THE LOST SQUADRON is another RKO pre-code about stuntmen — again, like LUCKY DEVILS, it stars one of KING KONG’s leading men (Robt Armstrong this time) and has optical effects work by Vernon Walker (also famed for his CITIZEN KANE transitions). One can actually see a plan emerging, with RKO trying to make big pictures based around spectacle rather than expensive stars. Though this one does have Richard Dix, Joel McCrea and Erich Von Stroheim, which is not bad going.
Opening sequence is a WWI dogfight, with an unusual system of superimposed emblems to allow us to tell the Americans from the Germans. It’s distracting and weird, and may have been a last-ditch effort to clarify an incoherent mixture of stock shots (HELL’S ANGELS?) and studio closeups of indistinguishable aviators — but I’m a sucker for the peculiar so I became fond of the device, and longed to see it used elsewhere. A German insignia could have been superimposed whenever Stroheim appeared, for instance.
The three heroes (plus a subdued Hugh Herbert, with nary a “Woo-woo!” upon his lips) survive the Great War and vow never to part, but do — most of them become freight-train-riding hobos, but Robt strikes it rich and then gets his pals jobs as fliers on Stroheim’s latest epic. This happens to star Mary Astor, who threw Dix over for Von, and so the stage is set for jealousy and sabotage. These tough guys survived the War but can they survive Hollywood?
Walker contributes a nice optical tilt down from the fake neon sign advertising a Von movie, on to real footage of a Hollywood premiere — a very simple version of KANE’s most amazing trick effect, tilting down from a miniature statue of George Coulouris and pull back onto a full-size set in what looks like a single, seamless shot, but isn’t.
The first big chunk of this is pretty slow and flat — George Archainbaud was never a lively director. Herman Mankiewicz contributed some dialogue and this results in the verbal component of the film occasionally sparking to life, but it also makes the characters seem pretty inconsistent (except for Robt, who’s consistently soused to the gills).
The last third perks up considerably — there’s been a change of cinematographer, and the climax takes place in a moody half-light, with a constant howling wind outside. The least appealing of the protagonists has been dispatched, and though Mary Astor doesn’t get any more screen time, the film otherwise plays to its strengths and gets up a bit of real atmosphere.
As with LUCKY DEVILS, the glimpses of behind-the-scenes action are the main pleasure, more interesting here than the admittedly spectacular (but infrequent) bi-plane crack-ups.