John Wayne! Janet Leigh! Nifty jet-age flying sequences! Goofy, bad-taste sex jokes! Hans Conreid as a chortling Russian army officer! Howard Hughes’ personal fun project took seven years to make while he played games with the aerial footage. It’s a highly-polished absurd joke, but it’s certainly entertaining. See Hughes try to do for Janet Leigh what he did for Jane Russell — I assume Ms. Leigh was too shrewd to sign any long-term contracts! This German disc has excellent widescreen image and audio.
Explosive Media GmbH
1957 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 113 min. / Düsenjäger / Street Date June 14 2018, 2019 / 12.99 euros
Starring: John Wayne, Janet Leigh, Jay C. Flippen, Paul Fix, Richard Rober, Roland Winters, Hans Conried, Ivan Triesault, Hall Bartlett, Gregg Barton, Gene Evans, Paul Frees, Harry Lauter, Nelson Leigh, Denver Pyle, Gene Roth, Kenneth Tobey, Mamie Van Doren, Carleton Young.
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Aerial Stunts: Chuck Yeager
Original Music: Bronislau Kaper
Written by Jules Furthman
Produced by Jules Furthman, Howard Hughes
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Howard Hughes’ outrageous vanity production Jet Pilot is one of the weirdest items to come out of Cold War Hollywood — a jet fightin’ gloss on Ninotchka that’s half comedy and all ineffective anti-Commie rhetoric. John Wayne is in fine light comic form, and boy, does he look great for 1957 — not a puffy eyelid or saggy jowl in sight. And Janet Leigh is a gorgeous knockout, looking practically like a teenager. What magic did exec producer Howard Hughes use to create this rejuvenating effect? Not a very practical magic, it seems: the cast and crew for Jet Pilot were all filmed a full EIGHT YEARS earlier, in 1949. While ignoring other productions and running RKO into the ground, Hughes shot and reshot aerial footage off and on for years, tinkering with his pet movie. By the time it was set for release, Hughes was gone and RKO was shuttered. It came out in October of 1957 through Universal, to become an instant punching bag for disdainful critics.
Broad comedy and goofy politics aside, Jet Pilot is a great-looking picture. One can’t see very much of Josef von Sternberg in the show, and it’s possible that much of what he shot was re-shot anyway. The consistent artistic mark is that of cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, John Ford’s choice for Technicolor. As the year was ’49 the picture had to be filmed in real 3-Strip Technicolor — although it’s a safe bet that the slick aerial footage came later, and was in Eastmancolor. Hoch’s interiors include Palm Springs apartments but also drab Air Force offices; he makes sure that the lighting includes plenty of arresting, attractive color effects, such as the two kinds of light that stream through Venetian blinds.
Producer-writer Jules Furthman was a pro with an incredible screenwriting track record; we don’t know if he did this show as a lark or had to cater to Howard Hughes’ warped sense of fun storytelling. But it’s unlikely that Furthman followed the picture through its eight-year gestation period. The plot line is absurdity layered upon absurdity, with dialogue that’s risqué but repressed… Howard Hughes could have been psychoanalyzed through his movies.
In Alaska, air ace Col. Jim Shannon (John Wayne, looking great) welcomes a defecting Russian aviator, who brings a MIG to his base. The shock comes when the pilot turns out to be the female firecracker Lt. Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). She seeks asylum but does not offer to betray her Soviet homeland. Major General Black (Jay C. Flippen) and FBI man Rivers (Richard Rober) encourage Shannon, who has already ‘clicked’ with Anna, to woo her with champagne, choice steaks and other amenities in Palm Springs, hoping that the refugee from the Workers’ Paradise will be seduced by Yankee materialism. Anna has a lark with the food and the fashions but stays loyal to Uncle Joe. Knowing they’ll take her away for questioning, Shannon marries Anna first — only to be confronted with evidence that she’s really Olga Orlief, a jet ace who is also a seasoned, man-killing spy. Shannon then volunteers to reverse-defect with Olga to Siberia, where various of her superiors hope to get him to cough up all of our peace-keeping tech secrets! Was U.S.- Soviet friction really this sexy?
Jet Pilot is a schizophrenic delight — at least 30% of its lengthy running time is devoted to aerial photography of jet aircraft, Hughes’ not-so secret passion. Excellent playing and attractive cinematography can’t disguise the loony, near-infantile level of the plot. The service humor sees Wayne trying to maintain his composure as Russkie Anna disrobes in his office to be searched. She then takes a shower — what Arctic Circle USAF quonset hut doesn’t give officers a private shower? Hughes’ sense of humor cues an embarrassingly puerile ‘knockers’ gag: twice in this first scene Anna (Janet) peels off a coat or a sweater in full exhibitionist joy — and as it comes off a very loud jet pass-by sound effect rips across the screen. Ms. Leigh appears to be game for Howie’s schoolboy thrills — she wears engineered bras like they were body armor, and gives us an “I’m enjoying this” look usually reserved for wet dreams.
Wayne’s reactions are choice. We’re told that both actors thought the directions given were silly, but their fees were obviously good, and Wayne counters the smut with wholesome testosterone chivalry. Yeah, he’d like to get Anna into the sack, but being a gent is the way to get’er done, I guess. The strongest speech that comes out of his mouth is a comment in a Jeep, where he tells Anna,
“Get in, you silly Siberian cupcake!”
Why can’t I drive women crazy with lines like that?
The USAF brass unbelievably allows Anna to fly our jets. The show implies that any pilot can fly anything after a quick glance at the control panel…. except for poor Russian pilot Paul Frees, who can’t tell the seat adjuster from the ejection lever. As Boris Badenov might say, “Hoo boy! Squirrel make flying look easy!” (thanks Gary.)
