“What Were They Thinking??”: Two heroic American icons in “some very bad films with planes in them”

By on August 16, 2016

What Were They Thinking?? collects three short aviation-themed public domain films which we’ll admit isn’t the typical kind of selection you’ll find among our current collection of genre movies and music documentaries over on our Night Flight Plus channel, but if you watched “Night Flight” when it aired on the USA Network in the 1980s with any frequency, you likely saw a lot of social guidance, educational and propaganda films, focusing on health and hygiene, drug use and other topics, and we think What Were They Thinking?? fits right in with some of those.

We’ll admit that the title for this collection — which seems to question whether two heroic American icons, Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan, made poor career choices when they decided to act in these films — is a little off-putting if you happen to be fans of either men, but please don’t get mad at us, we didn’t come up with the title.

Or that tag-line: “Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan in some very bad films with planes in them.” Nope, we didn’t think of that either.

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We think, however, if you read the rest of this blog and check out these films (they total a little over one hour), you’ll set aside any feelings you might have about the title of the collection and focus instead on the actors agreeing to appear in these films in the first place. We are, after all, talking about a couple of American icons.

During the bicentennial year of 1976, celebrated American actor Jimmy Stewart took some time off from campaigning in California for his friend Ronald Reagan in the presidential primaries in order to narrate a 22-minute documentary, Sentimental Journey, produced and directed by Ferde Grofé, Jr., which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the DC-3, an early civil aircraft which was originally built for the U.S. Army Air Force.

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The film appears to have been made as a kind of promotional piece for the McDonnell-Douglas corporation (Stewart is credited as “Mr. James Stewart”), and the airport scenes were shot on the tarmac at Santa Monica Airport.

Stewart had narrated a number of documentaries about subjects or topics he not only believed in or had some experience in, like Thunderbolt, a 1947 documentary directed by William Wyler about fighter-plane support of ground troops during WWII.

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In this one, he plays a veteran DC-10 captain who lands his commercial airliner after a flight and then walks across the airport tarmac, where he comes across an old DC-3 plane now serving night freight duty.

Stewart gets nostalgic for the days when he used to pilot the durable, Douglas-built aircraft, and when he enters the cockpit of the plane once called the “Grand Old Lady,” he beings to reminisce about flying the very same type of plane during World War II.

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In his real life, Stewart was initially rejected by the US Army in 1940 for being five pounds under the required weight for someone his height (he weighed 143 lbs. and stood 6 ft. 3-inches tall), but he put on some weight and in March of 1941 enlisted with the Army Air Corps, rising to the rank of second lieutenant by January of the next year.

He’d already had a lot of experience as a pilot before joining the military, having received his private pilot certificate in 1935. He used to fly cross-country to visit his parents, and had totaled over 400 flight hours by the time he had joined the Army Air Cops, but the US Army Air Force believed that Stewart, who was already a famous Hollywood celebrity, would best suit their needs “behind the lines,” training pilots and making promotional training films that were seen back home.

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Stewart, however, wanted to be on the front lines, and appealing to his commanding officer and was eventually assigned to a unit overseas, and by August of 1943 was a member of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, flying missions in Europe. He was promoted to captain, and then to major, and flew combat missions over Germany in a B-24 plane, taking the lead position in bombing raids over Nazi-occupied territory.

Stewart was awarded numerous medals for his bravery — including the Distinguished Flying Cross — and continued to be promoted, rising to the rank of colonel, becoming one of only a handful of American soldiers to ever rise from private to colonel within a four year span.

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After the war, Stewart was a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and when he finally retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968, after 27 years of service, he was subsequently promoted to Major General, a two-star general ranking which is the equivalent to a Rear Admiral in the Navy with typically 10,000-20,000 troops under his command.

You can see how a person with all of this experience might agree to appear in documentaries like Sentimental Journey, even as an unseen narrator in films like Thunder In The Sky, the second documentary featured here about the ace pilots known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, nicknamed The Flying Thunderbirds, similar to the Blue Angels, who thrill live audiences with their aviation skills at special air shows across the country.

We’re not quite sure when this one was made, looks to be sometime in the 1970s.

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Flying was quite probably Jimmy Stewart’s first love, and we have no doubt that he would likely chuckle at the idea that two of his films about aviation would be packaged with a title like What Were They Thinking??, and we think he might even try to put a spin on it, declaring the title might actually instead refer to our enemies in World War II, who, if they knew how bad ass Stewart and the other American fighter pilots were, and still thought it was a good idea to go up against us in the blue skies above… well, then, what the hell were they thinking??

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As for the third documentary collected here, we have Recognition Of The Japanese Zero Fighter, an educational military training film from 1943 which stars future U.S. president Ronald Reagan as a young pilot.

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The film centers around a plot — interspersed with animated segments, illustrating the physical characteristics of the Japanese Zero fighter aircraft and how it can be distinguished from an American plane of similar appearance, the P-40 — during which Reagan (as Lieutenant Jimmy Saunders) learns about the Zero’s characteristics, capabilities and weaknesses.

Reagan — who during World War II served as a fighter-director U.S. Navy officer aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean — is sent up on a reconnaissance mission, flying over the Pacific, where he encounters another plane which he can’t tell is friendly or not. That’s when Saunders’ training kicks in, and he’s able to make the right call.

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This film is an example of the kind of WWII training film developed and produced by the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit and it was meant to address a very serious problem — American pilots were mistakenly shooting down our own men because they could not easily distinguish between our own P-40s and the Japanese Zero fighter planes.

We’re told it was not a common occurrence, but we think the need for this film certainly must have been because the U.S. military felt it would have had some kind of impact, otherwise why would the Motion Picture Unit go through the trouble to produce the documentary?

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According to a 1946 piece in Hollywood Quarterly, “uncounted lives” were saved because the First Motion Picture Unit rushed production on the film and prints were sent to the Pacific bases as quickly as possible in order to make sure American pilots were able to identify the Zero and stop shooting down the P-40 in mistake.

Was it a mistake for Reagan to have made an appearance in such a film? Unlikely, unless you perhaps think it might have damaged his movie career. It seems like a better choice than Bedtime for Bonzo, certainly.

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By the way, the narrator on this film is the great Art Gilmore, who made hundreds of TV appearances in the 1950s and ’60s, including “Adam-12″ and “Dragnet.” He also announced Reagan, who made his “A Time For Choosing” speech in 1964, supporting Republican candidate for president, Barry Goldwater.

Reagan had decided to sit out the election himself, choosing not to run for the office, correctly believing that President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 would sweep Lyndon Baines Johnson — who had become president after Kennedy’s death — back into the Oval Office again with the country’s swelling sympathy vote.

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If you were interested in this post, first of all, thank you!, and you might also enjoy reading our post on Private Snafu, who was probably the U.S. Army’s worst soldier during WWII — he sounded like Bugs Bunny and looked a bit like Elmer Fudd, and he was also sloppy, lazy and prone to shooting off his mouth to Nazi agents. He was hugely popular with his fellow GIs, however, and in every episode, he taught soldiers what they should not being doing, from blabbing about U.S. Army troop movements, and helpful bits of intel, like what happens to you when you don’t take your malaria medication.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.