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Suspense takes wing in aviation film fest

Times Staff Writer

A cynic would say the sole raison d’etre for “The Golden Age of the Aviation Film” retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is to drum up interest in its special pre-release screening Dec. 11 of “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s ambitious new biopic on the infamous Howard Hughes.

But a cineaste would say it’s a great opportunity to see classic aviation films produced from 1930 through 1975 and directed by the likes of Howard Hawks, John Ford and even Hughes.

Friday’s opening program features two crackling action flicks directed by Hawks: 1930’s “Dawn Patrol” and 1939’s “Only Angels Have Wings.”

An Oscar winner for original story, “Dawn Patrol” was Hawks’ first talkie. Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. play friends -- World War I flying aces -- who take to the skies every day to fight the Germans. The aerial action and bombing footage are dazzling and breathtaking -- and much more effective than most computer-generated effects.

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This version of “Dawn Patrol” is rarely seen these days; it has been overshadowed by the 1938 remake.

Hawks concluded the 1930s with one of his best films, “Only Angels Have Wings,” which boasts a near-perfect script by his frequent collaborator Jules Furthman that’s filled with pithy lines, comedy, action, drama and a death-bed scene to end all death-bed scenes.

Instead of World War I flying aces, “Wings” revolves around a group of brave mail plane fliers working in South America. Cary Grant plays the tough, no-nonsense boss whose heart has become calloused with the death of many of his employees in the line of duty. Into their midst comes a down-on-her-luck singer (Jean Arthur) who falls in love with Grant’s character. Barthelmess also is on hand, this time as a flier who had bailed out of a plane, leaving his copilot to die.

Character actor Thomas Mitchell as the Kid, an aging pilot who is Grant’s right-hand man, steals the movie. Though Mitchell won the Oscar for that year’s role as the drunken doctor in “Stagecoach,” it is his performance in “Wings” that is truly Academy Award material.

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Redford takes wing

Screening Saturday is the bittersweet 1975 drama “The Great Waldo Pepper,” which marked the reunion of actor Robert Redford with George Roy Hill, his “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” director. Redford gives a charming performance brimming with pathos as a former World War I flying ace who is eking out a living in the 1920s as a barnstorming pilot, offering plane rides for peanuts and performing stunts in a traveling aerial circus. As fate would have it, Pepper finds himself working in Hollywood, where he comes across a great German flying ace whose life has taken a parallel path. Rounding out the program Saturday night is 1958’s “The Tarnished Angels,” based on the William Faulkner novel “Pylon.” Douglas Sirk, who excelled in the 1950s with expressionistic Technicolor melodramas such as “Magnificent Obsession” and “Written on the Wind” for Ross Hunter, directed this drama. Unlike his Hunter films, though, “Angels” is shot in black and white and is far grittier than his four-hankie “women’s” pics.

Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack, who all starred in “Written on the Wind,” reunited for this Depression-era tale of a journalist who becomes involved in the unsavory lives of stunt pilots. The action scenes are top-notch, and Faulkner, who based the novel on his barnstorming days, thought it was the best picture made from one of his books.

Hughes’ Hollywood

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A good deal of “The Aviator” deals with Hughes’ production of his 1930 World War I adventure “Hell’s Angels,” and that landmark flick lands at LACMA on Dec. 10. The most expensive film of its time, it cost more than $4 million because Hughes ended up shooting the film twice. After he completed it as a silent, he realized sound was what audiences craved, so he reshot the film with sound. The story of British brothers (James Hall and Ben Lyon) who join the RAF at the outbreak of World War I is dramatically pretty anemic, and the stars are all guilty of overacting.

But Hughes -- who lost three pilots during the production -- staged numerous intense battle sequences and not-to-be-topped aerial scenes. Some scenes, including one with then-newcomer Jean Harlow, were shot in Technicolor, and several more are tinted and colored for dramatic effect. The best moments involve a German dirigible as it silently sails through the clouds in the night sky. (Scorsese features several sequences of “Hell’s Angels” in “The Aviator.”)

After “Hell’s Angels” is the 1932 John Ford adventure “Airmail,” starring Ralph Bellamy, Gloria Stuart of “Titanic” and Pat O’Brien. Set in the early days of airmail flights, the drama revolves around the brave young pilots who risked their lives to deliver the mail faster and more efficiently.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

‘The Golden Age of the Aviation Film’

‘The Golden Age of the Aviation Film’

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

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When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Dec. 10 and 11.

Ends: Dec. 11

Price: $9 for general admission; $6 for museum and AFI members, seniors and students with I.D.

Contact: (323) 857-6010 or go to www.lacma.org

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Schedule

Friday: “Dawn Patrol,” “Only Angels Have Wings”

Saturday: “The Great Waldo Pepper,” “Tarnished Angels”

Dec. 10: “Hell’s Angels,” “Airmail”

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Dec. 11: “The Aviator”


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