Five Came Back (1939): John Farrow’s “Disaster” Adventure-Melodrama, Starring Chester Morris and Lucille Ball in her First Important Role

One of the early movies of the emerging “disaster” genre, John Farrow’s thriller-adventure, Five Came Back was scripted by Nathaniel West, Jerry Cady, and Dalton Trumbo (who would be blacklisted).

Though the title disclosed how many would make it out alive, audience members were kept in a state of suspense, guessing as to who those five would be.

Synopsis:

The tale is set aboard a commercial flight from L.A. to Panama City, centering on a bunch of diverse passengers.

The group, which is divided into couples or duos, includes wealthy Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles) and Alice Melhorne (Wendy Barrie), eloping because their parents disapprove.

They are contrasted with an elderly couple, Professor Henry Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife Martha (Elisabeth Risdon).

Tommy Mulvaney (Casey Johnson), a gangster’s young son, who travels with his escort, gunman Pete (Allen Jenkins).

The deviant members include Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball), a woman with a shady past, and Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), an anarchist facing death sentence for killing a politician, and his deportation guard, Crimp (John Carradine), who expects a reward.

The crew comprises pilot Bill (Chester Morris), co-pilot Joe Brooks (Kent Taylor), and attendant Larry (Dick Hogan).

Photo (from left): Chester Morris, John Carradine, Lucille Ball, and Joseph Calleia

When a storm buffets their airliner, The Silver Queen, a gas cylinder gets loose, knocks a door open and nearly kills little Tommy.  Steward Larry closes it and hands Tommy up to a passenger, just before he falls to his death.

When an engine fails, the pilots are forced to crash-land in jungle terrain, with Amazon rainforest plants. The nearest civilization is across the mountains, but in the meantime there are water and fruit supplies.

Bill and Joe struggle to repair the damaged airliner, while the others remove all unnecessary weight from the plane.

The traumatic experience has impact on most of the survivors. The Spenglers rediscover their love for each other, Bill warms to Peggy, disregarding her sordid past. Judson falls apart and gets drunk, while Alice begins to feel attracted to Joe. Even Vasquez reconsiders his radical beliefs.

More melodrama kicks in after 23 days, when Crimp disappears, only to be discovered dead by Tommy, with a poison dart. Peggy takes Tommy to safety while he covers their retreat, but he is killed by some natives.

The airliner is almost repaired, when an oil leak develops, and Bill and Joe patch it. Only four adults can get aboard, and the dilemma is who would stay behind, Vasquez, feeling doomed, offers to make the decision. Meanwhile Professor Spengler feels that he and his wife have lived long lives and should stay, and Judson tries to bribe Vasquez by offering to pay for a top lawyer.

Vasquez determines that both pilots and both young women will go along with Tommy. Judson attacks, and Vasquez shoots him dead. The airliner takes off, leaving behind Vasquez and the Spenglers.

The natives approach, and Professor Spengler feels they should take their own lives. Vasquez lies, claiming there are only three bullets left. He kills the couple with his last two, and then awaits his death.

The film is skillfully directed by John Farrow (one of Hollywood’s underestimated directors), benefiting from excellent production values, especially Nicholas Musuraca’s sharp black-and white cinematography.

Commercial Appeal:

Made on a modest budget of $225,000, the movie generated some profit.

Recycling:

In 1948, Five Came Back was remade as the Mexican film Los que volvieron, and in 1956 by producer-director Farrow himself as Back from Etrenity, starring Robert Ryan and Swedish sex symbol Anita Ekberg.

Credits:

RKO (producer)

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