great cloud formations for all the aerial scenes, let the second-unit shooting linger through 1950 and into 1951.
By the time Hughes finished sorting out the miles of aerial footage, the stars had appeared in a dozen other films between them, "Jet Pilot" was an industry joke and the producer was again preoccupied with a myriad of business problems. The release date kept being postponed. Hughes may have been loath to chance a release while the fighting continued in Korea. At any rate, "Jet Pilot" finally appeared in 1957 in a brief theatrical run greeted with widespread jeering from the movie press. Hughes tucked the picture away from his private delectation, and there it remained until he died.
Now that 10 of Hughes' films have returned to legitimate theatrical distribution (although the penny-pinching Universal should be buggy-whipped for trying to foist raggedy 16mm dupes of some of the pictures onto exhibitors rather than making fresh 35mm prints), it's obvious that the successful "Hell's Angeles" is a dud and the much-abused "Jet Pilot" a wacky gem merely victimized by bad timing and worse luck. In fact, only Irwin Allen's "When Time Ran Out . . ." among current releases can rival "Hell Angels" for bottomless, ineffable dumbness.
Whatever his other talents, Hughes could not direct his way out of a paper bag. Over the last 70 years or so the movie medium has inspired a vast range of storytelling styles, from the austere to the arch-rococo. Hughes was an unwitting master of the inert, a tendency bound to render foolish material and inferior acting even more ridiculous.
There is one impressive aerial bombardment sequence in "Hell Angels," so dynamic that it seems to belong in a picture made by a real director, like Hawks, or William Wellman or Lewis Milestone.The only enduring glory of "Hell's Angels" is the fresh, carnal magnetism of Jean Harlow, miscast as a British society girl of easy virtue but making it easy to understand why this appearance propelled her to stardom. She's far too good for the twittish male leads, James Hall and Ben Lyon, supposedly siblings from Oxford who end up in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. When she finally gets fed up with their dismal, disapproving attentions and commands them to get their priggish mugs lost, you feel like breaking into applause.