The form-fitting flight suit is a bridge too far.
Maybe someone younger with a fuller build, like William Holden or Kirk Douglas. But a forty-nine-year-old Humphrey Bogart wearing accordion arms and legs and sporting a helmet resembling a hard hat with a welder’s visor reminded me of a kid dressed up in a homemade robot costume.
The story opens during World War II with Bogart as an enlisted pilot leading bombing runs and romancing a Red Cross worker played by Eleanor Parker. When he’s ordered home, Bogart and Parker try to marry, but a series of contrivances thwart their efforts and Bogart leaves.
Cut to present day where more contrivances see a washed-up Bogart land a test pilot job for an aviation mogul played by Raymond Massey. Of course, Parker shows up as Massey’s secretary. She’s dating Massey’s chief engineer, played by Richard Whorf.
Conflict arises when Bogart suggests piloting Massey’s experimental fighter jet from Alaska to Washington, D.C. It’s a stunt to convince the Washington brass the plane is ready for production. Whorf opposes the stunt, convinced the jet needs the new safety features he’s developing.
Massey wants to produce the fighter now. Bogart wants the money the stunt will net him, so he can propose to Parker. Whorf wants time to finish his safety innovations.
As Bogart races to Washington clad in the aforementioned flight suit, Whorf races to implement his new designs, using himself as a test pilot.
There’s a passable story buried in Chain Lightning, but Bogart’s wrong for the role. The laughable sight of him squeezed into the flight suit distracts from the script’s foresight. Though common enough today, escape pods, pressurized flight suits, and braking parachutes were science fiction to 1950s audiences. When he lands, Bogart says, “Get me out of this Buck Rogers monkey suit, will ya?”
Compounding matters, the film pushes the melodrama, despite the three leads having no chemistry. Will Bogart and Parker get back together? Will there be obstacles to their romance? I think you know the answer.
The resulting film feels like one of Bogart’s pre-Casablanca pictures that saw him cast in whatever assembly line production Warner Bros. was cranking out that week. Bogart deserved better.