Watching 1939: Tail Spin (1939)

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: 
Tail Spin (1939)

Release date: 
Feb. 19, 1939

Alice Faye, Constance Bennett, Nancy Kelly, Joan Davis, Jane Wyman, Charles Farrell, Wally Vernon, Joan Valerie, Edward Norris, J. Anthony Hughes, Harry Davenport

20th Century Fox

Roy Del Ruth

Trixie Lee (Faye) and Babe Dugan (Davis) are two financially strapped girls who have joined a cross-country air competition, which goes from Los Angeles to Cleveland. When her plane cracks up, Trixie and Babe stay in Cleveland for their plane to be fixed and join a Powder Puff Flight Race. Their flight rivals include sensitive Lois Allen (Kelly) and socialite Gerry Lester (Bennett), who has her own custom plane.

1939 Notes:
• Constance Bennett’s only film of 1939.
• Alice Faye was in four films released in 1939. During the filming of “Tail Spin,” Faye got sick with the flu and was sent to a farm for rest, according to Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen by Jane Lenz Elder.
• Charles Farrell’s only film of 1939.
• Joan Davis was in three films released in 1939
• Nancy Kelly was in four films released in 1939

Joan Davis, Constance Bennett, Alice Faye, Charles Farrell in “Tail Spin”

Other trivia: 
• The script was written by pilot Frank Wead.
• At the start of the film, producers thanked the National Air Races in Cleveland.
• Real-life women fliers joined the film’s tour, such as Ruth Nichols, Margo Bain Tanner, Betty Huyler Gillies, and Teddy Kenyon.
• Jean Arthur, Loretta Young and Frances Dee were all considered to the role of Gerry Lester, which went to Constance Bennett.
• Mary Treen, Jack Haley, Richard Greene and George Barbier were all considered for roles in the film.
• Boxer champion Fidel La Barba coached Alice Faye and Constance Bennett for their fight scene, according to an Oct. 11, 1938 article.
• Stuntwoman Audrey Scott doubled for Constance Bennett and Alice Faye.
• In the film, Constance Bennett is supposed to slap Alice Faye. Faye said while some actors hold back their slap, Bennett really slapped Faye and had a “hand like a whip,” according to the book The Bennetts: An Acting Family by Brian Kellow.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Though deep-voiced singer Alice Faye is in the cast, don’t be fooled – “Tail Spin” (1939) isn’t a musical.

“Tail Spin” is about a group of women pilots competing against each other to win a race. Each woman has a different background – some rich, some in love and some broke.

Alice Faye’s nonsinging role is Trixie Lee, who is poor and works as a hat check girl. She gets a loan from her employer (lying that her mother is sick and needs an operation). Her partner, Babe Dugan played by Joan Davis, is equally broke and sells her car so that they can make the race.

Other fliers include Alabama, played by Jane Wyman, and Lois Allen, played by Nancy Kelly.

With the drama and conflict among the women, it is a bit like the movie “Stage Door” (1936) but in the air – to quote film writer Jeremy Arnold in a TCM article. There’s a rich girl who isn’t liked, a fragile and sensitive girl, and the saucy one who isn’t as financially privileged.

The similarities to “Stage Door,” developed from a play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, is astounding, but at the same time “Tail Spin” is different enough that it’s a story of its own.

It’s a unique role for Alice Faye who was a 20th Century musical star. She does sing one song, “Are You in the Mood for Mischief?,” but it must have been jarring for audiences to see this musical actress in a straight drama.

Constance Bennett is fabulous and glamorous, as always. This was her only film of 1939 – while she was a huge star at the start of the 1930s, her career wasn’t as successful at this point. This same year, she lost out on a role that she felt could have helped her career – the role of Lady Edwina Esketh in “The Rains Came,” which went to Myrna Loy.

Today, Nancy Kelly is largely forgotten except for her role as the mother in “The Bad Seed” (1956). And films like “Tail Spin,” give you a good idea why Kelly is forgotten. Ultimately, she’s forgettable – here she is a bit too sweet and I don’t feel much sympathy or empathy for her character and her outcome.

Jane Wyman’s character of Alabama doesn’t have much screen time, and she practically reprises the role a year later in Warner Bros. “Flight Angles” (1940).

“Tail Spin” is a fun film that mainly focuses on its female characters. While there is some romance in the film, these storylines take a backseat to the competition and relationships of the women. This was one of the last films of former silent film star Charles Farrell, who was only in one more film after “Tail Spin.” He went on to have his own television show. Kane Richmond and Edward Norris also have small, romantic roles but truthfully, I confused their characters because they look sort of similar.

In respect to 1939, “Tail Spin” is notable because of Alice Faye in a rare non-musical and Constance Bennett trying to regain her footing in Hollywood.

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