Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Hours by Air' (1936)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's pretty amazing how much air travel has changed in the last 80-plus years, as is plain to see in the otherwise forgettable 1936 B-movie 13 Hours by Air. Directed by journeyman Mitchell Leisen and starring affable but bland Fred MacMurray as pilot Jack Gordon, 13 Hours strolls leisurely through its brief 74-minute running time, only generating mild suspense toward the end. The title refers to the time it takes for a United Airlines flight to get from New York to San Francisco, making numerous stops along the way. Jack is first a passenger before taking over as pilot on the second half of the journey, but his fellow passengers mostly remain the same, including socialite Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett), with whom he shares a low-key flirtation.

MacMurray and Bennett have some appealing chemistry, but their romance, like everything in this sedate movie, is pretty underwhelming. There are only a handful of passengers on the flight, including an annoying spoiled brat named Waldemar (Bennie Bartlett) and his exasperated nanny (Zasu Pitts); a pair of suspicious men (Brian Donlevy and Alan Baxter) who turn out to be a bank robber and the FBI agent tracking him; and a haughty aristocrat (Fred Keating) trying to stop Felice from getting to San Francisco for reasons that are not very interesting once they're revealed. There's only slight intrigue in seeing these various plot threads develop, and the movie mostly proceeds at the same unhurried pace as its titular flight.

Eventually, there's a bit of danger, as the plane is forced into an emergency landing by inclement weather, and the bank robber decides to finally reveal himself and threaten his fellow passengers. Even with all the gunplay (of course in 1936, anyone could bring a gun on board an airplane without any interference), nobody seems like they're in much danger, and loudmouthed Waldemar ends up saving the day somehow. Even dedicated MacMurray or Bennett fans could easily skip this one, as both actors coast through the undemanding roles. The best reason to see the movie is really to witness the early incarnation of commercial air travel, when passengers could just wander into the cockpit or open the outside door mid-flight. That stuff is far more attention-grabbing than anything in the sleepy plot.