Monday, October 10, 2016

Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies

A movie that's been showing up on FXM Retro since about August is Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies. It's on FXM Retro again, at 1:30 PM Tuesday (October 11) and 7:30 AM Wednesday.

Cliff Robertson plays "Ace" Eli Walford, who at the beginning of the movie is taking his wife Wilma on a flight over rural Kansas. It's the 1920s, and Eli is a pilot flying his own biplane. Watching from the ground is their son Rodger (Eric Shea). Unfortunately, the planes of those days were not as reliable as the airplanes of today, and eventually the plane suffers a mechanical problem from which Eli is not able to recover, being forced to crash-land it. The crash kills poor Wilma, but Eli survives.

Eli wants to fly again and get out of this God-forsaken place, so he builds another plane and decides he's going to become a barnstormer. This being the 1920s, there were probably a lot of people in small-town Kansas who hadn't even seen a plane up close before. Certainly they wouldn't have been very likely to have taken a flight themselves. Eli thinks he can make a killing charging people to take them up in the air and give them the thrill of a lifetime. And a lot of people seem willing to pay for the privilege.

In the first twon Eli and Rodger stop in, a party is held in their honor, which is where they meet Shelby (Pamela Franklin). She's a flapper who even drives her own car, and she falls in love with Eli, and takes an interest in the welfare of Rodger, somewhere between that of a big sister and a mother. But then Eli and Rodger move on, and they meet Allison (Bernadette Peters), a prostitute in a bordello. Meanwhile, Shelby has decided to follow the father and son around in her car.

And that's about all there is to the movie. It's one that I have a lot of problems with. First off is Cliff Robertson. He's a capable actor, but here, he's playing Eli in much the same way he had played JW Coop a few years earlier. Eli is a character who needs to be handled a little more lightly, I think. Eli is also a huge jerk at times, especially to Rodger. Rodger gives back as good as he gets, however, and this relationship comes across as creepy at times. Rodger is clearly supposed to be a humorously precocious kid, but that falls flat as too often Rodger is just a blowhard you want to slap. The movie as a whole ends up not really going anywhere, being almost as aimless as the lead character, which is also a problem. And finally, there's the score. I tend not to notice the score so much, and when I do, that's a sign that it's either really good, or really bad. In this case, it's the latter. Jerry Goldsmith's score is a bit too modern and bland, but even worse is the 1970s theme song, which is totally out of place with the opening action.

Steven Spielberg wrote the story, but I don't know how much of his original story was preserved between what he wrote and what ended up on screen. With the way Cliff Robertson's character comes across, I think the problem is less with his writing, and more with the direction.

There are some positive points in the production design which I think nicely captures the 1920s, and Pamela Franklin acquits herself fairly well. But overall, I don't think Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies succeeds at what it sets out to do. Having said that, watch and judge for yourself.

I don't think Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies is available on DVD at all, so you're going to have to catch the FXM Retro showings.

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