Thursday, November 29, 2012

DVD Review: Chain Lightning (1949)

Chain Lightning (1949)

(Released: January 24, 2012 by The Warner Archive Collection)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Summary:  Brash test pilot flies experimental jet for post-war aircraft manufacturer… Meets a dying alien crash victim… Becomes Green Lantern!    

Oh, wait… That’s Hal Jordan! 

Our story is about retired Air Force Lt. Col. Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart)! 

Well, it’s KINDA the same… except for that “Green Lantern part”. 

How do ya want it, Willis?  The EASY WAY, or the HARD WAY?” 

“I don’t want any more TESTS! …Understand, Brennan?  No more TESTS!”

Okay, Willis… the HARD WAY!” 

…As if we’d expect anything less from Bogie! 

In a flashback to World War II, Bogart’s Brennan is introduced to “Carl Troxell” (Michael Whorf) one of the primary designers of the B-17 aircraft.  Having risked his life and those of his fellow airmen in B-17s, Brennan is more than pleased to show Mr. Troxell the faults and shortcomings of his creation, off the proving grounds and under actual combat conditions.  Needless to say, the two become “grudge rivals” for life.

There’s also Eleanor Parker as “Joan Holloway” (No, not the bombshell redhead from TV’s MAD MEN pictured below!), better known as “Jo” – attached to the Air Force, and the girl Brennan leaves behind in England, when he returns stateside.  I’m betting even cool-as-ice Bogie wouldn’t bail on the MAD MEN version of “Joan Holloway”!

After kicking around the States in the immediate post-war years, Brennan is asked to join the “Willis Aircraft Corporation” – a manufacturing firm headed by bombastic “Leland Willis” (Raymond Massey) – whose secretary just happens to be “Jo”. 

As if to support some cosmic “Small World Theory”, Willis’ chief designer is also Brennan’s old pal Carl Troxell – who has pulled stings to recruit Brennan – because he’s the only one good enough to test Willis and Troxell’s new experimental jet: The “JA-3”.  Brennan will either make it work, or die in the attempt… a seeming “win/win” for Troxell – as he, Brennan, and Jo form the film’s expected romantic triangle. 

To this end, rivals Brennan and Troxell even show up at Joan’s house at the SAME TIME, as if they were Popeye and Bluto courting Olive Oyl! 

GREAT LINE: Brennan to Troxell (upon discovering each other): “Well, do we leave together – or do we try to OUTSIT each other?” 

Troxell’s “JA-3” comes up short in testing, causing Brennan to crash-land, so he begins work on a new and improved “JA-4” complete with a power-boosted ejection system. 

However, just as in WW II, Brennan sees the flaws in Troxell’s designs.  He goes to directly to Willis with improvements of HIS OWN – engine modifications, wings filled with fuel for longer range, a pressurized suit for high altitude and extreme speeds, and other ideas to make the “JA-3” work. 

He backs this by convincing Willis to publicize a flight from Nome, Alaska – over the North Pole – to Washington, DC!  Brennan will land the jet at the feet of the very Air Force generals that might recommend purchasing the “JA-3”. 

Troxell gets wind of this, pushes his “JA-4” into production at a breakneck pace, and will be making a competing flight of his own – leaving poor Joan, once again caught in the middle of the rivalry. 

Who wins?  Who loses?  Who lives?  Who dies?  Who gets the girl?  …And, does anyone become Green Lantern during their test flight? 

Ya ain’t gonna find out from me!  We try to be Spoiler-Free at TIAH Blog!  You’ll have to see this forgotten Bogart classic on your own. 
What I WILL say is that, for 1949, the special effects are quite good!  Expert model-work of experimental jets, used in conjunction with actual aircraft footage, nicely creates the illusion of vehicles soaring at dizzying air speeds!  Indeed, one rarely thinks of Golden Age Warner Bros. films and special effects – but they certainly come together here.  Particularly effective is the opening shot of a Willis-made jet flying through a formidable thunder and lightning storm, as the title sequence rolls.

Yeah, it's the SAME PLANE as above!  No Thunder. No Lightning.

Supplementing the visual effects are some rather familiar SOUND EFFECTS to fans of Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons! 

Throughout this film you can hear “jetting” sounds that would soon be used for the Road Runner (The first entry in that series, “Fast and Furry-ous” would also debut in 1949), the unforgettable “bomber power dive” taken by Bugs Bunny and a wily Gremlin in the cartoon “Falling Hare” (1943), accelerations and decelerations later repurposed for flying saucers in such Bugs Bunny and Marvin Martian outings as “Hasty Hare” (1952) – and, most noticeable of all, the “accelerated spinning” sound later made famous by the Tasmanian Devil!  Look (actually, listen) for that at about 01:28:40. 
...Do me hear Bogie's plane?

 On that topic, Looney Tunes’ film editor Treg Brown clearly raided Warner Bros. movies for many of the sound effects heard in the cartoons… cannons firing, gunshots, gates crashing down, arrows flying, etc.  The more old Warner films I watch, from this perspective, the more I notice that.

Familiar Warner Bros. MUSIC also pervades “Chain Lightning”, such as rousing performances of “California, Here I Come” (used in countless WB cartoons, including the aforementioned “Hasty Hare”) and “Bless ‘Em All”, which serves as the recurring underscore of the film.  Don’t recognize that title?  Neither did I, but you’ll know it when you hear it. 

Finally, the great movie and entertainment site and invaluable resource, IMDB lists “Chain Lightning” as a 1950 film – but its actual on-screen credits say 1949.  (Or MCMXLIX) So, I’m stickin’ with that! 

Chain Lightning” is a release of “The Warner Archive Collection”.  Please GO HERE to read more about this relatively new enterprise from Warner Home Entertainment.   

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.  


It's Warner Archives:  That means virtually nothing in the way of Extra Features.  No commentary track, subtitles, logical chapter skips -- or even MENUS specifically designed for this movie.  No background or "Making Of" featurette.  No “Warner Night at the Movies” that I’ve loved so much in other packages!  And, there is a needlessly limited choice of devices on which to play it (no computers), vs. standard DVD. 

Picture and Sound Quality:  Warner Archives releases have, for the most part, received exceptional treatment when it comes to remastering.  Often, to a degree well beyond what might be expected for films of their age and relative obscurity. 

In the case of Chain Lightning, alas, there are occasional (but decidedly recurring) flaws and visual imperfections manifesting themselves primarily on the right side of the screen.  This is all the more odd, because Chain Lightningwas produced in 1949, while considerably older WAC films have looked better.  The SOUND is also somewhat low, requiring me to push my TV’s volume up to max.      

Chapter Skips:  Though mentioned above, “Chapter Skips” gets a special mention in our CONS section for Chain Lightningbecause the situation has actually REGRESSED from prior WAC releases.  The earliest WAC DVDs came with fixed 10-minute interval Chapter Skips – regardless of where that put viewers logically within the film.  A later wave of WAC releases seemed to correct this situation, offering Chapter Skips that worked more logically with the film – as in the Bogart film The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947). 

But, Warner Archives now returns us to the “10-minute intervals”, with both Chain Lightning and in the simultaneous release of Bogart’s 1945 Conflict, and that is an unfortunate step backward for WAC – and a CON for this review.   

But, all is not lost...

Oddly, the Pat O'Brien / Bogart film "The Great O'Malley" (subsequently released August 28, 2012) corrects and restores the more scene-logical chapter skips.  Go fig!

Menu: (Singular):  The Main (and only) Menu also takes a step back for this series of releases.  (James Cagney’s 1932 film Taxiand the 1945 Bogart film “Conflict”, released by WAC on the same day, also exhibit the same regression in menu design.  So this can be considered a backward trend).  Recent WAC menus offered a nice departure from the original standard, stark dark blue Warner Archives menu. 
The Old Blue Menu!
To the left, there was an attractive photo of “The Warner Bros. Theatre” (Was there actually such a thing?), with the marquee reading: “Now Playing: [Insert Name of Film Here], and a large image of the DVD box cover is pictured on the right of the menu. 

The NEWER, "WB Theatre" Menu!
Now, it’s just an image of an indistinct brick building at left, the iconic Warner Water Tower at right, with a medium blue sky backdrop.  There is NO picture of the DVD box cover – or ANY mention of the particular film you have purchased!  Only the options to “Play Trailer” and “Play Movie” are offered on this single generic menu.
Let's hear it for "The Great O'Malley"!
But, all is not lost, once again...

"The Great O'Malley" also offers an illustrated menu SPECIFIC to the film - a FIRST for Warner Archives.  So, Warner Archives advances schizophrenically again.   

It must be noted that both “Chapter Skips” and “Menu” had become “PROS” in the last wave of WAC releases.  Both regressed into “CONS” for this series of releases -- but both have ADVANCED back to "PROS" in following releases.   I'm almost ready to stop keeping score.   

The PROS: 

It's Warner Archives:  That means we get a film that would probably not garner sufficient support for a general release.  Given a choice between “Chain Lightning”, as a Warner Archive Collection release, or no release at all, I’ll gladly take a WAC version.

Robo-Promos:  The usual “Warner Archive Collection” Robo-Promo, standard on earlier releases, appears to have been eliminated.  

Warnings: The overabundance of Warnings, present on standard Warner commercial releases, in more languages than most consumers could EVER comprehend, has not manifested itself on Warner Archive Collection product.   

The Extra Feature (Singular): Theatrical Trailer for “Chain Lightning”:  (02:30)

…How I wish I could have written some of these!  Cue the Large On-Screen Text:

For the thrill of a lifetime, he gambled with destiny!

For the thrill of a moment, he gambled with a woman’s love!”

CLIP OF BOGIE (in an embrace with Eleanor Parker):There I was, up sixty-thousand feet…It was the quickest way to get down to you!”

Text continues: 

It’s that famous Bogart brand of rousing romance…

“…Plus that famous Bogart brand of pulse-pounding action!

“…Brought to the screen by Warner Bros., in an ELECTRIFYING BOLT of entertainment… CHAIN LIGHTNING!”  (Thunderclap sounds!)   

More Text:Co-starring Eleanor Parker as the redhead in his colorful life…
The lightning paced story of a guy who made ADVENTURE his career… and WOMEN his hobby 

[JOE’S NOTE: Damn!  Why did *I* have to choose COMIC BOOKS as a hobby!]

It’s Humphrey Bogart as you DESIRE HIM…

[JOE’S NOTE: Now, let’s not get carried away, folks!  Sure, I LIKE the guy, but…]

Eleanor Parker as HE desired HER…

[JOE’S NOTE: Yep, I definitely picked the WRONG HOBBY!]  

Topping the unforgettable thrills of CASABLANCA… The romantic adventure of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT… The roaring excitement of KEY LARGO

[JOE’S NOTE: Again, let’s not get carried away!]


The Film:   For a film about a test pilot that does not become Green Lantern, this is pretty cool!  Then again, what Bogart film isn’t!  He’s almost a “superhero” in his own right.  It’s only fitting that one of the greatest film stars of the WW II era brings us OUT of that period and into a new day -- tapping into the postwar world’s fascination with jet aviation.  

The Cast: 

·         Humphrey Bogart as “Matt Brennan”. 

·         Eleanor Parker as “Joan (Jo) Holloway”. 

·         Richard Whorf as “Carl Troxell”. 

·         Raymond Massey as “Leland Willis”. 

Also, among the cast is ‘50s Sci-Fi film player Morris Ankrum (“Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”, “The Giant Claw”, “Kronos”, “Rocketship X-M”, and more), who was also a semi-regular as a courtroom judge on PERRY MASON, as a Willis Aircraft engineer – and Irwin Allen TV Sci-Fi frequent guest star John Crawford (“Dr. Chronos” on LOST IN SPACE, etc.), uncredited as a “radio operator”.  Look for Crawford at 01:09:50.    


The package says: “There’s a new Bogart thrill in the sky!”  And, they were right! 

Taking into account the (by now) expected shortcomings of a Warner Archive product, as opposed to a “standard” Warner Home Video release, “Chain Lightning” still comes across as a very worthwhile package. 

Its running time of 01:34:41 is more reflective of 1949 production standards, than the shorter films of the ‘30s and earlier ‘40s – and the special effects are better than you’d expect from a film of that vintage. 

As I’ve hinted at throughout the review, there is an added dimension for comic book fans… echoes of the origin of the Silver Age Green Lantern. 

Considering there was only about a decade or less separating “Chain Lightning” and the saga of comic-book test pilot Hal Jordan, it is easy to speculate that this film might have been an influence on DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, writer John Broome, and artist Gil Kane toward their efforts to bring Green Lantern into the post-war, Jet Age. 

The very CADENCE of key character names and places in both film and comic book indicates something more than coincidental.  Speak them aloud, and see for yourself…

Matt Brennan – Hal Jordan.  Willis Aircraft – Ferris Aircraft.  And, combine “Carl Troxell” and “Leland Willis” to get “Carl Ferris”. 

Seems to me, we’ve got something just different enough to avoid any sniffs of plagiarizing, to serve as the basis for one of comicdom’s all-time greatest series.   

And, just as the work of Disney comic legends Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson were influenced by the cinema of their day… is the possibly similar influence of “Chain Lightning” on the talents of early Silver Age DC Comics THAT much out of the question.  …I leave it to you, folks! 

 Chain Lightning” is recommended for fans of Humphrey Bogart, the excitement of post-war America and the resulting “Jet Age”, Golden Age Warner Bros. filmmaking, and even (a not-so-strenuous stretch into) Silver Age comic books!   

Did someone say STRETCH?


scarecrow33 said...


This looks great! I had never heard of this one, and I thought I had a pretty good familiarity with Bogie's film output. I definitely want to check this out. As I said before, you have led me to some really great viewing experiences.

I think your assessment of the film as a proto-Green Lantern inspiration is probably correct. There are certainly enough "coincidences" to justify the theory. I really appreciate your presentation of graphics from the film with graphics from the comics and elsewhere. My mind works that way, too--one thing connects to another, to another.

I would add one more thing to the downside of the Warner Archive releases--you can't get them in stores!!! I would love to walk into Barnes & Noble some day and see a whole wall filled with WAC releases. Mail order is tough on me because the mail doesn't arrive until at least 6:30 PM or later, and if I miss a package, it's days before I can get it. So for me it would be extremely handy to find some of these goodies at one of my local stores. I'm glad these films are available--but it would be great if they were a little more accessible.

Joe Torcivia said...


One good thing about the Warner Archives Collection is that, over the last few years, they’ve brought a fair number of the more obscure Bogart and Cagney films to light – as you’ve certainly seen at this Blog. I’ve enjoyed many such films thanks to WAC, and hope to review more as time and situation allows. Indeed, there was one wave of them in January 2012 (that included “Chain Lightning”, “Conflict”, and “Taxi” – all reviewed here), and another such wave in August that includes “The Great O’Malley”, “China Clipper”, “Battle Circus” (picture Bogie starring in M.A.S.H.), and others.

One thing they HAVEN’T been nearly as good at of late is animation. Warner Bros. owns, or otherwise controls, a very high percentage of the best theatrical and television animation -- yet, for a program DESIGNED to trade in “lower volume / less overtly commercial releases”, WAC has performed poorly in that area.

They started out well, with “Space Kiddettes / Young Samson”, “Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles”, “The Herculoids”, and “Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor” – but have dropped the ball since, concentrating irregularly on ‘70s and ‘80s material and ignoring some pretty well known ‘60s H-B series, and even a few ‘90s Warner series like “Taz-Mania” and the vast majority of “The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries”. Why do we not have THOSE two?

And where's the TEX AVERY set I longed for a few posts ago?!

You also make a great point about WAC product not being available in stores.

Had I been doing these reviews a few years earlier, that would have “bubbled to the surface” for me as well, when virtually ALL of my DVD purchases were made in-store – mostly at Best Buy. But, in the last few years, Best Buy has been “uneven” if not outright BAD at offering the DVD product I want in-store.

I can’t find new volumes of PERRY MASON, GUNSMOKE, and BONANZA on Best Buy shelves anymore – much less any volume of “my new favorite western” WAGON TRAIN (which I’m STILL going to do an overview of, soon). Plenty of MAD MEN and THE WALKING DEAD, though! …And I *LIKE* those series, so it’s not a put down of anything but Best Buy’s stocking priorities.

I know that I can always find the next SIMPSONS, FAMILY GUY, or FUTURAMA at Best Buy, but I no longer feel confident in finding the wide range of things I once did. I’ve been a Best Buy Premiere Silver customer for years, but I believe this will be the year that ends, due to the fact that they don’t stock so much of what I USED TO routinely purchase there.

There are even LOONEY TUNES sets that Best Buy no longer stocks in-store! That’s why I’ve yet to review the Porky Pig set that features “Bunny and Claude” – because I’ve only received it YESTERDAY, as part of my greater Amazon “Black Friday” ordering.

So, having gotten out of the habit of getting stuff in-store at Best Buy, it may not have occurred to me to regard the “mail-order-only” aspect of WAC as a “CON”.

…But, yeah, it IS! (…Sure took a long way to get THERE, didn’t it?)

scarecrow33 said...

Yes, there still are a lot of cartoon shows not available--seasons 2, 3, and 4 of Huckleberry Hound (why did they put a 1 on the side of the box when they didn't have any plans to issue any more?), the entire Quick Draw McGraw Series, the Loopy de Loop theatrical cartoons, the Secret Squirrel and Atom Ant shows, the Peter Potamus show--and how about Ruff and Reddy? I don't know about you, but I'd also like to see a Sinbad, Jr. collection--and that's just from the H-B stable. There's also the live-action/animated "Huck Finn" series (also from H-B), the "Linus the Lionhearted" series, and some Rankin/Bass gems like "Smokey the Bear", "The Reluctant Dragon," and the "Festival of Family Classics." Ah, the memories! Well, at least we got to enjoy them's just too bad that future generations may not get the same chance (but will they even care, things are changing so much?).

What the corporate powers-that-be need to do is let a few of us fans loose among the archives, and then stand back and watch what wonders from the past we can dig up and dust off and bring to public awareness once again! (I can hear the "oohs" and "aahs" already!)

Joe Torcivia said...

Those are EXACTLY the “pretty well known ‘60s H-B series” I meant in my comment, Scarecrow! Along with Wally Gator, Touché Turtle, and Lippy the Lion!

Though, even*I* never considered “Sinbad Jr.”(And, why not?) …but I’d also thought of the H-B versions of “Laurel and Hardy” and “Abbott and Costello”. I know fans tend to look down on these – and, in comparison with the “genuine articles”, how could you not – but I’ve seen a small number of these on You Tube, and they’re certainly not as bad as most of the later things H-B did in the decade or two that followed.

…Besides, anything Michael Maltese had a hand in writing can’t be all bad. Not to mention the novelty of Bud Abbott voicing himself. Though, I can understand the possibility of licensing issues with L&H and A&C. Maybe even Sinbad Jr. But not Wally Gator or Secret Squirrel!

And, what about continuing POPEYE? It’s been four years since we had one of those! I know Warner only licensed Popeye, but I expected to at least get into SOME of the color shorts by now.

Finally, the one I really can’t believe is still out there unreleased is the 1968 Filmation BATMAN series! With all the Batman product Warner HAS released, why is this one still in the vault? They’ve released most (not all) of Filmation’s Superman, all of Aquaman and the other characters like Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, etc. I understand Superboy might still be in some litigation limbo, but why not Batman? It was written by actual DC Comics writers of the day like Bob Haney and George Kashdan, and featured Olan Soule (the voice I still “hear”, when reading Silver Age Batman) Casey Kasem, and Ted Knight in the voice cast.

I don’t imagine future generations would have much interest in “Linus the Lionhearted”, even if Warner DID control its use – but, if you look over the long list of movies that Warner Archives offers, you could certainly say the same for the vast majority of them. Bogart and Cagney may be “evergreen” stars to a lot of folks (Certainly around HERE!), but I’d say a large part of the other offerings are not.

But, that’s EXCATLY what The Warner Archive Collection was created to be! “Manufactured on Demand” products for a more narrowly defined consumer base.

And why they no longer seem to be applying that philosophy to animation, as vigorously as they continue to apply it to movies, remains a mystery to me.