I’ve watched the test pilot drama Chain Lightning (1950) a few times since I first saw it via the home edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, the most recent viewing on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. I haven’t connected with the film; the story is uninspiring, the script is flat, and the airborne action offers moderate thrills. However, I keep coming back to it, because of my fascination with its leads Humphrey Bogart and Eleanor Parker.
The tagline for Chain Lightning proclaims it as being “With that special brand of Bogart romance.” As much as that is typical marketing language that you would expect to see on a movie poster, Bogart does offer an unusual romantic perspective. In a film landscape where men rarely showed vulnerability, especially when it came to women, Bogie was all about being open-hearted and showing it.
While he wasn’t best known as a great screen lover, Bogart was a partner in some of the most moving screen romances. His pairing in three films with real-life love Lauren Bacall is the most legendary, with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) a close second. As he was in those partnerships, Bogie is vulnerable with Parker here, he lets you see him pine for her. The film is too weak, and his other screen matches too legendary for their romance to endure as one for the ages, but it is yet another example of how well Bogart could communicate his emotions and his willingness to be emotionally raw.
Parker is equally good at subtly, but effectively communicating vulnerability and conflict. It’s perplexing that she wasn’t a bigger star, because no matter what material she had, she always dove right into the emotions of her character and drew the audience into her character’s world. Bogart is one of her better screen partners, because they have equal courage in laying themselves open.
As I found the action and the plot lacking in Chain Lightning, this was what held my attention. The story of Matt Brennan (Bogart), a World War II pilot who test flies an experimental jet has its moments of excitement and tension, but I don’t know that I would have watched it more than once without the relationship between Brennan and Jo Holloway (Parker) a former WWII love coming back into his life.
There were other elements here that I found pleasing though. Raymond Massey gets the self-absorbed determination of his aviation tycoon just right. It’s also a pleasure to watch Bogart alone in the cockpit during his test pilots. He’s known for his way with a line, but in observing him in silence for long stretches, you can see how skilled he was as a physical actor as well. I was riveted watching his varied reactions to his dangerous mission.
Special features on the disc include the cartoon Bear Feat and the goofy Joe McDoakes short So You Want to Be an Actor.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.