By 1935, Cary Grant was becoming a headline attraction. His signature roles were still ahead of him, but he had enough box-office appeal that he was rarely very far down the cast list when he wasn't actually top-billed. He's second-billed in Wings in the Dark (1935, directed by James Flood) behind Myrna Loy, who was coming off the success of The Thin Man. This was the first of three films Grant made with Loy, the other two being the post-war sitcoms, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Both of those films were made at the height of Grant's stardom, when he had become the archetype of the movie star. He was top-billed in both and they're both fondly remembered, but in truth, I like Wings in the Dark more than either of them. Bachelor and Mr. Blandings are both more tightly scripted, more lavishly budgeted, more concerned with realism, more conceived of as product. Don't get me wrong! I like them both. But they tend to make of Grant, the movie star, into a middle-class mediocrity. They attempt, at their peril, to make Grant relatable to the new, post-war middle class, to the average Joe who was moving to the suburbs on the GI Bill. In short, they tried to rob Grant of his movie-star mystique (and nevermind that knight in shining armor gag in Bachelor). Wings in the Dark is a much rougher film, not really more than a b-picture that would be forgotten if not for its stars. I'll agree that as a formal object, it's probably not as good as Bachelor or Mr. Blandings. In fact, it's utterly ridiculous. But unlike those films, it doesn't squander Grant's persona. Wings in the Dark lets Grant explore his role in a way that would be unthinkable once he became the archetype of the movie star. It's a film that lets Grant be an actor first.
The plot of Wings in the Dark is a mounting series of unlikely coincidences. It follows barnstorming pilot Sheila Mason (Loy) and her relationship with disagreeable airplane engineer and fellow aviator Ken Gordon (Grant). Gordon is developing a system of flying solely by instruments, without the need to actually see out of the cockpit. He's planning a trip across the Atlantic flying blind, as it were. Sheila's journalist friend smells a publicity stunt in this, and he lets out that Gordon will do it with Sheila in tow. This spooks the government, who deny Gordon permission for the trip, it sends Gordon into a rage as his system is in danger of being foreclosed by his backers, and it leaves Sheila holding the bag since she had no inkling that her journalist friend was acting without Gordon's knowledge. She seeks him out to apologize, but things go disastrously wrong when Gordon has an accident while lighting a stove. It blinds him. Embittered, Gordon withdraws from the world. Sheila secretly supports him while he convalesces. Eventually, Gordon's backers seize the plane with his system. In order to repay them, Sheila takes on a dangerous stunt flight from Russia to the USA, but when she nears home, a massive fog bank obscures her heading and she can't find her way to a landing. Gordon realizes that his system is exactly what's needed, so he steals the plane and heads out to guide Sheila home...
There's a line in Spider-Man 2 that seems apropos of this film, in which J. Jonah Jameson cracks, "A guy named Octavius winds up with eight arms? What are the odds?" You could say the same thing about Ken Gordon and his blind flying system. A guy who is researching blind flying becomes blind? What are the odds. More, what are the odds that his system is exactly the tool to rescue Sheila at the end of the film? As I say, this is a film built on coincidences. That's nineteen-thirties screenwriting, though, and perhaps contributes to the film's dim reputation as sentimental slush. That's all beside the point anyway.
This film was made during the transition between Myrna Loy's early career of playing femme fatales and maneaters (a la Fu Manchu's daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu, for instance) and her subsequent career as wife and mother to the stars (think Mr. Blandings or The Best Years of Our Lives). For a short period after The Thin Man and before the Thin Man movies became domesticated, Loy had glamour and sex appeal enough to headline movies like this one. She's not a wifey or mother or even second in the pecking order to a male co-star. She plays an aviator in the mold of Amelia Earhart, and in the mid-1930s, that was like playing Indiana Jones. While Grant is more or less co-equal in the story, his character is essentially passive for most of the film. It's Loy who instigates most of the plot points. There's a weird dynamic between Grant as damsel and grant as hero in this film. He needs to be saved from himself by Loy so he can return the favor at the end of the film. The sexual politics here are surprisingly complex.
If this film is memorable at all, it's for watching the evolution of the Grant persona. This isn't a film where Grant dominates the screen, but it's one where he doesn't surrender to the quality of the material or to his co-stars, either. Grant had a habit of fading into the background in many of his early films and it's a measure of his increasing ease as a movie star that he doesn't fade into the background in this film. There's a strong undercurrent of bitterness in Grant's performance that foreshadows some of his nastier characters. You glimpse the darkness in him that caught the eye of Hitchcock. And the camera is in love with him, even more than it's in love with Loy and airplanes (and it loves those, too). There's a weird softness of the image in this film, common in some 1930s films, that makes it seem like Grant and Loy are glowing. It's an ineffable visual quality that makes a lot of films from this period, including this one, seem like dream narratives.
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