Delivering the mail by air through South America is a dangerous game and Riviére (John Barrymore) is determined to be the best at it. He manages a mail-carrying airline and stops at nothing to uphold his its reputation for punctuality. Even the owners of the airline think he’s too strict with the pilots. He doesn’t even like airline employees to be friends with each other outside of work. When he finds out that his inspector Robineau (Lionel Barrymore) had dinner with pilot Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery), he forces Robineau to give Auguste a citation for something he didn’t do just to prove to Auguste that being friends with a higher-up won’t do him any favors.
Riviére also fines the pilots 200 Francs if they’re late, which means the pilots often find themselves flying through dangerous situations even though common sense would suggest they land. When Auguste has to make a flight to Buenos Aires, he runs into some very treacherous conditions along the way. He gets there ten minutes behind schedule, but luckily he does make it.
Meanwhile, pilot Jules Fabian (Clark Gable) is making his first night flight. His wife Simone (Helen Hayes) is waiting for him at home with a nice dinner, eagerly awaiting his return. He’s flown that route before so she has no reason to suspect there will be any problems. Everything is going smoothly for Jules until he unexpectedly gets caught in a terrible storm. Rather than land, Jules keeps on going through the storm, loses communication with ground control, and gets thrown off course. The airline frantically tries to make contact with Jules and Simone starts to worry when she finds out he’s been delayed. When she tries to contact Riviére, he won’t tell her anything, which only upsets her more. She knows that he would be running low on fuel by then.
Despite Jules being lost, Riviére pushes ahead with the schedule and calls a Brazilian pilot (William Gargan) to deliver some mail to Rio de Janeiro, which his wife (Myrna Loy) begs him not to do. Despite her protests, he goes ahead with the flight and manages to make it safely. However, Jules isn’t nearly as lucky. Lost over the ocean with no fuel left, Jules and his wireless operator have no other choice but to jump from the plane into the dangerous waters.
I really wanted to love Night Flight, and I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with it and I’m having a hard time pinpointing exactly why. I loved the cinematography and I really liked Helen Hayes, especially in the scene where Simone has dinner by herself and pretends Jules is there with her. And, of course, it does have some pretty exciting flight scenes.
If you’re curious about Night Flight because of its cast, don’t go into it expecting to see a lot of interaction between all these great stars because you will be let down. For example, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy have no scenes together. In fact, Myrna Loy doesn’t even have a very big role and most of Clark Gable’s scenes are him by himself. But that isn’t what disappointed me about the movie. Like I said, I really wanted to love Night Flight, but something about it just didn’t resonate with me the way I hoped it would. If I had my choice, I’d definitely pick Only Angels Have Wings over Night Flight, but I’m really glad Night Flight is finally becoming available after being out of circulation since 1941. If you like movies about aviation or you’re a big fan of anyone in the cast, it’s worth seeing, but there are better movies about pilots and all of the cast has been in better movies.