Classic Film Guide

Men Against the Sky (1940)

Directed by Leslie Goodwins, with writing credits for John Twist (story) and Nathanael West, this film, like the more celebrated Test Pilot (1938), tells of the perils of the pre-World War II days of flying and airplane development, though not quite as well. Unfortunately, the story in this one is not nearly as compelling or believable and the characterizations are even somewhat laughable, unlike those in The Tarnished Angels (1958), based on the William Faulkner novel.

Phil Mercedes (Richard Dix - Cimarron (1931)), who was once a pilot that set records for his flying "firsts", is now an aging aeronautics show performer, and somewhat of a drunk. While inebriated, he crashes his stunt plane into a barn and is grounded for a year. His attractive sister Kay (Wendy Barrie) is his only supporter, and means of support. She'd love to land a job working as a draftsman ("drafts-person") for Martin Ames (Kent Taylor), who's the chief engineer for Dan McLean (Edmund Lowe), an airplane manufacturer that hopes to win a big contract with the government given the war in Europe. Though Ames turns her down, the womanizing (and married) McLean takes her to dinner where, thanks to some good timing and the arrival of Ames, Kay is able to secure the position when Mrs. McLean (Helene Millard, uncredited) shows up by pretending to be Ames’s girlfriend. Character actor Grant Withers plays another McLean employee.

Though Kay is not a highly skilled draftsman, she shows Ames some drawings with creative designs, from Phil, that interest him. Knowing that her brother's reputation precedes him, she says only that a friend provided the ideas. Ames incorporates them into his plans and McLean, who claims credit for any good idea from one of his employees, uses them to obtain the needed financing from Mr. Burdett (Granville Bates). Ames and Kay begin dating. McLean's company manufactures the plane and then hires a test pilot, Dick Allerton (Donald Briggs), for its final tests. Ames is upset to learn that Phil was the one who provided the ideas to Kay, but allows him to come to the test. All appears to go well until Allerton refuses to do a 9-G (9 times the force of gravity) dive. After he lands, he explains that, during the 6-G dive, the wings were curling. Capt. Sanders (Selmer Jackson), there from the aviation board to witness the test flight, is "forced" to ground the plane until it can pass some "on the ground" stress tests. While Ames, McLean and Sanders (pronounced Saunders in the film) go inside to further discuss the issue, Phil takes the plane up and gushes about its handling ability. However, when he puts it into a 9G dive, one of the wings breaks off and the plane crashes while he lands safely by parachute. Ames says goodbye, and good riddance, to Kay and her brother.

Ames returns with McLean to his office, both feeling defeated, where they find Mr. Burdett. Oblivious to the crash and only focused on the financial books, Burdett is "raw meat" for McLean's marketing prowess, he who can sell snow to the Eskimos. Working a good cop-bad cop routine, McLean & Ames are able to convince Burdett to part with more funds. Meanwhile, Sanders does his duty and has Phil arrested for flying during his one year probation. Given the choice by Judge Fox (Roy Gordon, uncredited) between $500 or six months in jail, penniless Phil is ready to accept jail time before his clerk (Thornton Edwards, uncredited) informs him that any imposed fine would be paid by Ames. A grateful Kay goes to thank and apologize to Ames which leads him to realize that he can't do without her, or at least her brother's ideas for his plane. He then starts talking like a typical, chauvinist - "will you trade your draftsman tools for a kitchen and promise never to mention airplanes again?" - to which she agrees. Thankfully, in the very next scene, she discards the silly notion when she takes Ames to Phil's and her apartment, all the while asking Ames to give Phil another chance. Though they find Phil drunk for the first time in months, Ames & Kay sober him up enough to learn how to build the plane better the next time. Even if one's not an engineer, like Ames is supposed to be, Phil's idea appears to be fairly straightforward and simple to figure out. In any case, they build the plane and hire another test pilot, Capt. Wallen (Lee Bonnell), for its tests.

At this point, since the film is entering its last 15 minutes, the results of the flight test should not be a mystery. However, there is a glitch, which was foreshadowed earlier in the film, which allows the former barnstormer to involve himself once again.

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