When a railroad paymaster and the $25,000 in cash he was carrying disappear, returning WWI ace Billy Stokes is put on the case. This independent feature has an all African-American cast and is the only complete surviving feature of the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, a Florida-based studio that specialized in so-called race films.
Up, up and away. Ish.
Richard E. Norman is not a household name these days but he left his mark on motion picture history. Like so many filmmakers operating outside the studio system, Norman tried various approaches until he found one that worked. He started with “home talent” pictures—that is, films shot by itinerant filmmakers in smaller cities and towns that made use of non-professional local talent (you can read my review of one such picture, The Lumberjack, here) but then discovered his niche in making films aimed at African-American audiences.
Norman was a white Southerner but he did not seek to include the sort of insulting, dangerous, condescending stereotypes that D.W. Griffith was spreading in his films. Black audiences of the day were sick and tired of seeing white performers in blackface acting like monsters, fools or infants; they wanted to see themselves as they really were. There was a strong demand for positive African-American pictures and Norman sought to fill that demand. The Flying Ace is the only extant Norman film and it was the second-to-last feature he made. Like so many independent concerns, the cost of converting to sound proved to be a fatal blow.
(If you would like more detail on Norman’s life, career and place in African-American film history, I recommend Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking by Barbara Tepa Lupack, which traces Norman’s career through personal correspondence and shooting scripts.)
The story opens with three disparate men standing outside a railroad station. Finley Tucker (Harold Platts) is a local sheik with a mysterious source of income, Dr. Maynard (Sam Jordan) is a respectable dentist and Jed Splivins (Lyons Daniels) is the buffoonish local constable. The trio observes the arrival of Blair Kimball (Boise De Legge), the railroad paymaster.
It seems that Kimball has decided to deliver the payroll early. Because no one will be expecting him, he has left his guards behind and is carrying $25,000 in cash all alone. Kimball waits for the next train with stationmaster Thomas Sawtelle (George Colvin).
The stationmaster has a charming daughter, Ruth (Kathryn Boyd), and she is just crazy about airplanes and flying. Tucker has been courting her and he offers to take her up in his plane but nefarious deeds go down while she is home changing into her flight suit.
Sawtelle is knocked out by some mysterious substance and both Kimball and the cash disappear. This looks like a job for… Captain Billy Stokes (Laurence Criner)!
Stokes is an ace pilot who has just arrived back home from service in the First World War. Before the war, he was a railway detective and his old job is open to him; he heads over to Sawtelle’s station with orders to solve the mystery. He is assisted by engineer Peg (Steve Reynolds), a fellow veteran who lost a leg in the war. (Reynolds really was an amputee and his ability to still move with balletic grace was a popular feature of his stage show. It’s refreshing to see a disabled part played by a disabled performer, something that modern Hollywood would do well to learn.)
Stokes asks Peg to disguise himself as a hobo and reconnoiter the situation. Meanwhile, Stokes takes the more direct approach and introduces himself to Sawtelle as the railway detective on the case. Ruth is interested in the dashing pilot while Tucker tries his best to use reverse psychology to throw the blame on Sawtelle. You see, this is not really a whodunit as the film makes it very clear that the money was stolen by Tucker, Dr. Maynard and Jed. The fun is watching Stokes and Peg unravel the clues with tidy efficiency. These fellows are great at what they do!
The story of The Flying Ace can be viewed as existing in an alternate 1920s, one that contains no white characters, no racism and absolutely no content that would have been considered political (interracial romance, passing, Jim Crow, and so forth). Norman chose to avoid overt political statements in his films (and complained when other filmmakers, such as Oscar Micheaux, did) and instead sidestepped the topic entirely by attempting to portray aspirational African-American characters, heroes and heroines who would never have been allowed within a hundred yards of a mainstream Hollywood production. Captain Stokes certainly would not have been able to earn the title of ace in the heavily segregated U.S. military of WWI. Norman’s approach has been variously described as utopian, savvy and cowardly. Perhaps it was touches of all three.
Now we will compare The Flying Ace to other mystery/adventure productions of the time and see how it holds up in direct competition. First, the bad news.
When viewing any independent silent production, there are usually a few pitfalls to watch out for. In order to save money, low-budget films would often use an enormous number of title cards—it was cheaper to write more cards than to shoot more movie. The Flying Ace uses this trick with cards here, cards there, enough cards to open a casino. They also lack the professional snap of Hollywood intertitles and instead have stiff, formal sentences with plenty of semicolons and an honest to goodness, unironic use of the “I have you now, my beauty!” chestnut. Oh my. Further, there are clunky moments of exposition, like when the film screeches to a halt so that Tucker can show Ruth the mechanical workings of an airplane.
While the title cards are about as poor a lot as I have ever seen, I am delighted to report that the actual plotting of the film is excellent, if hardly original. Far too many movie mysteries of the period would force their investigators to be stumped by a puzzle that the audience solved an hour before. For example, many mystery films would have had Stokes fret about just how Sawtelle was knocked out, stretching it out for a big reveal. Meanwhile, the audience is shouting, “The dentist! He has all kinds of drugs! The dentist!” Well, Stokes walks in, figures out that drugs were used on Sawtelle, finds a small vial on the floor, meets Dr. Maynard and puts it all together. It’s highly satisfying to watch a detective keep pace with the audience and even get ahead of us.
I was also a bit worried about the characters of Peg and Jed as they are both introduced as broad comedy stereotypes. While this is not entirely done away with, both prove to have more depth than I expected. Peg is shown to be a clever gadgeteer who can innovate new uses for his crutch on the fly and ends up capturing two villains single-handed. Jed soon shows that his Keystone Cop routine is all an act and he proves to be the wiliest of the conspirators with his concealed handcuff key and trusty pistol. I would have preferred the dialect title cards to have been eliminated but at least the characters have some dimension to them.
Norman had been in talks with Captain Edison McVey, a pilot who billed himself as the King of Stunts, and with famed aviatrix Bessie Coleman. However, McVey pulled out of negotiations and Coleman was killed in an accident before a deal could be closed. Norman finally cast a group of experienced stage actors to serve as the lead performers in the film.
Without a doubt, the standout of the cast is Kathryn Boyd, who is a perfect charmer as Ruth. With her cute body language and infectious smile, she is exactly what the doctor ordered for a 1920s heroine: sporty, sweet, flirty and loyal. Laurence Criner (Boyd’s real-life husband according to Lupack) is fine if a bit stiff as Stokes, the two-fisted railway detective. He certainly throws himself into the fight scene with Harold Platts, which is always appreciated.
Good though the cast turned out to be, the loss of experienced pilots meant that Norman’s options were limited. (Assuming he ever had the budget to include much airplane stuff, which is doubtful.) The Flying Ace rather famously shows no flying. Tucker and Stokes both taxi their planes around the airfield and then we are shown closeups of the cockpits against a sky backdrop but very few shots of planes in the air. It’s not really a dealbreaker but it’s another element that exposes the picture’s micro budget.
In fact, Peg’s pursuit the villains on bicycle is far more dynamic than any of the airplane stuff. He peddles with his crutch and once he gets a good speed built up, he fires at the fleeing car with the gun he has concealed inside that same crutch. It’s exciting and the scene is unusually well-shot and edited for a budget picture. Great work there!
All in all, The Flying Ace is a fine bit of unpretentious silent entertainment and even without its historical importance, it works as a diverting detective yarn. This is a must-see for nerds and casual fans alike.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Flying Ace was released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. It’s accompanied by a fine score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.