(3/10) In a nutshell: Schizophrenic British comedy/crime drama based on a huge futuristic flying boat. Cringeworthy comedy is mixed with witness drama that manages to be both improbable and generic. Good acting and a steady directing hand saves the film.
Non-Stop New York. 1937, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by J.O.C. Horton, Roland Pertwee, E.V.H. Emmett, Curt Siodmak. Based on the novel Sky Stewards by Ken Attiwill. Starring: Anna Lee, John Loder, Frank Cellier, Francis L. Sullivan, Desmond Tester, Athene Seyler, William Dewhurst. Produced for Gaumont British. IMDb score: 6.9
Non-Stop New York is science fiction only by the breadth of a hair. In fact, it is a hitchcockian crime melodrama dressed up as a comedy located on a giant Trans-Atlantic flying boat. Flying boats were indeed a reality at the time when the film was released in 1937 – and it is set in the futuristic 1938. But few planes of any decent size at the time were able to make a direct Trans-Atlantic flight from London to New York, as this big luxury liner, neither was there any regular commercial overseas traffic. The plane pictured in the film is more like a flying hotel with spacious cabins, dining halls and even outdoor observation decks.
The film features a female heroine, the British actress Jennie Carr (Anna Lee), who is down on her luck in New York when she meets a nice man called Billy who buys her coffee (James Pirrie). And no, she is not swept off to an island with a giant ape, but rather to his apartment, where a bum has broken in to eat his food. When the mobster Brant (Francis L. Sullivan) barges in, she leaves, and takes the boat (actual boat) back to London. She later learns that Billy was murdered, and that the poor bum Abel (Arthur Goullet) was framed for the murder. As the mobsters have also framed her for theft, she is put in jail and so can’t testify from there.
Although she tries to convince the Scotland Yard inspector Jim Grant (John Loder) that she is the famous witness the whole world is seeking through the press – the one person who can convince the court that Abel is innocent and that Brant is guilty – he is convinced that she is out of her mind.
Nonetheless, Brant (masquerading as a Paraguayan general), the real killer, Grant, Carr and a swindler, Sam Pryor, who is masquerading as a Scotland Yard agent (Frank Cellier), and who is on to Brant, all happen on the same flight on the aforementioned flying hotel to New York. Along on the flight is the young boy Arnold James (Desmond Tester), a musical prodigy who annoys everyone with his saxophone, and his stuffy aunt Veronica (Athene Seyler). Together they annoy the audience with cringeworthy attempts at humour.
The plane ride features standard crime drama personality confusion, cat-and-mouse games, some action, some romance and a strong female lead. Needless to say, the mobster bites the dust, Albert makes his concert when the plane crashes at Madison Square Garden, and Carr and Grant are smooching it in the end.
Director Robert Stevenson gathers up his old cast from King Solomon’s Mines (1935) and the sci-fi film The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review), including Anna Lee (his wife), John Loder and Frank Cellier. These three also deliver the best performances of the film, although one might find Sullivan’s hammy villain quite entertaining as well.
Lee continues her string of strong leading ladies, and does so with quality. She refuses to play the damsel in distress, just as she did in The Man Who Changed His Mind, and then she was up against Boris ”the Uncanny” Karloff himself. Lee had a long and reasonably successful career, and appeared in a recurring role in the TV-series General Hospital as late as 2003, a year before her death. John Loder is pleasant, although he doesn’t stand out, and Cellier reprises his witty, buffoonish performance from the former film – but comes off as a lot more annoying in this movie, probably because his lines are so much worse. In a small role we the Russian ambassador from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 sci-fi satire Dr. Strangelove (Peter Bull).
The film is not without its merits: the full-scale art deco flying boat is impressive, as is the small scale model provided by art director Albert W. Murton. The female heroine is a nice touch, quite unusual at the time, and as stated, the acting is not bad, at least not from the leads. But the script is convoluted and quite ridiculous. The fact that Grant refuses to acknowledge the possibility that Carr might be the missing witness the world is looking for is pretty lame. And the idea that the whole world would write headlines about a bum accused for murder in New York is laughable. And if a mobster wanted to travel incognito, he might have found a less eye-catching alter ego than a Paraguayan general, as he doesn’t even seem to have much information about Paraguayan generals. And so the list goes on.
It is also curious, that at a mere 70 minutes, the film feels much, much longer, and despite the many plot twists seems to crawl along at a snail’s pace. It is difficult to imagine that director Stevenson just months earlier directed the very snappy and entertaining The Man Who Changed His Mind. The problem might be that he isn’t quite sure what to make of the script, that is sort of a hitchcockian proto-noir, but at the same time tries to be a slapstick comedy. It doesn’t quite work, and the end result is slightly schizophrenic. The film is a bit too loud in too many directions.
Non-Stop New York is based on the novel Sky Stewards by little known Australian journalist and author Ken Attiwill, best known perhaps for being the husband of the author, journalist and astrologer Evadne Price. A writing credit is given to sci-fi and horror author and director Curt Siodmak, but one assumes that his involvement mainly regarded the flying boat, as futuristic aviation technology was kind of his thing. Screenwriters and Roland Pertwee and J.O.C. Horton are mostly not known for contributing to some British crime dramas. Little known actor and writer E.V.H. Hammett (what’s with the initials?) was brought in to do additional dialogue, a sign that someone else also thought the film was in trouble.
This is certainly not one of Robert Stevenson’s best films. After dabbling in genre films, he moved on to dramas in the forties, played around with TV in the early fifties and later set up shop at Disney, directing no less than 19 of Disney’s live action films. He is best known for having directed Mary Poppins.
Non-Stop New York. 1937, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by J.O.C. Horton, Roland Pertwee, E.V.H. Emmett, Curt Siodmak. Based on the novel Sky Steward by Ken Attiwill. Starring: Anna Lee, John Loder, Frank Cellier, Francis L. Sullivan, Desmond Tester, Athene Seyler, William Dewhurst, Drusilla Wills, Jerry Verno, James Pirrie, Ellen Pollock, Arthur Goullet, Peter Bull, Tony Quinn, H.G. Stoker. Peter Bull. Music: Hubert Bath. Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum. Editing: Al Barnes. Art direction: Walter W. Murton. Costume design: Norman Hartnell. Sound: A. O’Donoghue. Produced for Gaumont British.