Cold War? I bet you can't guess. Okay, here goes. It's a romantic comedy! Yeah, it threw me off too, but here we are with the truly odd and often painful 1957 flick, Jet Pilot.
Stationed at a remote airstrip and base somewhere along the west coast (maybe even Alaska), Air Force colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is more than a little surprised when he gets a report that a Russian jet is circling his base. It isn't making an offensive move or showing any aggression, but what could the pilot want? The jet is finally forced to land, but Shannon is in for a bigger surprise. The pilot is a woman, Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh), and she is a refugee, not a defector as she runs from certain death back in Russia for refusing to oblige an order from a commandant. Under some not so intimidating question, Anna gives up nothing, forcing Shannon to go to his superiors. What do they want him to do? Well, nothing. Anna seems drawn to Shannon so play along with it, see if anything comes from their chemistry....and maybe more. Oh, my!
Last month via Twitter (it's not all bad), I won a new John Wayne biography from author Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and Legend (highly recommended), and raced through it in about a week. A great read, a great window into one of my favorite actors and a true Hollywood legend. I loved catching up with so many movies I hadn't seen in years and also realized there's a fair number of his movies out there I've never seen. Case in point? Jet Pilot from director Josef von Sternberg and apparently quite a few other directors. Why do you ask? A "checkered production" would be a fair description of this flick with backing from the always interesting Howard Hughes. Beginning filming in 1949 and continuing until 1950, it was "filmed" for three or four more years -- depending on the source -- and was caught up in a lawsuit, eventually hitting theaters in 1957. As Eyman points out, some reviewers commented "How young are stars look in this movie!" They should. It was from a different decade.
This is one of the Wayne flicks I had no experience with, and let me tell you, that was probably a really good thing. This one is a stinker, really only worthwhile as a truly dated time capsule of a turbulent time in U.S. history. You'd never think it would be easy to minimize the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse to a romantic comedy of sorts, but 'Jet' manages to do it. The story becomes a love story between Wayne's Shannon and Leigh's Anna, the American officer introducing the Russian pilot to all the great things America has to offer. Oh, steak! Oh, champagne! I'd say for most of an hour the whole Russian defector thing is almost completely ignored as we see Shannon and Anna fall hard for each other -- oh, no, tortured love!!! -- and then eventually getting back to business. It's also laughable to think in the midst of the Cold War the American government and armed forces would allow anything even remotely like this to develop, but I'm probably nit-picking, right? Sure, let the Russian pilot and possible spy fly our newly developed jets!
What's truly odd about this is that general tone, that complete lack of urgency or fear or suspicion. This is a really bizarre movie from the get-go. What's really bizarre is that in a sea of oddness and mediocrity both John Wayne and Janet Leigh are pretty good together. They have a legitimate chemistry...it just so happens to be in a story about a defecting Russian pilot in the Cold War. Late in the story, things become a cat and mouse game back and forth, but their development as a budding relationship works surprisingly well. It's odd that we're even watching this develop, but so be it. Make the best of a bad situation and go with it. Now that said, their chemistry is good but that doesn't always translate or even make the story interesting. I still found myself fast-forwarding a lot as the 45-minute mark came around.
As for the rest of the cast, look for Paul Fix as Wayne's second-in-command, Jay C. Flippen, Richard Rober and John Bishop as the three government/military geniuses who concoct the seduction plan,
with Roland Winters as Anna's commanding officer back in mother Russia. Also look for Denver Pyle in an uncredited part as a young husband traveling with his wife. Lovely Anna lets them stay in their spacious hotel room! Why in Russia, room is so little, but here in America! Yeah, you'd be surprised how many conversations there are like this in a painfully long 112-minute movie.
It's probably best to view this 1957 Cold War flick as a novelty. There is some very cool aerial footage of jets roaring across the sky, but those planes have to land at some point, allowing that dang story to get in the way. Other than that, it's pretty rough. Be forewarned going into this one and don't be surprised. For real. It's awful, and I'll defend just about anything John Wayne was involved with. Okay, Janet Leigh vamps it up some, undressing in quite a few scenes and putting on a fashion show for the Duke in others. So there, it's not all awful. Just most of it.
Jet Pilot (1957): */****