Chain Lightning (film)

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Chain Lightning
Chain Lightning (1950).jpg
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Produced by Anthony Veiller
Written by Lester Cole (from story "These Many Years")
Liam O'Brien (screenplay) and Vincent B. Evans (screenplay)
Starring Humphrey Bogart
Eleanor Parker
Raymond Massey
Music by David Buttolph
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Thomas Reilly
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • February 25, 1950 (1950-02-25) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
94 minutes
90 minutes (Germany)
Country United States
Language English
Multiple translations

Chain Lightning is a 1950 American aviation film based on the story "These Many Years" by black-listed writer Lester Cole (under the pseudonym "J. Redmond Prior"); the screenplay was written by Liam O'Brien and Vincent B. Evans. During World War II, Evans had been the bombardier on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart as a test pilot, Eleanor Parker, and Raymond Massey. Cole's credit on the film was officially restored by the Writers Guild of America in 1997, although the only screen versions have "suggested by a story by J. Raymond Prior" listed.[2]

Created in the postwar era to reflect the progress in aviation and aeronautics, it is a fictional account of a US company engaged in creating and producing high-speed jet aircraft. Completed in early 1949, Chain Lightning was one of Bogart's final Warner Bros. films, ending a 20-year association. Due to the appeal of the subject, the film was released in multiple versions for 11 different countries; in Germany, it was known as Des Teufels Pilot.


Lt. Colonel Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart), discharged from the military, runs a civilian flying school, where he is reunited with an old US Army Air Force buddy, Major Hinkle (James Brown).

Brennan is offered a job at the Willis Aircraft Company as chief test pilot for an experimental high speed jet fighter known as the JA-3, designed by Carl Troxell (Richard Whorf). Troxell is also a link to Brennan's past, having known him in the war when Brennan was a bomber pilot. A flashback to B-17 missions over Germany reveal Brennan to be a top-notch pilot.

Another connection to his past is his former flame, Jo Holloway (Eleanor Parker), now Willis' secretary. In order to prove the capabilities of the new JA-3, capable of speeds up to 1,400 mph (2,300 km/h), Brennan convinces Willis that a record-breaking flight from Nome, Alaska to Washington D.C., via the North Pole, will impress the government. At the same time, Troxell tries to develop a safer version of the revolutionary aircraft, the JA-4, equipped with an escape pod, but dies during a test flight.

The earlier record flight is a success with Brennan earning a $30,000 paycheck, enough to marry Jo. Then he learns that Troxell has been killed. Despite his earlier reservations about the need for safety systems, Brennan takes another JA-4 out for the official government demonstrations, using the escape pod to prove that the new aircraft is safe. On landing, he falls into the arms of his beloved.


Actor Role
Humphrey Bogart Lt. Colonel Matthew "Matt" Brennan
Eleanor Parker Joan "Jo" Holloway
Raymond Massey Leland Willis
Richard Whorf Carl Troxell
James Brown Major Hinkle
Roy Roberts Major General Hewitt
Morris Ankrum Ed Bostwick
Fay Baker Mrs. Willis
Fred Sherman Jeb Farley (uncredited)


Production still showing Willis JA-3 miniature

Principal filming took place from April 16, 1949 to July 1949, but the final production was held back from release until 1950. In order to realistically depict the flight testing, permission was obtained to film at various United States Air Force bases including Muroc Army Air Field where experimental testing took place, as well as location shooting occurring at the San Fernando Valley Airport (now Van Nuys Airport).[3] A realistic full-scale JA-3/JA-4 model created by Paul Mantz, the aerial sequence director,[3] was built for $15,000. The origins of the film model stemmed from a derelict Bell P-39 Airacobra fuselage that had been reworked by Vince Johnson, an expert "lofter".[4] The Warner Bros contract called for completion of a realistic (if futuristic) fighter able to taxi and deploy parachutes. Besides the full-scale model used for most of the ground sequences, a number of scale models were built. Recently, a Willis JA-3 fibreglass miniature used in the production, measuring 80 in. long and a wingspan of 59 in., was auctioned for $1,300 USD.[5]

Revisiting his use of the wartime fleet of aircraft he had obtained for films such as Twelve O'Clock High (1949), Mantz’s B-17F, 42-3369, appearing as “Naughty Nellie”, recreated the wartime missions that the central character recalls in a flashback sequence.[3] Stock footage of bomber missions over Germany includes a brief view of the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter that is the inspiration for the later postwar supersonic fighter that one of the central characters envisions.


The film fared well with the public as the subject of record-breaking aircraft was typical of many of the headlines of the day. Most viewers were convinced that the aircraft in the film was a new United States Air Force fighter. However, when Chain Lightning was premiered at the recently renamed Edwards Air Force Base where location shooting had taken place, veteran pilots such as Chuck Yeager easily saw through the subterfuge, especially in a scene where the "Willis JA-3" was being towed down the runway with the tow cable clearly evident.[4]

Critically, it was considered one of Bogart's lesser features and although production standards were acceptable, it has the look of a "B" film.[6] The main criticism stems from a limited plotline that does not fully allow the characters' development.[7] The contemporary review from The New York Times cited the true "star" of the film was the technology on display: "Like its title, this vehicle moves with exciting speed when it is airborne, but it slows down to a plodding walk... when it hits the ground."[6]

With the incorporation of highly advanced technology and equipment including escape pods, braking parachutes, G-suits and mixed jet/rocket powerplants, some reviewers considered the film as an exercise in science fiction.[6] However, Paul Mantz, the film's aviation advisor, in designing the centerpiece aircraft models, had envisioned an "aircraft of tomorrow" and had accurately predicted much of today's modern jet aircraft technology.[4]

Home media[edit]

Although released in VHS format in 1992 by MGM/UA Home Entertainment, the original version does not include a correction for the writing credit to Lester Cole.[8] Warner Archives released an official DVD on January 24, 2012.[9]



  1. ^ "Original Print Information: Chain Lightning." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 11, 2013.
  2. ^ "Notes for 'Chain Lightning' (1950)." Retrieved: December 31, 2009.
  3. ^ a b c LoBianco, Lorraine. "Chain Lightning: Overview Article." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: December 30, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Dwiggins 1967, p. 178.
  5. ^ "Lot 795: Humphrey Bogart JA-3 miniature in Chain Lightning." Retrieved: December 30, 2009.
  6. ^ a b c "The screen in review: 'Chain Lightning,' An excursion by Warners into the jet age; Arrives at the Strand." The New York Times, February 20, 1950. Retrieved: December 31, 2009.
  7. ^ "Other Reviews for 'Chain Lightning' (1950)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: May 23, 2012.
  8. ^ "Misc Notes for 'Chain Lightning' (1950)." Turner Classic Movies, 2009. Retrieved: January 1, 2010.
  9. ^ "Chain Lightning." WB Shop, 2012. Retrieved: January 24, 2012.


  • Dwiggins, Don. Hollywood Pilot: The Biography of Paul Mantz. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Buff's Guide to Aviation Movies". Air Progress Aviation Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 1983.
  • Michael, Paul. Humphrey Bogart: The Man and his Films. New York: Bonanza Books, 1965.

External links[edit]