The Bootleg Files: Up in the Air

BOOTLEG FILES 668: “Up in the Air” (1940 Monogram feature starring Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be great if this little film was digitally restored.

The 1940 Monogram Pictures feature “Up in the Air” may not be the best film of its era, but its surplus amount of ideas crammed into a compact 62-minute running time certainly makes it the busiest. Part-mystery and part-comedy, with musical numbers and a strange mix of egregious and progressive attitudes on race, this little B-level production has more pep than most A-grade flicks.

“Up in the Air” takes place at the Amalgamated Broadcasting Company in Los Angeles. The two lowliest employees at the network are Frankie (Frankie Darro), a page who has to wear a ridiculous bellboy uniform, and Jeff (Mantan Moreland), a janitor and the sole African-American employee in the company.

Frankie envisions a career in show business and he takes it upon himself to audition Anne (Marjorie Reynolds), a pretty new receptionist who wants to break into radio as a vocalist – albeit without telling Anne that he is a lowly page and not a producer. Frankie commandeers a rehearsal studio and corrals Jeff to provide piano accompaniment while Anne sings a bouncy tune. But when a network executive walks into the audition room, Frankie’s gig is up. Mercifully, he doesn’t get fired – and while Anne later treats him like a professional inferior, she admits to a colleague that she finds him cute.

Meanwhile, the network’s star vocalist Rita Wilson (Lorna Gray) is doing a full-throttle diva act, calling out angrily for more money and threatening to defect to a rival network if her demands are not met. Frankie, Jeff and Anne sneak into a studio to watch Rita’s rehearsal, and a mysterious cowboy with a guitar (Gordon Jones) and several network executives are also present. During the rehearsal, the lights go out and gunshot is heard – and when the lights are restored, it is discovered that Rita was fatally shot. But since the studio was locked during the rehearsal process, the killer had to be someone watching Rita sing.

A pair of bellicose but none-too-bright police detectives arrive on the scene, but it becomes quickly obvious that their investigative skills are meager. Frankie takes it upon himself to solve the murder and he brings Jeff along to track down the killer – much to the jittery Jeff’s protests about being involved. At the same time, Frankie is also scheming to make Anne the next singing star at the network while working to land a comedy show starring himself and Jeff.

“Up in the Air” moves at such a swift clip that it is almost easy to realize that very little of the story makes much sense. The murder mystery aspect of the story is, oddly, the least satisfying element – Rita’s death is only the first fatality, but the corpse tally doesn’t seem to bother anyone but Frankie, and the unmasking of the murderer raises a “Huh?” instead of an “Aha!”

The true energy here involves the pairing of Darro and Moreland, who were teamed by Monogram in several films during the early 1940s. Although they are not total equals in a contemporary sense – Darro is the fuel in the engine while Moreland refers to him as “Mister Frankie” – the notion of having a white man and a black man working together in any aspect was uncommon for a 1940 Hollywood film.

There is one sequence in the film that will not sit well with today’s audiences: Darro puts on blackface to audition with Moreland in an “Amos ‘n’ Andy”-style sketch. The sequence ends with a network executive stopping the audition and wiping the blackface from Darro’s face. But when the executive at Moreland, the funnyman hurriedly replies, “Don’t touch me, I don’t rub off!” Later on, when Frankie complains about a turn of bad luck and states, “I wind up behind the eight ball,” a perplexed Moreland looks at him and asks, “Is you talking about me?” Moreland was the rare film comic of his time who had the ability to address racial attitudes with sharp yet self-deprecatory humor.

A word about Darro: a one-time child actor who grew (barely) into a five-foot-three adult, Darro’s stardom at Monogram was a tribute to his raw charisma and flair for comedy, coupled with the studio’s willingness to take a chance on a diminutive male performer as a romantic lead. He possessed the pugnacity and insouciance of James Cagney, but lacked that star’s good fortune in snagging high-profile roles. World War II interrupted his career and he never regained momentum after his service in the U.S. Navy, and was later appearing in uncredited bits while alcoholism plagued his later years. Darro deserves more attention and respect from film scholars.

“Up in the Air” would also help serve as a stepping stone for Marjorie Reynolds, who appeared in an uncredited bit part in “Gone with the Wind” the year before and would be starring opposite Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn” two years later. Gordon Jones would also use this film to build into a successful character actor career, and he gained sitcom immortality in the early 1950s as the exasperated Mike the Cop on “The Abbott and Costello Show.”

“Up in the Air” was directed by Howard Bretheron, who directed 100 films from the silent era to the early 1950s. His best-known work is the 1932 Pre-Code classic “Ladies They Talk About” (co-directed with William Keighley), but the bulk of his output involved Westerns and B-level fare. His work may not have been artistic, but it was consistently entertaining.

Not unlike many Monogram films of the early 1940s, “Up in the Air” fell into the public domain and has been the subject of endless film duping; the prints floating around YouTube appear to be several generations removed from their original materials. It is a shame that this film – not unlike the studio’s other public domain titles – has never been digitally restored. The Monogram output is a lot of fun and they deserve to be preserved with a level of respect and care. And if anyone at The Criterion Collection is reading this, perhaps they can take a look into giving “Up in the Air” a new 4K touch-up.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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