The Sunday Intertitle: Race Ace

THE FLYING ACE (1926) is a good-natured “race film” with an all-black cast. In making a film where the detective (a former WWI pilot), his sidekick, the local cop, the station manager and his daughter, a dentist, and the railroad magnate himself are all black, with not a single pallid face intruding, director Richard E. Norman is merely reversing the practice of most Hollywood films of the time. Black audiences bought tickets for the novelty of seeing themselves represented in less patronising terms, so why give white folk any screen time at all?

It makes the film a curious fantasy (though no more than Hollywood offerings always have been), depicting a black planet. As well as that, it’s a smart detective yarn with a novel twist predating Agatha Christie’s use of a comparable gimmick. Laurence Criner is a compelling and very naturalistic lead, though his comb-over tends to get disarrayed in the fight scenes. Most enjoyable presence is one-legged Steve ‘Peg’ Reynolds, very nimble on his crutch/peg-leg combo, who can even ride a bicycle and fire a gun at the same time. Norman cast him in nearly all his films until talkies put him out of business.

There’s scarcely a shot of planes in the air in this low-budget affair, so the barnstorming climax is staged against a painted wall, which doesn’t quite convince but adds to the homemade charm. Anyhow, that’s how they did the cars in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, it’s just that they had better computers.

Leading lady Kathryn Boyd.

You can buy THE FLYING ACE on this set of WWI Comedies, even though it’s not a comedy (but it has plenty of humour). I wish I could see all Norman’s films now,


11 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Race Ace”

  1. Fee here – You’re also going to want to read this book.

  2. Isn’t this also on the BFI’s incredible Pioneers of African – American cinema set? If so, please give your thoughts on the other intriguing titles! (Especially the proto Blaxploitation quasi surreal near horrors 11AM and The Blood of Jesus)

  3. Seems to be on there! Very curious about the other two but don’t own the set… yet.

  4. US folks, be aware that PIONEERS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA is available on Netflix!

  5. “Red Tails” was a box office flop.

  6. Deservedly so, as it completely fails to do justice to its fascinating historical basis. Though one might have hoped audiences would at least be curious.

    At the time of The Flying Ace (a box-office success), there were no black pilots in the US air force, so this one has NO historical basis.

  7. No but there WERE black stunt fliers.

  8. Interesting.

    William Wyler wanted to profile the Tuskagee airmen when he was set to make The Negro Soldier for the war effort, but he quit when he found he couldn’t even stay in the same hotel as his black screenwriter down south. Frank Capra took over, rather reluctantly.

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I heard that story about Wyler when I saw the documentary based on Mark Harris’ Five Came Back. Wyler came off as a revelation. He has this reputation as this staid reliable studio hand but he actually came off as more rebellious than others, like him punching out a doorman for making anti-semitic remarks and going to military jail for it.

  10. And he got off lightly, because he was in uniform at the time. Hitting a civilian is theoretically a big deal.

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