Sunday, March 06, 2022

First Silent Show Since…?: The Flying Ace

Yes, I paid good money to go see a movie that I not only have on the shelf, but where I contributed to the disc's crowdfunding campaign, but it had been quite some time since I've seen a silent in a theater - if I'd been to one since coming back from vacation to Massachusetts theaters closing down in 2019, I don't recall it - and not having watched the disc, I figured that maybe the aerial action would look good on the big screen. Let's just say that they didn't exactly have a large budget for that sort of visual effects making movies for Black audiences in Jacksonville, Florida.

Still, nice to see Jeff Rapsis again: From Jeff's mailing list, he's been accompanying silent movies closer to home in New Hampshire over the past year or so, but I think this is the first place he's been at you can reach via the T in a while. Hopefully he and the Somerville Theatre are planning to restart "Silents Please!" later this year.

There was some fun discussion around the movie. It's famously one of the few surviving features with a Black cast and was presented during Black History Month. Jeff talked about it and other movies like it seemingly taking place in a parallel universe where there were Black airmen in World War I and where the United States had Black people in leadership positions. I suspect that in most cases it wasn't that extreme - there were plenty of enclaves of Black prosperity that ran parallel to white equivalents in the early 20th Century - but I'm guessing that didn't extend all the way to Black-owned railroads.

Also, while I don't recall seeing that many Black folks at the event, there were a handful of Deaf people, with some of the discussion happening via translated ASL. The Deaf community isn't the primary audience for these silent shows, but it must be an enjoyably different experience that watching modern films not designed to be captioned in a theater.

The Flying Ace

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2022 in the Arlington Regent Theatre (special event, projected Blu-ray with live accompaniment)

The Flying Ace exists as a curiosity these days, a film notable less for its particular merits than because it has avoided disappearance when almost no other Black-led silents have. It is at least a worthy survivor - maybe not a great film, but one you can see audiences enjoying, whether playing as a feature or in 12-minute chunks as a serial.

Title character Billy Stokes (Lawrence Criner) doesn't appear until the second reel; before that the action takes place in a small town train station run by Thomas Sawtelle (George Colvin), where the a courier carrying the railway's payroll is waiting for his transfer, security light because it's not the usual day. The stationmaster's daughter Ruth (Kathryn Boyd) is finally getting a chance to fly with local aviator Finley Tucker (Harold Platts), though she's still cool on his repeated proposals. The courier's payroll is robbed, though, with him disappearing. It's fortunate that Stokes, a flying ace recently returned from Europe, is willing to take on his old job as a railway detective - he flies in to investigate officially, while longtime mechanic and partner Peg (Steve "Peg" Reynolds) arrives undercover as an amputee hobo.

As a mystery, The Flying Ace is kind of threadbare at times; one knows part of it as soon as Tucker is introduced with a caption mentioning he has a "mysterious source of income". It nevertheless works as a detective story because it's fun to watch the war-hero railroad sleuth gather clues and use his wits, steadily pressing forward rather than tripping up. For a film where the studio gave exhibitors the option of presenting it as a serial - the restored version has "Part X" cards throughout - it's relatively patient and methodical, not depending on a sudden peril or twist showing up every ten minutes as a cliffhanger. Stokes plugs away and shows his smarts, but it's not hard for the audience to follow along.

The production values can vary from stretched to absurd; filmmaker Richard E. Norman is able to squeeze a fair amount of production value out of the limited budget he must have had, with the film benefitting from a certain straightforward simplicity. The aerial action is fooling nobody - when the characters are aloft, it's always the same shot of two torsos and the plane's fuselage, with the painted background suspiciously static, and a daring mid-air rescue almost comical in its staging. The lack of artifice feels comfortable and familiar, at least, and never calls attention to itself as amateurish.

It's also a nice cast, the sort where everybody clearly understands the assignment and does it. Lawrence Criner and Kathryn Boyd are charismatic leads with casual chemistry, and Harold Platts handles the move from superficial charm to cold menace well enough. The only real fuss comes from Steve "Peg" Reynolds, and even he does the scene-stealing bits built around him being exceptionally capable despite looking like a worn-down bumpkin with a missing leg like it's no big thing, selling the heck out of stunts and an impressively tricked-out cane.

It's a script that certainly could have been made with a white cast - race is a complete non-issue here - and if it had been, it would have been the sort of programmer that gave audiences a satisfying version of what they came for even if it doesn't blow them away. In that case, it might have been considered so ordinary as to be forgotten. As a curiosity, on the other hand, it winds up being an interesting example of the sort of entertaining movie that filled cinemas week-to-week in the twenties compared to the noteworthy cream which is regularly programmed today.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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