classic film

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: Q Planes

Laurence Olivier and Valerie Hobson in Q Planes

Released just months before England declared war on Germany in 1939, Q Planes (Clouds Over Europe) is a cross between a spy thriller and a comedy, and is a precursor to the strongly nationalistic, anti-German films that would reach their zenith in Britain during the war years. The film was helmed by American director Tim Whelan (Sidewalks of London and co-director of The Thief of Bagdad) who was then in Britain working for Alexander Korda at Denham Studios.

Q Planes was the second film Laurence Olivier did with Whelan. The first was the delightful romantic comedy The Divorce of Lady X co-starring Merle Oberon, which had been filmed in Technicolor. I actually prefer The Divorce of Lady X on the whole, as it gives Olivier more to do with his character. This is not to say that Q Planes was bad, however. It was actually rather funny. Olivier plays Tony McVane, a test pilot who falls for an undercover journalist named Kay (Valerie Hobson) who is investigating a series of plane disappearances off the coast of England. The planes happen to be disappearing from the factory McVane works for. Investigating the mystery is Kay’s older brother Major Hammond, “an easy-going alcoholic” Scotland Yard secret service agent played to perfection by one of Olivier’s real life friends, Ralph Richardson. McVane and Hammond team up to solve the mystery of the missing planes. When McVane decided to go on one last test mission, his plane is shot down by German spies and he and his crew are taken captive. Onboard the enemy ship, McVane discovers that the same fate has befallen all of the other test pilots that have gone missing. They quickly form together to defeat the Germans (complete with really fake fight sequences and McVane firing a machine gun at his enemies) before being rescued by Hammond who commissions the Navy to help.

Ralph Richardson, Valerie Hobson and Laurence Olivier in Q Planes

Richardson gives what is by far the best and most interesting performance in the film. His Major Hammond is the quintessential British detective who has a string of cliche sayings such as “I say, old boy,” and “Good show, good show.” Although the script was penned by famous screenwriter Ian Dalrymple, Whelan apparently encouraged his actors to improvise their lines. What results is some fabulously heated and hilarious exchanges, particularly between Olivier and Hobson, who are paired as the romantic team.

Laurence Olivier in Q Planes

This was the last film Olivier starred in before going to Hollywood to film Wuthering Heights for Samuel Goldwyn and his character and performance are reflective of those he would play in various modern-dress propaganda films upon his return to England in 1940. I think he was quite good in light comedy, and it’s a shame he didn’t appear more often in this genre.

Overall, I think Olivier, Richardson and Hobson all starred in better films, but Q Planes is worth a look if you’d like to get a taste of British cinema in the 1930s. It’s also worth a look if you enjoy Laurence Olivier looking smoking hot. Just saying!

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (29)

  1. I haven’t seen Q Planes – from today’s perspective, it seems odd that a British film would be poking fun at the subject of disappearing aircraft when the county was on the brink of WW2 – I love Ralph Richardson in just about anything he does, so I will keep a look out for this film -thanks for your interesting post.

    1. It doesn’t poke fun at aircraft going missing. The comedy is all in the dialogue between Olivier, Hobson and Richardson, and Richardson’s initial inability to catch on to the truth of the case.

  2. I had never heard of Q Planes until I found out about it from your choice for the blogathon! Frankly, I would watch Laurence Olivier do a commercial for toilet bowl cleaner and enjoy it! I have not seen many of his pre-Wuthering Heights movies….I think I may have seen everything he did after that. Your article has intrigued me, and I will be looking for this one and others I have missed from that earlier period. Thanks for this interesting entry in our blogathon!

    1. Well, he didn’ t do any commercials for toilet bowl cleaner,but he did do one for Polaroid in the 70s, lol. I think his best pre-Wuthering Heights films in terms of overall quality of both the film itself and his performance are The Divorce of Lady X, Westward Passage with Ann Harding, and Fire Over England with Vivien Leigh.

    1. Yes indeed! The period from 1938–1948 was his best in terms of hotness. I find him extraordinarily handsome in the Anthony Asquith film The Demi-Paradise from 1943

  3. Kendra, when I saw the title Q PLANES, I thought it was some kind of Saturday matinee serial! 🙂 However, I HAD heard of CLOUDS OVER EUROPE, so once I began reading your very enjoyable blog post and saw both titles, everything fell into place for me, memory-wise. I could swear I saw this film many moons ago on TCM, and I remember liking what I saw, but it’s been a while. If it turns up on TCM again, I’ll have to give it my undivided attention. Besides, I agree with all of you that Laurence Olivier was quite the dashing gent! 🙂 Thanks for introducing a Yank like me to this film; blogathons sure are great places to learn about new-to-us movies!

    1. Ahh! Clouds Over Europe was the US title (I probably should have clarified that in the post). It was quite enjoyable–moreso than some of his other 1930s films. As far as his collaboration with Tim Whelan, I’d really recommend checking out The Divorce of Lady X. It’s easier to get hold of and I believe it’s on youtube. Plus, young Larry in color? Yes, please!

  4. Have not seen Q Planes– and will be perfectly honest and admit that I’d not even heard of it prior to this post. Pre-Hollywood Olivier? Yes, please!!

    1. Most definitely yes, please! This one’s on youtube in its entirety (and I believe The Divorce of Lady X is, as well, which I’d definitely recommend!)

  5. I think it’s wonderful that you put the spotlight on this fun flick that, unfortunately, hasn’t aired in this neighbourhood since my teen years.

    Ralph Richardson truly makes “Q Planes” the delightful experience that it is. Although Larry in a leather jacket is pretty darn delightful as well!

