Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

The Flying Ace (1926)

February, 2024

Norman Film Manufacturing Company, 1926. Producer/director: Richard E. Norman. Cast: J. Lawrence Criner, Kathryn Boyd, George Colvin, Harold Platts, Steve Reynolds, Boise De Legge, Lyons Daniels, Sam Jordan.
            February is Black History Month, and it’s also the month of the annual Kansas Silent Film Festival. This year, those two occasions will overlap in a single event: the Festival’s program will include a silent feature of African-American origin. The Flying Ace, produced in 1926, is part of an often-overlooked chapter in American film history. Today’s film enthusiast is well aware of the Black performers, such as Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel, who achieved significant recognition in the movies during Hollywood’s golden age. Quite apart from those well-known figures, however, was another group of pioneers. These were the African-American filmmakers who operated on the independent fringe, producing films with all-black casts, catering to segregated theaters with all-black audiences. Working on the proverbial shoestring, denied the most basic resources that their white counterparts enjoyed, these courageous creators built a body of work distinctly their own. And only in recent decades has the film-history community seriously started to document their work.
            If any one of these independent filmmakers is known today, it would be Oscar Micheaux, whose directorial career started in 1919 and extended well into the sound era. Micheaux’s latter-day recognition is well deserved, as any viewer can attest after seeing such classics as Within Our Gates or (especially) Body and Soul. But he was not the only artist working in this highly specialized field. Another was Richard Norman, whose Norman Film Manufacturing Company in Arlington, Florida undertook an ambitious agenda in the southern states. An enterprising businessman, Norman made the most of the limited opportunities available to him, not only producing his own films but distributing the films of other independent producers. Where Micheaux tackled painfully visceral themes of racial injustice in his films, Norman’s output was built primarily for entertainment, comprising Westerns, serials, and action films—the same kind of fare that made up so much of the mainstream Hollywood product.
            The Flying Ace is an excellent example. It begins by plunging into an intriguing plot situation: the paymaster of a company, traveling by train to deliver a large payroll, vanishes without a trace, along with the money he was carrying. Suspicion immediately falls upon the railroad station master (George Colvin), the last known individual to have seen either the man or the money. Enter the “Flying Ace” of the title, played by J. Lawrence Criner, a former railroad detective who has just returned from distinguished aerial service in the war. Immediately pressed back into his role as a detective, Criner sets out to solve the crime. The cast is rounded out by Kathryn Boyd as the station master’s daughter, Harold Platts as a local flyer with designs on Boyd, Lyons Daniels as a comic-relief constable, and one-legged Steve Reynolds, a regular member of Norman’s stock company, as the hero’s vigorously supportive sidekick.
            With this dynamic cast, The Flying Ace embarks on the resolution of the mystery, packing its narrative into a tight, well-constructed six reels. Over and over Norman demonstrates his adaptability as a filmmaker, employing whatever resources come to hand. He makes creative use of the Florida topography: one plot device involves the alleged disposal of a body in a nearby swamp. The idea of casting the hero as a flyer was apparently prompted by the availability of an airplane—although, as historian Phyllis R. Klotman has confirmed, the plane functions mostly as a “prop” and never actually leaves the ground. This proves no barrier to Norman, who depicts the plane taxiing along the ground but is obliged to fake the flying scenes. The best and most convincing of these scenes are reserved for the climactic chase, which involves not only planes, but also a car and a bicycle! Ultimately the mystery is solved, and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion.
            This month, festivalgoers unfamiliar with this solidly satisfying little film will have the opportunity to see it on the big screen, with the added benefit of piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin. And, hopefully, further similar screenings will follow, helping to bring further recognition to a vital but hitherto underappreciated strain of our American film heritage.

J.B. Kaufman