Schizophrenic British comedy/crime drama set on a huge futuristic luxury airliner. Cringe-worthy comedy is mixed with a witness drama that manages to be both improbable and generic. Good acting and steady direction saves the film from bring a complete clunker. 3/10
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: 6.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
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 set 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, and none were as this big luxury liner, neither was there any regular commercial overseas traffic. The plane pictured in the film is more like a flying luxury 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. And here begins the premise of the film. When she and Billy arrive at the apartment, a friendly bum (Arthur Goullet) has broken in, looking for food. By an extraordinary coincidence another man barges in as well, namely a mobster by the name of Brant (Francis L. Sullivan), who seems to have some unfinished business with Billy. While the others talk, Miss Carr sees the bum slip out the back door. She is then quickly ushered out of the apartment herself, and the next day she boards a ship to go back home to England. But not before she reads in the papers that Billy has been murdered in his apartment.
Now, try to stay afloat with me here. Back in New York, the mobsters who murdered Billy know that Jennie might be able to identify them if she would be allowed to testify in court. So they send a henchman on the same ship as Jennie, who frames her for stealing his valuables. This means that upon arriving in London, she is promptly thrown in jail for this unrelated crime. The mobsters on the other side of the Atlantic, on the other hand, how now framed the poor bum Abel for the murder of Billy. Abel is not able to identify the mobsters, as he never saw them in the same room, only heard them talking. However, he tells the court that there was another witness, a young woman. It turns out that Billy was a world-famous lawyer who had been working for the mob, and now newspapers all over the world are writing about the mysterious witness, and the police are urging her to step forward to help solve the case.
As Jennie reads the papers in London, she tries to convince the Scotland Yard inspector Jim Grant (John Loder) that she is the famous witness who can put Brant behind bars, but he is convinced that she is out of her mind.
Nonetheless, through a series of wonderful coincidences Jennie and Jim, Brant the mobster (masquerading as a Paraguayan general), the real killer, 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 en route from London to New York. Along with them 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 cringe-worthy 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 gets the short end of the stick, Albert makes his concert when the plane crashes at Madison Square Garden, and Jennie and Jim fall in love before the end.
Director Robert Stevenson gathers up his old cast from King Solomon’s Mines (1935, review) 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 class. 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, Lee’s leading man in King Solomon’s Mines and The Man Who Changed His Mind is pleasant, although he doesn’t stand out, and Cellier reprises his witty, buffoonish performance from the The Man Who Changed His Mind – 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).
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. Siodmak had just fled Nazi rule in Germany, and stopped for a couple of years in the UK before continuing to Hollywood, where he famously bit Lon Chaney Jr., condemning him to a career doing versions of The Wolf Man (1941), and wrote many and directed a few science fiction films. Most notable outside the Wolf Man franchise is probably the 1953 film Donovan’s Brain (review), based on Siodmak’s novel with the same name.
Apparently Non-Stop New York received mixed to positive reviews upon its release. The New York Times called it “a well-staged and moderately entertaining Class B melodrama”, while Literary Digest gave it a glowing write-up, calling it “an utterly improbable melodrama—which nevertheless had this reviewer’s hands clammy’ with terror”. The reviewer especially praised Lee and Loder, as well as “the maddeningly funny Desmond Tester as a violin prodigy”. I haven’t found any information on its UK box office results, but in the US it took home around a million dollars in ticket sales, a decent revenue for a British B import.
Later appraisals of Non-Stop New York are all over the board. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings is beside himself, calling the movie “one of the most engaging thrillers this side of Hitchcock“. Sylvia Bagley at FilmFanatic writes that the film “zips along at a fast pace, allowing us just enough time to ogle the fantastic set designs in the film’s luxury ‘non-stop’ aircraft”, while adding that “the story itself is slight yet enjoyable, with Anna Lee’s radiant smile lighting up the screen, and hulking Francis Sullivan a suitably menacing mobster”. On the other side of the spectrum is Andrew Wickliffe of The Stop Button, calling Non-Stop New York “a completely idiotic British attempt at an American proto-noir”, and the acting “atrocious”. Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations writes that the film is “vaguely watchable” only for its futuristic art deco plane design, but that it “fails to deliver in every [other] regard”. TV Guide gives it a diplomatic 2/4 stars, calling it a “silly, routine fare, though competently told and nicely acted”.
I’ll say this: 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 — in my humble opinion — not bad, at least not from the leads. I like Anna Lee’s bubbly energy and her post-flapper independence. John Loder is as bland as in The Man Who Changed His Mind and King Solomon’s Mines, but he works as a second-banana love interest. And I like Sullivan’s charleslaughtonesque mobster boss.
But the script is convoluted and quite ridiculous. The whole subplot with Jim refusing to acknowledge that Jennie is the sought-after witness without doing any sort of investigating (he’s the police!) is pure plot convenience. That the mob thinks the best way of getting rid of a witness is by sending the mob boss himself incognito — as a Paraguayan general — no less, to take care of her on a luxury airliner, is just testing our suspension of disbelief one notch too far. Even the premise of the film is built upon such a series of unlikely coincidences that it’s difficult to take at face value. Were this a genre film where the focus was on a radioactive monster or a ghoul risen from the grave, I wouldn’t mind the idiosyncrasies of the script that much, but this is a script film — the whole idea behind these mobster mysteries is that they’re supposed to be smart. And one thing this film isn’t is smart.
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.
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.