Chain Lightning (1950): Aviation Actioner, Starring Humohrey Bogart, Eleanor Parker, Raymond Massey

The aviation actioner Chain Lightning was based on the story “These Many Years” by blacklisted writer Lester Cole (under the pseudonym “J. Redmond Prior”).

Grade: C+ (*1/2* out of *****)

Chain Lightning
Chain Lightning (1950).jpg

The film stars Humphrey Bogart, who might have been too old (he was 51) to play convincingly a test pilot, Eleanor Parker and Raymond Massey.

The screenplay was written by Liam O’Brien and Vincent B. Evans. During World War II, Evans had been the bombardier on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle. Cole’s credit was officially restored by the Writers Guild of America in 1997.

Chain Lightning was one of Bogart’s final Warner films, ending a 20-year association.

The film was released in multiple versions for different countries; in Germany, it was known as Des Teufels Pilot.

Created in the postwar era to reflect the progress in aviation and aeronautics, the film is a fictional account of an American company building high-speed jet aircraft.

Lt. Colonel Matt Brennan, a bomber pilot discharged from the military, runs a civilian flying school, where he is reunited with an old US Army Air Force buddy, Major Hinkle.

Brennan is offered a job at the Willis Aircraft Company as chief test pilot for an experimental high speed jet fighter known as the JA-3, designed by Carl Troxell, who knows Brennan from the war. A flashback to B-17 missions over Germany reveals Brennan to be a top-notch pilot.

In order to prove the capabilities of the new JA-3, capable of speeds up to 1,400 mph (2,300 km/h), Brennan convinces Willis that a record-breaking flight from Nome, Alaska to Washington D.C. via the North Pole will impress the government. At the same time, Troxell tries to develop a safer version of the revolutionary aircraft JA-4, equipped with an escape pod, but he is killed during a test flight.

The record flight is a success, and Brennan earns $30,000, enough to marry Jo Holloway, his former flame who is now Willis’ secretary.

In the end, despite his earlier reservations about the need for safety systems and with Troxell’s death in mind, Brennan files another JA-4 for government demonstration, using the escape pod to prove that the new aircraft is safe. On landing, he falls into Jo’s arms.

Final production was held back from release until 1950. In order to realistically depict the flight testing, permission was obtained to film at various Air Force bases, including Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base).

Location shooting were at the San Fernando Valley Airport (now Van Nuys Airport). A realistic full-scale JA-3/JA-4 model created by Paul Mantz, the aerial sequence director, was built for $15,000.

The origins of the film model stemmed from a derelict Bell P-39 Airacobra fuselage that had been reworked by Vince Johnson, an expert “lofter”.

The Warner Bros. contract called for completion of a realistic (if futuristic) fighter able to taxi and deploy parachutes. Besides the full-scale model used for the ground sequences, several scale models were built. A Willis JA-3 fibreglass miniature used in the production, measuring 80 in. long and a wingspan of 59 in., was auctioned in 2009 for $1,300.

Revisiting his use of the wartime fleet of aircraft, obtained for films such as Twelve O’Clock High (1949), Mantz’s B-17F, 42–3369, appearing as “Naughty Nellie,” recreated the wartime missions that the central character recalls in a flashback sequence.

Stock footage of bomber missions over Germany includes a brief view of the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter that is the inspiration for the later postwar supersonic fighter that one of the central characters envisions.

The film fared well with the public, as record-breaking aircraft were often in the news. According to Warner Bros. accounts, the film earned $1,665,000 domestically and $890,000 foreign.

When Chain Lightning premiered at the Edwards Air Force Base, where location shooting had taken place, vet pilots such as Chuck Yeager easily spotted the film’s artifice, especially in a scene in which the Willis JA-3 is towed down the runway with the tow cable evident.

Chain Lightning is among Bogart’s lesser features; some have argued that it’s a B film. The narrowly conceived plot lacked character development.

For many, the true star was the technology on display. The film incorporated advanced technology and equipment like escape pods, braking parachutes, G-suits and mixed jet/rocket power plants. The film’s advisor Paul Mantz envisioned an “aircraft of tomorrow” when designing the centerpiece aircraft models and predicted much of today’s modern jet-aircraft technology.

Humphrey Bogart Lt. Colonel Matthew “Matt” Brennan
Eleanor Parker Joan “Jo” Holloway
Raymond Massey Leland Willis
Richard Whorf Carl Troxell
James Brown Major Hinkle
Roy Roberts Major General Hewitt
Morris Ankrum Ed Bostwick
Fay Baker Mrs. Willis
Fred Sherman Jeb Farley (uncredited)


Directed by Stuart Heisler
Written by Lester Cole (from story “These Many Years”), Liam O’Brien (screenplay) and Vincent B. Evans (screenplay)
Produced by Anthony Veiller
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Thomas Reilly
Music by David Buttolph
Distributed by Warner

Release date: February 25, 1950

Running time: 94 minutes; 90 minutes (Germany)
Budget $1,477,000
Box office $2,555,000