Whenever I need a good movie about aviation, I just pop in West Point of the Air—Oh, hold it. I never need a fix like that. As you can probably tell, this type of film isn’t really my thing, but I enjoy it nevertheless, and Rosalind Russell’s character Mrs. Dare Marshall is a small part of the reason.
The film stars Wallace Beery, Robert Young, and Maureen O’Sullivan. Wallace Beery plays “Big Mike” Stone—I am going to be truthful here and disclose the fact that I am not a fan of this man. I am not saying that I wouldn’t mind throwing a vase at the television every time I see his face, but—yeah, I’m going to say that. However, I am going to remain as impartial as I can and focus on the actual character he plays. He is the father of “Little Mike” Stone, played by Robert Young, who was indeed young—only in his 20s when he filmed this. A childhood friend and sweetheart named Skip is played by Maureen O’Sullivan and she does well in her role, adding just the right amount of sweetness but showing her strength toward the end of the film.
The film opens with Skip and Little Mike as young children, about 5 years old or so. Skip also has a brother named Phil (Russell Hardie) and the three spend a lot of time with each other, playing and learning. Big Mike is also friends with Skip’s and Phil’s father, (Lewis Stone), as both men work in the world of aviation. Also hanging around is Big Mike’s buddy, “Bags” (James Gleason), also called “Marble Head” by Big Mike. It is natural that Phil and Little Mike devote their time to flying airplanes when they grow up because both their fathers have worked on airplanes their entire lives.
As the three children blossom into young men and women, Little Mike and Skip carry on a budding romance and the two young men go to West Point for flying school. They are both in the Army and Little Mike even plays for the Army’s football team. This is a source of pride for his father and he is excited to watch his boy in the football game against the Navy team.
This is when Rosalind Russell makes her first appearance in the film. She plays divorcée Mrs. Dare Marshall and is seated behind Big Mike in the bleachers. She is sitting with a gentleman friend of hers and Big Mike seems greatly bothered by her existence as she keeps on talking during the game and even takes a drink from a flask to warm herself up. When his son makes the winning touchdown, Big Mike is shielded from this great moment as a woman in front of him falls on top of him in her excitement. However, he turns to Dare and tells her she has good taste by betting on the right team. When she discovers Little Mike is his son, she asks if she can meet him. After the game, there is a fun party where Skip and Little Mike dance under the sparkling lights and celebratory confetti. Dare makes her way toward Little Mike, telling him how excited she is to meet him, and immediately invites the whole group to the theater where they are going to watch the newsreel of the game. She figures now Big Mike can see his son make that historic touchdown. However, during the big moment in the theater, a group sitting in front of Big Mike decides to get up and leave the theater. Perfect timing! Although Big Mike has missed the celebratory moment twice, he is still as proud of his son as ever. When they all drop Skip and Phil off on the train, Skip tells Little Mike to be sure and take care of himself, to which Dare replies, “Don’t worry! I’ll look after him!” while taking his arm.
Naturally, Skip is worried about this. And with good reason—soon, Little Mike has two framed photos of women on his mantle: one of Skip and one of Dare.
To get back to the subject of flying, it is important to note that Little Mike loves to fly, but is a bit too cocky about his abilities and does not take any of it seriously. He would much prefer to do fun stunts in the sky than study the proper way in which to handle a plane. When Skip refuses to go out with Little Mike because she knows he has an important 60-hour solo flight the next morning, he is disappointed… but not for long. When he gets back to his quarters, he finds Dare there, waiting for him. Dare only means trouble for him as she persuades him to stay out all night, even though he has an important test in the morning. At 1 am, he is at her house, having a drink, and it is subtly implied that he spends the night there instead of going back to his quarters. This implication is topped with her line, “Well, you don’t have to solo tonight, do you?” as she hands him a drink. He takes the glass from her, a way of accepting her invitation. They drive out the next morning in his car onto the air field, and cause Phil to narrowly miss them and crash nearby. Phil has to have his leg amputated and Little Mike blames himself for having the car there in the first place.
The constant presence of Mrs. Dare Marshall is a worrisome problem for Big Mike, who is never pleased when she is around. He obviously sees her as a predatory divorcée who will bring his boy to ruin. Rosalind Russell wrote that Robert Taylor started at MGM the same day she did (Life is a Banquet). And in this 1935 film, we can see who was the bigger man (or woman) in town. Russell has a significant role as the “other woman” while Taylor maintains a very small part as a fellow flying student who meets his demise in a plane crash toward the end. However, as many classic film buffs know, Robert Taylor would become a much bigger star than Rosalind Russell was. It was just a matter of when his big break would come.
The end of Mrs. Dare Marshall comes at a crisis point for Little Mike. She is happy to get him away from the world of aviation as he has recently quit the Army and flying for good. However, when Skip comes over and gives Dare a good talking-to about what is really important in Little Mike’s life, it is clear where Little Mike’s heart lies. Dare explains to Little Mike, “You never looked at me like that… almost as if you were hungry. I wonder if I’m going to lose you every time you hear a plane.” He indeed hears a plane outside, noticing it is his father.
When he runs off to try to stop his father from doing something foolish in the air, Dare waves goodbye, looking a little sad, but also resigned to the fact that Little Mike would never be able to quit flying.
The film ends with Little Mike saving his father after Big Mike crashes into the ocean. He drags him from the water and his father looks up at him thankfully. After being previously dishonorably discharged from the Army for talking back to his son who was higher ranked, Big Mike is let back in and receives the honor of pinning a medal to his brave son’s chest. Little Mike is reunited with Skip, they kiss, and they live happily ever after, it is assumed. The movie ends on a funny note when “Bags” kisses his buddy, Big Mike, on the cheek, to which Big Mike quips, “Only men belong in this outfit!”
To conclude, Rosalind Russell was very competent as the “other woman”—a mature divorcée whose life experience and habit of throwing caution to the wind was most likely what attracted Little Mike to her. The rest of the cast also does well, even Wallace Beery who, as I wrote above, I am not a fan of. As long as I try my best to be an impartial observer, I think I can look past the gruff exterior of this man to see something (maybe) of a proud father in his characterization.
Read TCM’s overview of the film