    1. Some of his earlier films aren’t shown very much at all. And I agree, Ralph Richardson really does steal the show. I think he was a hilarious person!

  6. Count me among those who have never heard of this film (my knowledge of European cinema in generally is relatively poor, sad to say). But I will take any excuse to look at (and listen to!) young Larry, who really is wickedly handsome in that last picture (swoon).

    1. This film is on youtube, as is, I believe, The Divorce of Lady X which I’d definitely recommend is only for the extreme hotness factor! But it’s actually a pretty good film!

  7. Kendra, a fascinating review of a movie I have heard of but have never seen. The British critic Leslie Halliwell (sort of England’s version of Leonard Maltin) picked Ralph Richardson’s performance here as the signature performance of his career, so it was interesting to read your description of his character. I discovered that Q ships were armed military ships disguised as civilian freighters used in WW I to lure German submarines so they could be attacked.

    1. It very well may have been his signature performance–comedy-wise, although I think he’s very good as Karenin in Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina and he’s probably quality in many other films I have yet to see. But he definitely steals the show in this one!

  8. I adore ‘Q Planes’ for Ralph Richardson’s character, but you’re right, it doesn’t give Olivier much to do – although that might be another reason I like it. I find some of Olivier’s more melodramatic roles (49th Paraell) a bit difficult to watch, but here I find him just likeable, pleasant and doing a good job.
    Richardson’s role is an interesting one though, with his always present hat and umbrella and ‘I’m right’ catchphrase quite a few critics in 1939 – and film historians since, have said that the role is a tribute to Chamberlain, but that doesn’t quite work because the film is quite explicitly critical of Chamberlain’s government’s nearsightedness and refusal to prepare for the war everyone else seemed to know was coming. So in reality this comment has no purpose…

    1. Ah, I think Olivier’s performance in 49th Parallel is hilarious! Thanks for the comment, though. I don’t know much about British politics in he 1930s (or at all, despite living here for nearly a year now, lol)

  9. How great to review a film people have not heard of. I’ll have to look for it, as I’ve always liked “The Divorce of Lady X.”

  10. a tribute to British values- and more than a touch of comedy, thank to sir Ralph Richardson who is really very good in this one (but in my opinion he gives his most outstanding performance in “The Heiress” as the tyrannical Dr.Sloper). Olivier is charming, likeable and strikingly handsome; I agree , from late 30s to late 40s he and Vivien were at the peak of their beauty, they really had it all, but afterwards they both didn’t age gracefully. I think the strain of living with Vivien’s illness for him and her own frail health for Viv, plus the hard work for them both made them look often older than they were.So, it’s oddly moving to see Larry so young..

      1. Of course, he did look good ,I only mean that after Vivien’s breakdown and the beginnig of the disintegration of their marriage the look in eyes changed ,and he often showed the strain of his situation: That’s my opinion, maybe I’m too emotional

        1. Larry’ EYES—what an endless topic—–no, they did not display his personal emotions—-he was much too good an actor for that!Quite the contrary,he could make them “sparkle” or extinguish their light just as the role demanded!Look for that at “FIRE OVER ENGLANd” when he first sings so happily the “SPANISH LADY-song and then sees the smoke of the autodafe!!

  11. This is an entirely new title for me, although I have seen Olivier and Richardson in Whelan’s delightful Divorce Of Lady X. I agree that it is a shame Olivier didn’t appear in more light comedy roles; his trademark serious demeanor actually adds to his character’s persona as a baffled barrister. The Technicolor of Lady X is also one of the highlights of the film, the neon of the opening credits and the rainbow range of the women’s party dresses are a sherbet-colored delight. Your entertaining and informative review has inspired me to add this Clouds Over Europe (since I’ll find it under this title) to my list of films to watch.

  12. I’m not familiar at all with “Q Planes”/”Clouds Over Europe”…but the top of the cast (Olivier, Richardson, Hobson) is very impressive…and the bottom, too (John Longden of Hitchcock’s “Blackmail”). I’ve seen “The Divorce of Lady X,” but long ago. I’ve always Ralph Richardson with Katharine Hepburn in “Long Days Journey Into Night” (’62) . And Valerie Hobson – I happened to see “The Rocking Horse Winner” (’49) the other night. She stars – with John Mills, who produced, in a supporting role. I’d seen it before – a very unusual film, and fascinating.Hobson is also in a great favorite of mine, “Kind Hearts and Coronets (’49) with Dennis Price and Alec Guinness (x 8). Wonderful actress. And, of course, Olivier…in 1939, he was about to become a star in the U.S. He’s been much on my mind lately in relation to my own blog post. All this to say I’m very curious about “Q Planes”/”Clouds…” – and feel I need to watch “The Divorce of Lady X” again soon.

    1. Yes, I think Ralph Richardson was amazing in Long Day’s Journey. I agree about Valerie Hobson being interesting–I had forgotten she was in Kind Hearts and Coronets although it’s one of my favorite films, as well. I think with that film, Joan Greenwood is the one that comes to mind first. Valerie also played the adult Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations.

  13. I agree with basically everything you say, but I am a bit confused by your identifying the bad guys as Germans. I do not remember their nationality ever being mentioned in the film, although I could be wrong, since I watched the film while trying to take care of my two-year-old daughter.

    Anyway, thanks for a nice review. Another review (basically in agreement with yours) can be found at my blog, Silver in a Haystack, where, as you may remember, I have previously reviewed Leigh’s Dark Journey.

    I also have links (for both films) to downloads. Not sure how those compare with the versions available at YouTube. Probably about the same, but provides easier downloading, which I prefer to streaming.

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