Back when I was a graduate student in physics, studying for my PhD, the last thing I wanted was entertainment I had to think about. That was in the 60’s, and the movie production companies were running scared of television. Wide-screen extravaganzas with huge casts of well-known actors were all the rage, and quite a number were comedies. At some point during this period I saw “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,” and fell in love with it.
Of course in those days you saw a movie once or maybe twice during the few days it was in town, but I remembered it well enough that it was one of the first I bought on VHS. I think I wore that tape out, and I’ve had it on DVD for some time now.
It’s one I watch when I’m in the mood for laughter, and it’s one of the few I cannot watch without cracking up. Especially the scene with the fire engine and the airplane chasing each other. Or the dastardly deeds of Sir Percival Ware-Armitage (played by Terry-Thomas.)
The plot centers on an international air race across the English Channel from London to Paris. The race is fiction, but he planes were replicas of those actually being flown (or that people were trying to fly) in the first decade if the 20th century. Some of the flying got a little help from special effects, which is pointed out in the accompanying commentary, but most actually used the planes rebuilt from the early plans, but with slightly more powerful engines. I found it amusing that they couldn’t get the French Demoiselle off the ground until they checked on the weight of the original pilot. Turns out he was a lightweight, so the flight scenes with that plane were done with a female pilot.
Some of the national stereotypes would be considered in questionable taste today, but I find the movie is more making fun of the stereotypes than promoting them.
The opening and closing make use of a good deal of real newsreel footage, a delightful performance by Red Skelton, and a series of wonderful animated cartoons of the flyers and their misadventures. This is a movie that keeps me grinning from ear to ear, and if you like broad, almost slapstick comedy you’ll enjoy it.