Come Fly with Me
The “author” in the Museum of Modern Art’s open-ended “Auteurist History of Film” screenings of The Tarnished Angels is Douglas Sirk. He is not Nobel laureate for literature and 1932-55 script-writer and -doctor William Faulkner, who steadfastly declined to adapt his own works, including Pylon, the 1935 novel on which George Zuckerman more or less based this screenplay.
“Count No ‘Count” to his Oxford, Mississippi, neighbors for airs and exaggerations, to this day Faulkner takes in film curators with tall tales of his non-existent wartime flying experiences, which is more understandable in light of this 1958 film. Though LaVerne Shumann’s (Dorothy Malone) hairstyle, makeup (even in bleak b&w CinemaScope) and sweater-girl wardrobe scream 1950s, the action occurs in 1932. Only five years after Lindbergh landed at Paris-Le Boruget, this is a world divorced from Yoknapatawpha County. Flight was still a wonder, so The Flying Shumanns could eke out a living with wing-walks, parachute jumps and air races not many feet off the ground.
Lafayette Escadrille hero pilot Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) loves his biplane but rides roughshod over LaVerne, who adores him but whom he married because of her pregnancy and a roll of homemade dice in 1923. He goes no easier on his skilled mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson), who hangs around to be near the LaVerne he loves but lost, or on Jack (Christopher Olsen), her son probably by Roger but, rumor runs, possibly by Jiggs.
Rock Hudson rounds out this Written on the Wind reunion. His hard-drinking Times-Picayune reporter Burke Devlin instinctively defends taunted nine-year-olds and ladies in distress of their own making and, in the midst of melodrama, delivers the Sirk message-speech on the ills of society that lead to difficulties among the noble poor.
At first in it for the unique journalistic slant on these flying circus nomads that he terms angels from another planet, Devlin does have an eye for LaVerne -- like everyone, except for her bitter husband -- and also does want his story. He lets the broke “gypsies” bed down at his seedy place but is drawn into, and becomes the viewers’ window on, their lives and loves even to the point of being fired for refusing city editor Sam Hagood’s (Alexander Lockwood) assignment to cover politics instead.
Given limited budget and technology, the airplane races are well staged, over a short oval course around the striped pylons which some commentators have insisted on seeing as phallic.
Another pilot is killed (Troy Donahue, as Frank Burnham), and, his own plane out of commission, Roger pushes his wife to prostitute herself to Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) in exchange for the latter’s now-pilotless and unrepaired Diamond Blade aircraft.
LaVerne trudges off, presumably to do so, Jiggs unwillingly hastens to make Ord’s plane flightworthy for the race, and a horrified in-love Devlin needs to save them all, including himself. Louisiana Delta Field owner Col. T.J. Feinman (Alan Reed) is about to call off the competition at the height of Mardi Gras, but the show must go on.
A return to the heartland, to Iowa and Willa Cather’s strong pioneer women, ends the tale, with love left hanging. The overall picture of frustration, however, has run counter to the optimism of the bland American mid-century. Sirk retired within the year, because of failing health rather than for anything having to do with The Tarnished Angels, which legend says he deemed his best.
(Released by Universal-International; not rated by MPAA.)