Sunday, October 21, 2012

I didn't know anybody was lost

Tomorrow marks the 95th birthday of Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine. TCM is spending all morning and afternoon with her, including some of her early stuff, such as The Man Who Found Himself at 7:30 AM.

The putative star of the movie isn't Fontaine, but John Beal. He plays Dr. Jim Stanton Jr., the latest in a long line of prominent and respectable doctors at some fashionable big-city hospital. The only problem is, Jim Jr. also likes to fly airplanes. Why this should be a problem is beyond me, but apparently Dad (George Irving) has a problem with it, and the rest of the medical community listens to Jim Sr. After performing an appendectomy on Dick Miller, the pilot and old friend who taught Jim Jr. how to fly (Philip Huston), Jim Jr. hops on his plane to fly down to Philadelphia. He meets a lady friend who wants to get out of the city, and innocently takes her along, even though the weather is terrible.

You can guess what happens next: the plane crashes in the bad weather, and it kills the woman, despite seeming to leave Jim Jr. unscathed. Oh, and the woman was married and running away from her husband, so all the polite society thinks that Jim Jr. was having an affair with her, which causes a huge scandal. The medical board wants to discipline Jim Jr., but he basically says to hell with it (not in those words, of course: the Code enforcers would have had an apoplectic fit) and decides to become a hobo! He falls in with a bunch of other hobos and makes his way out west to Los Angeles, where unfortunately they're all held on a vagrancy charge and sentenced to work on the road-building detail. While building the road, who should come along but Dick Miller. Dick helps Jim get a job as a mechanic for the airline where Dick works, but on the proviso that nobody should learn about Jim's true identity.

It's only here that we finally meet Joan Fontaine. She plays Doris, the nurse for the airline. The airline runs an air ambulance service, and when they send out a plane, it's Doris who does the EMT stuff. Doris immediately takes a liking to Jim, and is convinced that there's more to Jim than he's letting on. For his part, he's doing all he can to make Doris suspicious. Eventually she figures out that he had learned how to pilot a plane at some point in the past, so she rigs it that the next time the airline needs to run the air ambulance, Dick won't be around and Doris can have Jim make the flight. Unfortunately for Jim, the patient gets hysterical during the flight and Jim has to use the medical knowledge he foreswore to help Doris, which leads her to suspect even more....

This is all decidedly B stuff, but for the most part, it's quite entertaining. There's a lot of stuff with the airplanes that I think probably doesn't reflect real life: the airplanes seem to be able to land anywhere, no matter how little room for a runway there seems to be. And the scene with Doris alone on the air ambulance with just Jim flying it is something I don't think would have happened that way in real life either. That sort of stuff is more good for a laugh than detracting from the movie, however. Joan Fontaine does her best attempt at channeling Glenda Farrell, taking charge of every situation and driving Jim back to doing what he was destined to do. Therein lies part of the problem with the film. Why is it such a bad thing that Jim should work at what he loves, and not what his father and old girlfriend want him to do? And yet, thanks to the Production Code, we have to get a morally upright ending that I don't think really works so well.

The closing credits have RKO trumpeting Fontaine as their new actress, but even the presence of Fontaine hasn't been enough to get this movie a release from the Warner Archive. So, you'll have to catch tomorrow's showing on TCM.

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