June 22, 2019
The Flying Ace – U.S., 1926
The Flying Ace, I suspect, is one of those films that will be praised much more for its historical importance than for its value as entertainment, and in truth, there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, many films that advanced what cinema could do or that showed the level of technology that filmmakers now had at their disposal have been nothing to write home about, and so it is with The Flying Ace. Here is a film that in many ways is a middle finger to the establishment, one in which African-Americans are the heroes, villains, and heroines of their own stories, and for that reason the film, as well as others ones similarly made in the early days of cinema, is vital, for it lays bare a truth about cinema, its universal calling, and the variety of its audience.
As for the film itself, it’s a bit of a disappointment, but this is mostly due to the faults and trappings of its genre, which director and writer Richard E. Norman was unable to avoid. At just over an hour, the film has scant time to waste, so in the film’s opening moments, we see three men crowded together at a railway station. This would not be noteworthy were it not for the sinister looks of their faces and the intertitles that hint that the three of them are going to be the villains in this tale. We’ve even told that one of them has a mysterious source of income. A train arrives, and a lone man disembarks. This, we learn, is Blair Kimball (Boise De Legge) the paymaster, and his appearance is a surprise, for he was expected a day later. Speculation soon has it that he has come with $25,000 for payroll. Any doubt about what the three of them are thinking of doing is quickly erased by their devious expressions. Soon both the money and Kimball have disappeared, and the station’s second in command, Thomas Sawtelle (George Colvin) – not one of the shady-looking fellows mentioned earlier - is a suspect.
Luckily, the cavalry arrives in the form of a decorated World War I pilot named Billy Stokes (Laurence Criner), who just happens to be a crack detective when he’s not off on foreign soil fighting for the United States of America. He shows up just as train officials learn of the case and is quickly offered the case. Naturally, he accepts, and equally naturally, he enlists a sidekick (Steve Reynolds), a war buddy who lost a leg, yet can still ride a bicycle so fast that he can overtake a speeding car. I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention an additional character, Ruth Sawtille (Kathryn Boyd), the daughter of the accused and the love interest of one of the men who are obviously rotten to the core. Anyone care to wager who she’ll fall for by the end of the picture?
From here, the film becomes a game of reveal and conceal, in which the detective reveals that he has discovered a clue only to then conceal its relevance to the case. This was understandably done to hold the audience in suspense, yet what films like this fail to recognize is that for the film to work, the audience must be part of the investigation. If the dots cannot be connected or the detective’s confusion shared, then what is the point of investing in the film? Yet so many detective films treat their audience as if they were uneducated buffoons who couldn’t follow a clue even if it came attached to an arrow pointing in the direction of the culprit. In movies like that, a detective finds something noteworthy, gives one of those “A-ha!” expressions, and simply walks away. It’s grating after a while, and pretty soon, I just gave up trying to play armchair detective.
There are other problems. One, the protagonist is a bit of a bore, lacking both wit and drama. He’s Sherlock Holmes without the drollness and arrogance, Bond without the caustic remarks and romantic appeal. In short, he’s just there. Second, the comedy falls flat. This may seem odd to say about a mystery, yet Billy’s sidekick, Peg (get it?), is too often played for laughs. In one scene, he jumps on a bicycle and peddles furiously while actually going nowhere. In another, he stands and watches his good buddy engaged in fisticuffs with a suspect and does nothing but cheer and make arm rolls in excitement. I don’t think he ever takes the case seriously. In addition, there’s also the kind of scene that usually foreshadows a later predicament, a la Mel Gibson’s Forever Young. In the scene, Ruth is giving a flying lesson by the man who loves her, Finley Tucker (Harold Platts, one of the film’s lone bright spots), and she remarks, “I think I’ll never learn to fly – too complicated.” So, Tucker gives her a long, tedious explanation of the mechanics of flight. One would naturally expect Ruth to find herself in the cockpit later on and for someone’s life to be on the line. Alas, Ruth’s next flight finds her passed out in the rear seat and in need of rescue, making the earlier scene utterly pointless. Odder still, the film elects to wrap up its mystery with over twenty-five minutes to go, and when you’ve got that much time remaining and three villains, realistically only one thing can happen, and in this film, it does.
So, the film is a disappointment, yet it remains a curious one. After all you have to respect a movie that is rather daring for its time. Here is a film made at a time when the military was segregated and Hollywood was still putting actors in blackface, and its protagonist is black, patriotic and ingenious. It’s impressive. I just wish I could describe the film that way. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Kino’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema)