Ralph Bellamy as a flying Ace trying to save his company and employees from a deadly weapon.
Air Hawks (1935) was a random pick that surprised me because at first I was struck by this movie’s similarity to the recently viewed Air Mail (1932). In both films Bellamy is the lead and plays the heroic manager of a crew of postal delivery pilots. In both movies he’s the demanding boss willing to jump in and take over when things get dangerous for his men. But it didn’t take long for Air Hawks to strike me as something entirely different: a crazy, active B with several plotlines, characters and lots of amusing ambition.
Here Bellamy plays former WWI flier and “Ace of Aces” who now runs his own independent airline. His little company is good and fast and competing with the big “Consolidated” airways for a lucrative mail contract. Consolidated executive Robert Middlemass represents an unseen boss (obscured by a big chair, like Early era Blofeld) who desperately wants to buy Bellamy’s business, but Bellamy isn’t selling. Middlemass is in cahoots with crooked casino owner Douglas Dumbrille, who uses his favourite club hostess Tala Birell to lure Bellamy and keep him close. Meanwhile, back at a mysterious inn, a German professor (Edward Van Sloan) is hard at work on a giant cannon that shoots electric charges high into the sky and brings planes down in flames. Dumbrille and Middlemass secure the funding from Consolidated to finish this weapon that will ensure them “control of the skies.” Its first use is to shoot down Bellamy’s planes, ruin and then take over his company and get that mail contract.
That’s only the main plot. There’s so much going on that Air Hawks feels like a couple 12 chapter serials crammed into 68 minutes: there are double and triple crosses, reversals, schemes, flights, captures and clever escapes, surprise appearances and unexpected twists. I enjoyed the moive but something that didn’t work for me was director Albert S. Rogell use of blatantly manipulative moments. When Robert Allen, the first of the three targeted Bellamy pilots gets in his plane drunk AND takes along his adorable little doggie, you just cringe and expect the worst. Same with the third pilot who’s returning with a dolly for his little girl, who is impossibly cute and is listening in the control office as he goes down in flames. Later, when the child finds the torn and singed doll in Bellamy’s desk you’re supposed to be touched but it just feels too overdone to work as it’s supposed to.
Tala Birell, the Garbo-Dietrich hybrid, romances Bellamy then disappears long enough to make you wonder if they forgot all about her, and her return makes you wonder who she’s really loyal to. She even gets to perform a song at the casino. Government investigators find a link between Bellamy’s downed planes and the electro-cannon weapon plans. They need Bellamy’s help but ask him to keep mum about the state secret, so when he gets tired of accusations that he operates unsafe aircraft, Bellamy impulsively announces that he’ll make a daring cross-country flight in record time to prove his planes are not flying coffins. Bellamy has to delay that flight to trap the bad guys, so the big event goes on with none other than the real flying hero Wiley Post, playing himself. This was Post’s only movie and sadly he died that same year in a crash with Will Rogers.
The movie may be busy but it is fun to watch. The bad guys’ secret hideout at the inn looks good, it seems stuck under a constant thunderstorm, has hidden passageways and extreme lighting and shadows that would please any classic horror fan. Some of the effects used for the plane crashes and explosions are great and some are ridiculously fantastic, like the sight of a dummy thrown up high after an explosion and landing with a thud along with the other debris. The best part by far is Bellamy, a strong center in this whirlwind. I enjoyed spending an hour watching him as the action hero fighting back against this crew of villains with punches, clever disguises, stunt flying and grenades. Another big plus and source of fun is Victor Kilian as a fun reporter who gets on the trail of the real story, gets fired, gets captured when he snoops at the inn, is smart enough to turn the tables and escape, is dumb enough to pass out drunk when helping Bellamy steal evidence from Dumbrille’s office, is brave enough to help in the climactic mission and terrified enough not to want to jump out of a plane even with a parachute on. Never a dull moment in Air Hawks, if you don’t mind a bumpy flight that does a bunch of loops and zips over a whole lot of scenery.