Flight of Fancy

We’d enjoyed THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK so much, on re-viewing it in our weekend watch party, I went looking for other films with its cast members. Frank Cellier, who plays the evil Mr. Wright — part property speculator, part actual Satan — had a patchy film career, but apart from his crooked Scottish Sheriff in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS, he seemed to have a big role in NON-STOP NEW YORK, which starred Anna Lee, so that one seemed worth a punt. We double-billed it with FIRST A GIRL, which also features Lee.

After a glossy moderne title sequence, we’re into a thriller narrative in which unemployed chorine Lee is witness to a mob hit in New York. She’s the only one who can save an unoffending hobo from the gallows, so (after considerable comic footering and subplottery) she hops the “mail plane” back to NYC on a desperate mission to save the poor blighter. But also aboard are —

John Loder, amiable London detective

Frank Cellier, blackmailer and all-round schemer (lots of good blustering)

Francis L. Sullivan, the real murderer, disguised as a Paraguayan general (!)

Various other comic relief parts.

The stratosphere is so bracing!

The whole film is very entertaining, but once we’re on the fanciful plane — every passenger has their own stateroom, and there’s a kind of balcony or sky-veranda where you can go outside and ENJOY THE FRESH AIR — things get really endearingly silly. The plane is basically designed like an ocean liner. It takes off from the water but it doesn’t have those ski-things boatplanes have. The story, scripted by Roland Pertwee (of THOSE Pertwees), with an uncredited assist from Curt Siodmak, who had form in this kind of civic engineering sub-sf, is based on a novel called Sky Steward. The steward does appear in the film, played by Jerry Verno, the stage door man from THE RED SHOES, but he’s a very minor character.

Very nicely directed: Cellier & Lee are surprised by a BIG REVEAL of Francis Sullivan

The ensemble thriller format probably owes something to ROME EXPRESS and would soon yield THE LADY VANISHES. This weird variation is directed by Robert Stevenson, who would skip across the ocean himself as a conscientious objector and wind up working for the biggest wingnuts in Hollywood — Howard Hughes and Walt Disney, giving us everything from THE LAS VEGAS STORY to MARY POPPINS, or if you want to be cynical about it, THE WOMAN ON PIER 13 to THE GNOME-MOBILE. Around this time he was making fun stuff like KING SOLOMON’S MINES, repurposed as a Roland Young comedy: by the time he’s at Disney, the matte painters are making the movies.

Anna Lee is very smiley, which she isn’t in the films I know her best from — BEDLAM and PASSING OF 3FB (it is, I acknowledge, appalling that I have yet to view HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY). She’s very smiley in FIRST A GIRL also.

Although the airplane stuff is joyous, I regret the fact that Lee’s old mum, a cockney comic relief type played by Drusilla Wills, drops out of the story early on. First, it’s great to see that Lee’s character comes from this earthy stock, and the idea of a chorus girl playing detective aided by her unglamorous mum is a very winning one. I would happily accept sequels starring the pair — perhaps they could solve a murder on an iron mole heading for the earth’s core, or catch a fifth columnist on a time bus taking a sight-seeing tour of the Morlock mines…

NON-STOP NEW YORK stars Ianto; Bronwyn; Mr. Bumble; Capt. Jeremy Stickles; Marcel Escargot; Mrs. Karswell; The Professor; Mrs. Grudden; Arthur Bleeby; Thwackum; and One-Round.

10 Responses to “Flight of Fancy”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Two Anna Lee performances of note: The nice next-door neighbor in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and one of the title characters in Ford’s “Seven Women” Her credits also include a humungous amount of work o daytime U.S. Soap Opera.

  2. Fiona Watson Says:

    I was aware of her General Hospital soap opera work. She still looked stunning in old age. https://soaps.sheknows.com/general-hospital/news/565543/general-hospital-lila-anna-lee-tribute-death/

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    She became a regular on the John Ford rep. company after she confessed to him that she concealed her English origins to masquerade as Celtic knowing his antagonism to the Empire. Pappy had a sense of humor and used her in most of his films whenever possible. Also Samuel Fuller’s THE CRIMSON KIMONO.

  4. This film sounds utterly delightful, even if it doesn’t give Drusilla Wills as much to do as her character deserves. The concept of the sky-veranda makes me wonder if the story was originally intended to take place on a zeppelin rather than a plane.

    Stevenson also directed Cellier and Lee in the Karloff vehicle The Man Who Changed His Mind. I saw it ages ago and remember it as being rather good, with a large, colourful role for Cellier.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Perhaps W.C. Fields had this film in mind while writing “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”. The screenplay he pitches to Franklin Pangborn has just such a plane, and he falls from the veranda to end up in Margaret Dumont’s mountaintop estate.

  6. Fiona Watson Says:

    Frank Cellier is a genius actor. Any performer who can hold their own in a scene with Conrad Veidt is a star imo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Zp7aYSKzKE

  7. Even if the luxe airplane wasn’t literally swapped in for a zeppelin, it must have represented the hope and expectation that planes would succeed airships in the role of soaring gliding glamorous dream vehicles. It was not to be. Thanks a LOT, R101 disaster.*

    *This is me flaunting the fact that I recently learned what the R101 disaster was, decades after encountering a reference to it in a Monty Python sketch.

  8. Fiona Watson Says:

    The Curt Siodmak civic engineering sub s-f form David mentions are The Tunnel 1935 and F.P.1 1933. The SF elements are 1) A tunnel under the Atlantic, and 2) a floating platform for planes to land on in the middle of the Atlantic. I’m sensing a transatlantic theme here.

    In F.P.1 Conrad Veidt is a heroic, devil-may-care airman in one of the worst pieces of casting in cinema history. And yet despite giving a, quite literally, crazy performance (he was going through a divorce and having wild nights on the town with Laurence Olivier), he’s also incredibly endearing too, even with his accent at the heaviest it ever was in an English speaking role.

    The Tunnel – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_ki6AWh_zQ

    F.P.1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdisopYsH5c&t=1143s (for some bizarre reason, someone’s cut out one of Connie’s most entertaining/cringey scenes in this movie)

  9. Ah, I wondered about AL’s prevalence in Ford movies. That’s a great story, Tony!

    I seem to recall watching a bit of the Karloff but not giving it much of a chance. I’m inclined to revisit now. It does have a chimp in a science helmet, I remember than much.

    I wondered if the plane had been an ocean liner in draft 1, but a zeppelin is likelier. The script makes a feature of the greater speed of this mode of travel (a man’s life is at stake).

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    Other gems include, cinematography by Mutz Greenbaum (late Max Greene) who did some great British proto- noirs and noirs,, Peter Bull (Ambaassador Sadissky from you know where), and Desmond Tester (who looks like a young Charles Hawtrey in the introduction ) as the “infant prodigy”, whom Hitchcock renamed as Desmond Testicles! Finally one of Anna’s great scenes in Ford when he does not appear tired! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpsJF7ZSpq4

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