Anna and Jim first make love in the sky, with aerial acrobatics, and accompanying suggestive cockpit-to-cockpit radio dialogue about ‘positions.’ In Palm Springs, Anna is surprised to discover that their three-room suite doesn’t have two families living in each room. At least twice, the camera lingers on a close-up of a rare steak being carved, one of those two-pound hunks of beef that real American men scarf down three times a day. I can imagine Wayne on the set, wondering if Hughes will get away with all the suggestive camera angles and double entendres. The biggest klunker of these, delivered quite adeptly by Wayne, is:
And I thought you Russians knew all about uplifting the masses.
This is said while Anna is perusing some skimpy swimsuit bra tops in a Palm Springs shop.
I’ve been trying stress that the actors are real pros: none of this dialogue is thrown away in embarrassment. You’d think that Ms. Leigh’s big ambition in life is to be a gorgeous blonde play toy.
Before we get to even crazier absurdities, it’s important to note that this is a terrific picture for fans of early jets. The main item are F-86 fighters, but other craft get into the act, either as themselves, or unconvincingly painted to play Soviet craft. The aerial sequences are marvelous, with many beautiful maneuvers perfectly framed for the camera — did Hughes have his Hollywood fliers Paul Mantz and Chuck Yeager repeat them forever, ’til he got what he wanted? All the flying takes place against beautiful fluffy clouds, giving us cool shots of jets using them for cover. There’s more ‘good stuff’ here than in other jet aviation pix of the ’50s. The Hunters has exciting sequences, but they’re probably less than ten minutes in duration overall.
Hughes reportedly initiated the picture in 1949 to show off America’s early lead in hot-shot jet fighter technology — remember that the Korean War hadn’t even broken out yet. By the time of release the calendar was halfway to Vietnam and the jets on view were obsolete. The oddest of Uncle Sam’s last year’s toys is shown when the Russians are supposed to be developing something called a ‘Parasite Fighter.’ They let the faux-defector Major Shannon fly it (!!!) and he promptly flees with it back to Alaska. Anyway, the Parasite is actually Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, the rocket plane that broke the sound barrier. Now painted red, it is shown dropped from its adapted Boeing bomber. I believe we also see gleaming glamour shots of the B-36, the bomber with all the rear-facing propellors. After the long delay, Jet Pilot came across as something of a USAF freak show. By 1957 even the Air Force uniforms had changed color.
Meanwhile, Anna and Jim spend time at a Soviet Air base, in drafty unheated shacks. A woman performing menial tasks is identified as a former Soviet war heroine. The Russkie officers are all buffoons from a comic opera, concerned mostly with which of them will be liquidated next. Ivan Triesault strikes the right ‘Fearless Leader’ attitude, but Roland Winters seems to have wandered in from some other genre. The winner is Hans Conried, who comes out with a wonderfully understated Dr. Terwilliker chuckle while chortling over another officer’s demise. Again, for realism this is all strictly Looney Tunes, but it’s grand fun. It’s too silly to be used for propaganda purposes, that’s for sure.
Of the Cold Warriors on our side, two stick out. Richard Rober is the sober FBI guy advising the Air Force on how to coddle the Russian aviatrix. Look him up — the actor didn’t get the big breaks but he showed lots of promise. The irony was that Rober was killed in a car crash in the Spring of 1952 — when Jet Pilot was finally released he had been dead and buried for over five years. Paul Fix specialized in playing experienced marshals in westerns but here he’s a hotshot flyer at age 48. It’s truly absurd, as real flying regulations were so strict on health stats that most jet flyers were downgraded before they reached forty. Of course, the rules were stretched for celeb air jockeys like Chuck Yeager. Paul Fix looks like a healthy sixty here, a sight that brings back memories of a joke cartoon that could be found in the office of any career airman with over twenty years’ service — an ink drawing of a decrepit old dotard, toothless and wrinkled, grinning feebly while wearing his flying suit and helmet. The cartoon tagline differed, but the one I remember was an old Air Corps saying heard when passing pilots compared ranks in some far-flung airfield: Johnny! I ain’t seen you since Christ was a corporal!”
Jet Pilot is an unique show, that’s for sure, a polished production with great flying and the weirdest screwball political script ever — too silly to be annoying. Wayne and Leigh are charming and on top of their game. For my money, John Wayne made a lot of worse pictures, and the game gal Janet seems more than eager to personify the mysterious Hughes’ sex fantasies. You’ll want to look out for this one.
Explosive Media GmbH’s Blu-ray of Jet Pilot is a beautiful widescreen encoding of this colorful show. The image looks great — colorful, rich and sharp as a tack. The audio is rich as well. I think the credits carry logos for both RKO and Universal-International.
Since the standard for screen shape changed before the show’s release, it’s interesting to note than only in a couple of shots does the 1:85 scan of the original 1:37 image look a little tight. They appear to have hung the extraction off the top of the frame in most cases. I’m assuming that all the flying footage was shot with the widescreen framing in mind, because those compositions are spot-on. Only 1955’s Strategic Air Command has better-looking air footage. It was in VistaVision, and its planes were nearly obsolete as well!
When ordered from Germany, Explosive Media’s disc is delivered in 3 or 4 weeks, not days. The disc is compatible with U.S. Region A players. All one must do to pull up English audio and subs is click a couple of menu options. An original trailer and picture gallery are included.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Weird, crazy, but entertaining
Sound: Excellent English, German
Supplements: Trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: German, English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 14, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson