Registering the Registry 2021: The Flying Ace (1926)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we jet off to a long-fallen moviemaking capital to explore a bygone mode of cinema in the race film, pictures staring an all-black cast to garner attention from majority black audiences. This one’s an airplane thriller, and comes courtesy oft-forgotten Florida filmmaker Richard E. Norman. From 1926, it’s The Flying Ace! Let’s get going, why not!
Didja know Jacksonville, Florida used to house its own bustling movie industry? Makes sense when you think about it — while not quite so far from Thomas Edison’s lawsuit-happy, patent-clutching hands as Hollywood way out west, it is a good distance away from NYC, and it enjoys year-round sunny temperatures perfect for early 20th-century camera equipment, AND it boasts nicely varied nearby landscapes easily employed as doubles for exotic locales, AND the city housed a great many laborers who could be hired as crew on the cheap. For a time in the 1910s, some thirty-plus pop-up studios called Jacksonville home and made a plenty good buck off the investment. Few things last, tho, and Jacksonville did not prove a friendly home too long. The city wasn’t quite far enough from Edison’s grasp to grant its filmmakers amnesty from his lawsuits long, and their wild antics in staging impromptu brawls and car chases down main streets resulted in strong anti-movie sentiment amongst a populace who eventually elected Mayor John W. Martin to help run ’em out’ve town. Hollywood’s ascent to title of THE moviemaking capitol of the world struck a devastating blow too, as industrial centralization often does towards smaller upstarts. Come 1919, the film game had dried up in Jacksonville, leaving the perfect opening for a fresh challenger to move in with his own gimmick and take over for the next decade.
Enter one Richard E. Norman. A Florida native himself, Norman actually got his start in film by hustling out Midwest, where he took advantage of owning footage depicting a rather spectacular trainwreck to travel the country, remaking the same film from town to town. A tidy little business: roll on in, promise the locals a chance at staring in their VERY OWN MOVIE, shoot the usual script with the best (or highest-bribing) auditioning hopefuls, cut it in with the train derailing, exhibit for a time, sell the town the footage, and mosey on. The Wrecker in its various customized forms brought Norman financial success as writer, cameraman, producer, and director of his own mobile outfit, until he hit upon an idea for settling down with an even better gimmick. See, Norman was a progressive of his day, and felt dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the way black Americans were portrayed on film; or rather weren’t portrayed, as these were the days when black characters were majority white players in blackface running the gamut of offensive and degrading stereotypes, from the lowest comedies to the biggest box office smashes like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Wanting to help combat prejudice, Norman figured he had himself a good script he’d shot and cut a million times before, he had the money to buy up a defunct studio property in Jacksonville (Eagle Film Studios in his case), and he had the connections to cast, shoot, and distribute a beefed-up dramedy version of The Wrecker now entitled The Green-Eyed Monster, which he did in 1919. When the film proved a non-starter with audiences, Norman reworked the picture, chopping out newly written comedic material to function as a pre-movie short and rereleased the film under the same title as a straight drama in 1920, which then became a major hit and the bedrock of Norman’s next decade of enterprise.
Between 1919 and 1928, Norman Studios produced six race films in Jacksonville, handling their own nationwide distribution and making a handy living off it for owner and stars alike. These included: 1919/1920’s The Green-Eyed Monster, westerns in 1921’s The Bull-Dogger and 1922’s The Crimson Skull starring black cowboy actor Bill Pickett, 1923’s sea adventure Regeneration featuring Stella Mayo, 1926’s airplane mystery-thriller The Flying Ace (hey, today’s film!), and 1928’s oil drilling romantic-drama Black Gold. In his time, Norman supported his films by touring the country, writing his own press material and making local actors minor national stars by bringing them to his premiers for live appearances by the faces onscreen. He also developed some largely one-sided ideological friction with Oscar Micheaux, America’s other major purveyor of race films in the 1920s, and someone whose goals Norman found disagreeable as businessman and social advocate. To his perspective, Micheaux’s focus on racial strife and the harmful effects of matters as bigotry or religious hypocrisy in films like Within Our Gates and Body & Soul did more to advance American prejudice rather than lessen it, reproducing real world troubles within the movie theater and widening the divide rather than providing a world in which racism did not exist. Within Norman’s films, black actors played the heroes, the villains, the love interests, the comedians, the neutral parties, the admirable, the wicked, absolutely everyone, both because an all-black cast made a strong draw and because he believed this a better means of improving race relations than Micheaux’s explicitly radical political works. A glance over contemporary press releases for Norman Studios movies reveals the man held an unfortunate fondness for billing his pictures as the REAL race films, beloved by audiences and guaranteed to never stoke racial tension in the community, not like those OTHER race films.
Of course, any rivalry between the two proves a moot point: as we’ve discussed, Micheaux’s theming limited his audience to the point his films eventually became obscure and degraded into near-nothing, while Norman attempted to compete in the rapidly expanding sound film business with a sound-synchronizing system of his very own (one reliant on physical records), only for the sound-on-film process to become standard before he could recoup his investments. Norman Studios shifted from production to distribution and later exhibition, the main building converted into a dance studio for Norman’s wife Gloria before business guttered out entirely. These days, the property is managed by a museum of the same name dedicated to preserving what remains, researching further into the studio’s history, and promoting interest in the silent film era and local history alike. I’ve sourced the majority of the information herein off their website, and heartily encourage you donate generously to advance their cause. Alas, as with many a lesser-known filmmakers from the dawn days of American film, revived attention towards Norman’s work came too late to save it. Of his six features, only The Flying Ace exists today in a complete print, the others either survived by clips and reels and stills, or gone entirely. With our knowledge of the film’s history adequately buffed, why don’t we dig in and see what the Library of Congress has now preserved?
It’s clear watching The Flying Ace Norman was both somewhat isolated from developing trends elsewhere in American and global cinema, and not exactly cash-flush despite his big successes in the context of the local market. The freer camera of later silents is nowhere in evidence here, shots largely achieved through static stagey set-ups alternating between a small number of medium angles and close-ups, with similarly restrictive action. His title cards feel ten or fifteen years out of date, large blocks of text on very simple backgrounds with better filmic rhythms than Jubilo, yet also perhaps too wordy and frequent to make natural reading/watching. Reels are artificially segmented into distinct numbered Parts with start and end cards even if there’s no meaningful break in the action, resulting in, say, parts 4 and 5 being distinct only because the characters go from talking outside to talking inside. As every discussion of the film is obliged to note, when the airplanes take off in the first and final reels, Norman did not have the money or equipment to shoot the planes in flight as in Wings from United Artists the following year, nor enough of either to convincingly fake the aerial action on the ground. Flight here means you let your imagination and the fuzzy nature of black-and-white images do a LOT of heavy lifting to convince you fake cockpits in front of neutral, unmoving backgrounds represent pilots zipping about the sky in an exciting chase. Point being, we’re walking territory where you’ve gotta give the movie doubt and chances quite generously, particularly if one is used to the niceties of its contemporaries, much less nearly a century’s worth of aesthetic advancements in movies now.
Give these doubts and chances, and I’d argue the film has plenty on offer for the willing audience. Plot’s pretty simple: the station manager for the local railways is knocked unconscious, and when he awakens both the paymaster and the payroll have gone missing. On the same day, Laurence Criner’s WWI flying ace Billy Stokes returns home and restarts his old job as the railway’s private detective, whereupon he’s assigned to solve the case before the local constable can presumptively declare the manager guilty and arrest him, leaving Kathryn Boyd as his lovely daughter Ruth all alone and destitute. Stokes and mechanic/sidekick Steve “Peg” Reynolds (actor and character name the same) scour the surroundings for clues, and in quite short order discover and capture the culprits, who are exactly the people you’d expect from the movie’s structure. They escape, the heroes give chase, and as Reynolds catches the cronies, Stokes takes to the skies to rescue Ruth from the main villain, who’s also got a plane yet no sense about flight safety. If you’ve a taste for the old style of straightforward detecting and adventure, The Flying Ace should satisfy plenty. In view of Norman’s philosophy, it’s very much the same argument one sees recurrent nowadays with films starring minority casts — should we ever hope to see an equitable state in the arts as in our idealized reality, those not often given priority focus should be allowed their alright and not-so-good films in addition to the masterpieces of story and cinema. Does the world better to have an OK, somewhat restricted airplane thriller with an all black cast than it does to be without, y’know?
Regarding performances, Criner is perfectly serviceable as the upright leading man and mimes out his explanation of how the clues came together with admirable conviction, but it’s the supporting cast who deserve stronger accolades (particularly since they didn’t go on to bigger, better preserved things like Criner). Amongst the wicked, Harold Platts makes a good foil against the morally upstanding Criner, badly romancing the uninterested love interest with skybound tricks and heavy-handed force in the opening reel before getting some good crazy eyes and shifty maneuvering later on, while Lions Daniels plays a corrupt constable with an appropriate measure of bluster and self-importance. Steve Reynolds is REALLY good, and he oughta be, given Norman cast him in every last race picture the studio produced. A genuine one-legged stuntman, he’s likable and entertaining when bouncing jokes off Criner or getting in trouble with Daniels round the middle, and pulls off some particularly cool moments utilizing his crutch during the final act. Using it to set bait and lure crooks to his location, pumping the other pedal of a bicycle in a stunt performed entirely in-camera, pulling out a long-barreled revolver from a hollow in the crutch to shoot out tires while still atop the bike… he’s a very welcome presence, and given his character sings a little love ditty at the end complete with piano key notation at screentop, I have to wonder whether he performed his own songs live during travelling premiers. Of everyone, though, Kathryn Boyd proves easily the best actor, impressively so since she’s not in the movie all that much! You don’t get more than ten minutes of her between all six reels, but when she’s playing at being shy and flirtatious in the final minutes, shuffling her feet and angling her head and giving off little smiles, it’s enough to make one think she could’ve made a major star out west had she the inclination and opportunity. There’s personality and understanding of how to present for the camera enough to have made her an equal to a Lena Horne or a Hattie McDaniel. A terrible shame even the Norman Museum doesn’t know a thing about her biography or work outside this and Black Gold.
If there’s one area I wish Norman had pushed even further, it’s with Boyd’s part. Just as his studio made The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull to take advantage of having a natural western star like Bill Pickett on their payroll, The Flying Ace was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for one Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, both from Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and period. A stunt pilot who performed at shows all across the country, Coleman caught Norman’s eye during a period between shooting and promoting films, and it is known he at least wrote her expressing interest in making a film based on her life with her in the starring role. Alas, while Coleman received many such offers to perform in motion pictures and hoped to found her own flight school for young black aviators-to-be, she was killed during a test flight crash in 1926 at only thirty-four. The Norman Museum’s writings indicate Norman went on to make The Flying Ace in her honor and based Boyd’s character on Coleman, but although the film contains scenes in which Boyd rides as passenger in an airplane and a brief sequence in which she escapes a burning plane via rope ladder, she’s never in the cockpit behind the controls herself. In view Norman’s goals towards equitable cinematic representation and the lengths undertaken in service of these goals in this picture (any sexists remarks about Boyd’s person come courtesy Platts’ villain, and Boyd is the one who makes advances on Criner’s hero only after the day is saved and it’s evident she wants him in her arms), it would’ve been nice to see his tribute to Coleman go a little further by letting a female aviator take to the skies as it were. Even with the flying effects being wholly unconvincing to a modern eye, a bit’ve extra sweetening on the deal couldn’t hurt none. Let Boyd wrestle her way to the controls and zip around the clearly fake sky a bit.
Returning to the friction between Norman and Micheaux’s philosophies as we come to a close, I’ve no interest in saying whether one or the other was right about the best way to advance black equality on film. My personal preferences in watching will most always swing towards the deeper, richer themes and performances Micheaux provided, but our modern conversations about how much front-’n’-center representation matters to young and old in the shallower big name popcorn munchers indicates Norman was onto something in favoring simple adventure fare for his stars. The arguments Norman outlined regarding Micheaux’s artistic preferences being bad for business represented (and will always represent) a false dichotomy, one we’re better off not repeating today. Again, it must be remembered: Micheaux is survived by only three complete silent works, Norman by a paltry one. Criterion Channel’s upload of The Flying Ace comes courtesy their collaboration with Kino-Lorber on the “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” collection, and so features alongside the only other substantial partially-extant feature work from Norman, the second reel of Regeneration. In watching the barely comprehensible images through the warping of nitrate degradation, the recently composed score matching perfectly to the flickers of story scrambling for purchase amidst burns and tears, one is given to think there need be no competition between the entertainer and the radical in artistic representation. They work in mediums of extreme fragility, given to neglect and loss with the march of years, making everything they do to put the unseen and oppressed faces of the world onscreen equally valuable on a long enough timescale.
There should, ideally, be room in American cinema for the non-white star as political boundary pusher and straightforward heroic face according to their own inclination. Body & Soul and The Flying Ace stand as two very different approaches to giving African-Americans starring roles through race films, and it is only a good we caught and preserved and cherished these works before they too vanished beneath the march of ages. Let’s do our best to ensure the entertainers and radicals alike of our time see their own efforts appreciated and appropriately valued as equals, lest future generations lose as much as we.
Here we are at the bottom once again, and once more I ask you the reader your thoughts. Ya like the movie if you’ve seen it? Any comments on Norman Studios, Richard E. Norman’s perspective on race relations, and/or the museum’s ongoing efforts to dig up lost history? Hash it out amongst yourselves while you wait for our next article two weeks hence. We’re sticking with the race film tack, hopping aboard a ride conducted by amateur husband-wife team James and Eloyce Gist as a tool for their travelling Evangelical ministry. From 1930, it’s the vignette-heavy Hellbound Train, which you can find either through Criterion Channel subscription or Crosstown Arts on Vimeo — they’ve each got their own custom score, so take your pick and I’ll see you next time!