(director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriters: from the book Pylon by William Faulkner/George Zuckerman; cinematographer: Irving Glassberg; editor: Russell Schoengarth; music: Frank Skinner; cast: Rock Hudson (Burke Devlin), Robert Stack (Roger Shumann), Dorothy Malone (LaVerne Shumann), Jack Carson (Jiggs), Robert Middleton (Matt Ord), Alan Reed (Col. Fineman), Troy Donahue (Frank Burnham), Chris Olson (Jack Shumann), Phil Harvey (editor); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Zugsmith; Universal; 1958)

“A seething melodrama about a family of daredevil pilots.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Douglas Sirk’s black-and-white The Tarnished Angels is his most pessimistic film, a period film of the 1930s that’s a follow-up to Written on the Wind, the quintessential film of the 1950s, which also starred Robert Stack, Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone. It’s based on William Faulkner’s minor novel Pylon, which it manages to upgrade. Faulkner maintained it was the best film version of one of his books. The story is loosely based on William’s own brother, Dean Faulkner, who was a barnstorming pilot in the early 1930s.

It’s set in the New Orleans of 1932 and is a seething melodrama about a family of daredevil pilots and their loyal mechanic, who are barely eking out a living as barnstormers in this dangerous and dying profession. Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) was a hero pilot during WW1 who is obsessed by flying, never wanting to do anything else. Roger races around pylons at air shows for prize money. He married in 1923 the much younger attractive farm girl LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) after she ran away from her Iowa home in 1918, upon falling madly in love with him through a Liberty Bond poster, to join him as a parachute jumper. They have a 9-year-old son Jack (Chris Olson), who idolizes his distant father. Jiggs (Jack Carson) is the loyal mechanic, who is in love with LaVerne but worships Roger for his courage but disapproves of how coldly he acts to his adoring wife–marrying only after rolling the dice for her with him.

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Feisty New Orleans newspaper columnist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) meets Jack at the carnival air show when a grease monkey is teasing the kid by saying “Which one’s your father?… Jiggs or Roger?” Burke takes the kid away and buys him an ice cream cone. He realizes that this is the fantastic human interest story he was looking for, to tell about this unusual gypsy family who have motor oil flowing through their veins instead of blood. When Burke discovers the Schummans have no place to stay, he gives them the key to his apartment. While the others sleep, LaVerne and Burke stay up the whole night talking, something she’s always wanted to do with hubby but never did. Burke has fallen in love with her; and, she has let her guard down for the first time.

At the newspaper office the next day, Burke gets fired by his editor when he refuses to cover a story about a visiting senator–insisting it’s the story about the gypsy family that he wants. Returning to the air show he watches a pylon race, where Roger crashes and totals his plane and the other pilot (Troy Donohue), a cocky 24-year-old, is killed as his plane goes down. Roger wants to fly so badly in tomorrow’s pylon race that he convinces Jiggs to go without sleep and repair the other pilot’s downed plane that is owned by his bitter rival Matt Ord (Robert Middleton). Roger has no compunction in sending his wife to the lustful Matt’s hotel to convince him any way she can to let Roger fly his plane. Burke interferes and arranges with Matt to have Roger fly the plane as a sound business deal. But the plane crashes and Roger dies. Dorothy gets hysterical and blames everyone for Roger’s death. Burke talks Dorothy into going back to Iowa with Jack rather than taking Matt’s offer to work with him. Then Burke shows the story he wrote to the editor and gets his job back.

It seems that no one in the film can get anywhere without feeling defeated, or even when they get what they want– they are still not happy. Sirk pictures his tarnished characters with great tenderness, but points out that they have already died inside–there’s nothing left for them to believe in after chasing their dreams that turn into nightmares. They are all trapped in their alienation from the world and have masked their fears in acts of bravery. This film sketches their lonely path that could have changed for the better with just some truth and loving, but no one can see themselves as they really are and there’s no one around to help them with that problem. The kid watches his father die and can’t help him because he’s trapped on a roller-coaster ride, LaVerne fell in love with the image of a hero pilot and couldn’t understand the man she married was different from the one she fell in love with on the poster, while Jiggs thought he had to repair the plane’s engine when Roger urged him to even though he knew it couldn’t be repaired. Ultimately, what this marvelous film tells us about is their loneliness and inability to communicate, and that is because they have never come to grips with their anguish and therefore resort to living a lie. The lie becomes so ingrained that they can no longer tell anymore what is true for them and what is not. Roger and LaVerne become sacrifices to their inner fears. The director keeps them as action heroes, so they don’t have time to think about what they have done to themselves. To replicate their inner turmoil, Sirk keeps his cameras always moving and makes the story an action one that is fast and furious.

REVIEWED ON 3/7/2005   GRADE: A   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/