This pre-Code film by director George Archainbaud is at heart a bromance between four World War I fighter pilots who come home to find the world has moved on without them. The buddies are: Fritz (Hugh Herbert) the mechanic, Woody (Robert Armstrong), whose business partner swindled and left him penniless, Red (Joel McCrea) who no longer belongs at his old workplace, and squadron Captain Gibby (Richard Dix), whose ambitious actress girlfriend Follette (Mary Astor) has left him behind for more strategic romances.
Years pass in which the veterans see little and eventually none of the respect, benefits and privileges they were promised. On a visit to Hollywood they find that Woody has made it big as a movie stunt pilot and appears in the latest hit starring Follette, who’s now stuck in an unhappy marriage to her tyrannical director Von Furst (Eric Von Stroheim). Woody gets his pals stunt flying jobs in the next Von Furst masterpiece and it looks like the men will finally have fame and fortune doing what they know and love best.
However, with everybody working together there are complications galore. Woody drinks way too much to be doing any precision flying. Woody’s little sister (Dorothy Jordan) is torn between her attraction to both Red and Gibby, and wishes none of them would fly in these unsafe sky jalopies. And when Von Furst sees Follette still cares for Gibby, the director’s insane jealousy escalates to murderous levels.
There’s a lot of satire and comment going on in this picture, starting with the look at the process and cost of moviemaking with a larger-than-life director going for maximum verite. He doesn’t give a fig about the stuntmen’s lives; if they die getting him a realistic crash so much the better, and that’s his attitude before he factors in any personal grudges. The film shows how dangerous stunt work is and how little those contributions are rewarded and appreciated, which is still an issue now considering recent on-set deaths and injuries, and the amazing work so key to the biggest movies.
Another bit of Hollywood hypocrisy here is the way Von Hurst and the media hype machine hail and use the military hero for entertainment while doing nothing to help real veterans or improve their reality, which in this movie is poverty, bread lines and benefits that dried up thanks to congressional gridlock. On top of all that, you couldn’t get more meta than Von Stroheim spoofing himself as an egotistical, screaming impossible-to-please bully. He chews the scenery, barking orders to cowering underlings, firing off withering insults to talent and finally revealing the slimy coward beneath all that bluster.
The added layer is that Von Furst also becomes for this squadron a continuation of their war. He’s their foreign enemy in a life-and-death conflict on a make believe battlefield, and when Von Hurst’s sabotage kills one of them, they shut out the police and bring him to justice their own way. It’s ironic that these men survive the dangers of the war only to die (two of them, I don’t want to totally depress you) making a movie. Through it all, the four remain such likable buddies, loyal, caring and sacrificing to the end, with Gibby the biggest martyr who twice loses out on love but is big enough to step aside and ensure the happiness of others.
Von Stroheim once did stunts and gets to show off some skills in a dramatic death tumble down a bendy staircase. There’s something extra mindbending and satisfying about a director playing a version of himself doing his own death scene in a movie written by a stunt flier (Dick Grace). His fall is a memorable moment, but he can’t outdo the sight of Robert Armstrong comically flipping the bird to Richard Dix, when Woody misunderstands Gibby’s frantic waves about his sabotaged plane. It’s part of a strange but very entertaining blend of suspenseful satire, backstage melodrama and inside-Hollywood buddy movie.