Watching 1939: Wings of the Navy

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: Wings of the Navy

Release date:  Feb. 3, 1939

Cast:  George Brent, Olivia de Havilland, John Payne, Frank McHugh, John Litel, Victor Jory, Henry O’Neill, John Ridgely, Regis Toomey, Donald Briggs, John Gallaudet, Edgar Edwards, Alberto Morin

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  Lloyd Bacon

Brothers Cass (Brent) and Jerry Harrington (Payne) come from a military background. Cass is a star aviator, like their father was, and Jerry leaves the submarine service to become a flight cadet to be like his father and brother. The brothers start to share more than the same profession when Jerry falls in love with Cass’s girl, Irene (de Havilland).

1939 Notes:
• Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer wrote the song “Wings Over the Navy” for this film. This was Warren’s last film song written for Warner Brothers after starting there in 1932.
• Lloyd Bacon directed six films in 1939.
• Character actor John Rigdely was in 31 films released in 1939.
• Still early in his career, John Payne was in three full-length films in 1939.
• Victor Jory was in 10 films released in 1939
• Olivia de Havilland was in five films in 1939
• George Brent was in four films released in 1939

Character actor John Ridgely, who was in 31 films in 1939 including “Wings of the Navy.” (Screen cap by Jessica P)

Other trivia: 
• Filmed at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, and the Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado, California.

Olivia de Havilland and John Payne in “Wings of the Navy”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Wings of the Navy” isn’t anything special. But it’s enjoyable. It has the zest and excitement of a military-themed film, complete with the danger of learning how to fly a plane and test pilots risking their lives. We also have romantic rivalries within a family.

For leads like Olivia de Havilland and George Brent, this movie was just a filler contractual obligaion compared to the other films they starred in that were released in 1939. But for some supporting characters, this film was helping build their career. This year gave John Payne larger roles, like this one, and his first primary lead (Kid Nightingale).

This movie also is a good example of Warner Brothers with their usual character actor round-up: Henry O’Neill, John Litel and John Ridgely. Now, to date, John Ridgely, has been in the most 1939 films since I started this feature with 31 film credits.

Songwriter Harry Warren wrote a the song “Wings Over the Navy” with Johnny Mercer, which is played over the credits and throughout the film. Warren started with Warner Brothers in 1932 and scored 32 more musicals, including “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade.” “Wings of the Navy” marked his last film for Warner Brothers and he left the studio in 1939.

While I enjoyed “Wings of the Navy,” if you are looking for a good romantic plot, this isn’t the film for you. While the most plot summaries make it seem like this romantic rivalry is the main point of the film, it really takes a backseat to the trials and tribulations of becoming a Navy flyer.

George Brent, Olivia de Havilland and John Payne in a publicity photo for “Wings of the Navy”

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Wings of the Navy

  1. I know that this comment section should be about Wings of the Navy in particular — and not about John Ridgely — but since you referenced him as as making 31 films alone in 1939 — I clicked on the article you did on him some time ago and read your description of him as being “vaguely” handsome.” Vaguely handsome? OMG! That virile man had the kind of chiseled features and the manly voice to go with them that other bigger, more well-known actors would have killed for. Stars like the truly vaguely handsome, very nasally George Brent, for example. He could have been a big, leading man star if only the powers at Warners saw his star potential, instead of plunking him in every general purpose part they could find. But no matter how ubiquitous he became, he never disappeared into the wallpaper. Audiences recognized his face. He was one character actor who lent his looks and star power to every production, giving it a certain texture just for his presence alone. So much so that he was billed over John Garfield in Howard Hawks’ 1943 “Air Force.” Like that other great (but not forgotten)character actor whose face was more famous than his name — Louis Jean Heydt — Ridgely racked up a staggering one hundred seventy plus films during his career and died very young of a heart attack at age 58. I wish that Tuner Classic Wines, er Movies would pay tribute to these unsung actors who gave an ineffable quality to their films.


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