aka Clouds Over Europe
Director – Tim Whelan, Screenplay – Ian Dalrymple, Story – Jack Whittingham, Brock Williams & Arthur Wimperis, Producer – Irving Asher, Photography (b&w) – Harry Stradling, Music Supervisor – Muir Mathieson, Supervising Art Director – Vincent Korda. Production Company – Harefield/London
Ralph Richardson (Major Charles Hammond), Laurence Olivier (Tony McVane), Valerie Hobson (Kay Lawrence), George Merritt (Barrett), George Curzon (Jenkins), George Butler (Air Marshall Gosport), Sandra Storme (Daphne)
Planes carrying top secret machine parts are going missing at sea. In reality, they being brought down and their crews taken prisoner by an enemy ship that is using a raygun that blows out the plane’s motor and forces it to crashland. Eccentric British Secret Service agent Major Charles Hammond and pilot Tony McVane team up to get to the bottom of the mystery.
On the level of plot description, Q Planes/Clouds Over Europe seems a story that has been dragged from the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s Air Wonder Stories or any British boy’s magazine – it could easily have been an adventure for the classic boy’s air hero Biggles, for instance. However, director Tim Whelan and, in particular, star Ralph Richardson conspire to turn it into a completely different film. If anything, it ends up becoming more of a frothy British drawing room stage comedy than it is ever an air adventure story.
The results turn out as something quite eccentric. Ralph Richardson makes a a bizarre comic character, charging through the film with a dapper comic certainty. There are some very funny bits with him picking carrots up on the end of his umbrella; deciding to cook stews to help himself think; opening a wardrobe that is filled with identical bowler hats then eventually absently choosing the same hat he gave his manservant to hold; and a running gag about him continually having to postpone his plans with girlfriend Sandra Storme and not allowing her the opportunity to say what she wants (which at the end turns out to be that she has married another man). A very young Laurence Olivier plays the handsome straight-man up against Richardson.
At least amid all the eccentricity, the detective story is not neglected and buzzes along well. Although the actual science-fictional content for which Q Planes/Clouds Over Europe is often listed in genre guides – a mysterious motor-destroying ray beam – is minimal. There are some annoying lapses – such as the story never telling us why the unnamed foreign power wishes to capture British airmen and planes.
Director Tim Whelan was an American-born director who started in the silent era as a writer for Harold Lloyd but spent most of his working career in England. His most famous other film was as one of the co-directors of The Thief of Bagdad (1940).