#58 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Before Howard Hawks made Only Angels Have Wings, before he made Ceiling Zero, John Ford made Air Mail. I was struck at how pretty much identical the first act of Air Mail was to Ceiling Zero. There’s the introduction to a small commercial airport that specializes in delivering mail, bad weather conditions (including the use of the term “ceiling zero”), and a pilot crashing because he couldn’t accurately gauge the ground. There’s also a hotshot pilot flying in, making a show of his first approach, and coming into conflict with the older and more traditional head of the airport. The two films end up diverging a good bit by the end in terms of story plot points, but it is interesting at how closely they track for so long. Where Ford ends up failing where Hawks managed to succeed twice at different levels of success is that Ford succumbed to his tendency of overstuffing his own film with characters that the runtime of the overall film couldn’t really support. His ending, like almost always, elevates what came before, but just not quite enough.
Ralph Bellamy plays Mike Miller, the head of the Desert Airport near the Rocky Mountains. The airport is running on thin margins with a surfeit of pilots, the constant danger to their lives, and the Christmas rush upcoming. With fog hitting the airport and a pilot incoming with a mail load, they struggle to get him down, leading to his crashing and death. He needs a replacement, and his boss offers him Duke Talbot (Pat O’Brien), a brash pilot who is happier to do tricks in his plane than make Mike happy with solid and quiet work. There are a bunch of other characters circling around, but the core of the film ends up being the conflict between Mike and Duke.
Duke becomes somewhat infatuated with Irene (Lilian Bond), the wife of another pilot Dizzy (Russell Hopton). He’s aggressive, and her unwillingness fades away to acquiescence as they fall into each other arms while Dizzy is off on his own run. The dangers of the job end up crashing Dizzy’s plane, killing him in the process. The relationship between Dizzy and Irene had already been fraying before Duke showed up, so the news of Dizzy’s death doesn’t affect Irene that much and she’s happy to run off with Duke.
Mike has an unofficial policy that whenever an accident happens during a flight, he takes on the next delivery himself. He took it near the beginning of the film, but his physical revealed that his eyesight was failing. Still, he’s going to do it after Dizzy’s accident, and we get the most concentrated dose of this movie’s issues with lack of focus. There’s a very minor character, another pilot, Tommy (Frank Albertson) who suddenly gains prominence when a passenger plane has to emergency land at Desert Airport and that pilot identifies him as a pilot who parachuted out of a passenger plane, leaving all of his passengers to die in a crash. It comes out of nowhere, and suddenly this minor character is begging for his chance to redeem himself by taking the next dangerous flight. Mike takes on the mission himself, anyway, and Tommy is never heard from or seen again.
There are other bits that distract, like the first pilot’s sister (Gloria Stuart) acting as a sort of love interest for Mike but kind of disappearing in the final act even though she should have a decent role to play, even if it’s just as the worried woman left behind.
Anyway, Mike does the run, and he crashes in the mountains. Duke, having run off with Irene, hears about the rescue mission to find Mike, ultimately being called off because no one will be able to land near him. Duke, being a brash but great pilot, scoffs at the idea, goes back to the airport, steals a plane, and goes in search of Mike. He lands in spectacular fashion (with some entertaining miniature work), damaging the plane in the process.
What makes this ending work is Duke becoming the man that Mike had wanted him to be. Yes, Duke is still a reckless pilot, but he does it for the good of his fellow pilot in need, keeping honest with the brotherhood of pilots. There’s a sacrifice in the end, done with real flair, that helps end the movie with a surprising punch. If the movie as a whole had been able to focus more fully on the central relationship, I think that ending would have been more satisfying. It’s still a nice fulfilment of that particular storyline, but the first hour or so is so unfocused with so many personalities that it blunts the ending’s impact.
Still, it almost makes the movie. The nearly identical opening to both of Howard Hawks’ commercial airline movies (as well as other smaller ones to other Hawks films like The Dawn Patrol) are interesting but aren’t really anything more than curiosities and possible indications of the limitation of stories available in the time and place of a commercial airport that delivers mail. A lot of Ford’s hallmarks are on display here, for both good and ill, and it ends up a mixed end product that could have used a bit more time in the screenwriting stage. But, this was the era of Ford making an average of 3 movies a year. There was no time for rewrites.