Dive Bomber (1941) – full review!
This last of the twelve (director) Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn (actor) collaborations is a drama which details the research that went into solving two aviation problems experienced by pilots just before the United States’ involvement in World War II: blackouts caused by pulling too many g-forces and altitude sickness caused by flying too high. A dive bomber is a pilot who flies his airplane to a high altitude before he points it straight down to launch a high speed attack on an enemy target like a warship before pulling up and leveling off. This technique allows the fighter-bomber the element of surprise while providing a minimal target to the enemy during their approach and before they deploy their ordinance. Unfortunately despite its title this is not well explained (perhaps because it’s in evidence) in the film which focuses instead on the role of the flight surgeon credited with solving the aforementioned problems.
The film-makers received unprecedented access to the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island near San Diego California. So in addition to the drama itself the movie contains lots of footage of air military operations such as flying in formation and even a glimpse of the aircraft carrier soon to see significant action (even becoming “famous”) in the war’s Pacific campaign the U.S.S. Enterprise. These sequences & the “early” Technicolor helped cinematographer Burt Glennon earn the last of his three unrewarded Academy Award nominations. The story by former Navy aviator Frank ‘Spig’ Wead (Test Pilot (1938)) and screenwriter Robert Bruckner is somewhat average but it is interesting and does hold one’s attention despite the film’s 2+ hour length. Besides Flynn it stars Fred MacMurray Ralph Bellamy Alexis Smith (the first of a handful of films she made with Flynn) Robert Armstrong Regis Toomey Allen Jenkins and Herbert Anderson (among others).
MacMurray Toomey and Louis Jean Heydt play three of the Navy’s hotshot top hat pilots. Naturally one of them has to die (Heydt whose character meets the same fate in a similar Wead film Test Pilot (1938)) by blacking out during a dive bombing exercise to get the story rolling. Flynn plays a Harvard educated doctor who convinces the senior surgeon (Moroni Olsen) to operate on the dying pilot right away but to no avail. This causes MacMurray and Toomey to falsely blame Flynn for their friend’s death. Because he wants to help solve the blackout problem Flynn decides to become a flight surgeon a doctor who receives flight training. It should come as no surprise that MacMurray is assigned as his flight instructor. Bellamy is the flight surgeon educator who teaches Flynn the other parts of his job and seems to resent his college educated student’s cocksure attitude. However after Flynn learns that Bellamy was injured by being his own guinea pig while solving some of aviation’s earlier problems his respect for (and assistance to) Bellamy becomes mutual and the two work together to solve the issues at hand. It takes a bit more for Flynn to win over MacMurray especially after the flight surgeon trainee grounds Toomey for declining health. Even though pupil Flynn shows teacher MacMurray that he’s learned to fly well AND solves the blackout problem (with a belt that keeps significant amounts of blood from rushing below one’s heart) it isn’t until Toomey dies as an RAF pilot that the flight commander apologizes to his student and then agrees to be a guinea pig himself. MacMurray then works with Flynn and Bellamy to develop a high altitude suit not unlike that pictured in this article to solve the other problem.
To add (?) to the story Smith plays an initially married woman who chases Flynn’s character and is almost featured in a love triangle with MacMurray’s. Armstrong plays an airplane designer. Jenkins plays a sidekick of sorts to Flynn’s character; his sidekick Cliff Nazarro master of double-talk gobbledygook helps Jenkins avoid his wife (Dennie Moore). Anderson plays ‘Slim’ (not ‘Chubby’ as listed on imdb.com) a fellow flight surgeon trainee to Flynn’s character and Craig Stevens plays the Yale educated pilot trainee Anthony.