Pete Sandrige (Tracy) is the commander of an American bomber squadron based in England in World War II. Pete is a highly skilled pilot but he is also something of a hot dog, routinely abandoning his squadron in combat to chase off after targets by himself. He is criticized for this by his commanding officer, and by his girlfriend Dorinda (Dunne). Dorinda, herself a pilot with the "Women's Ferry Service", lives in mortal terror that Pete will get shot down.
Eventually she is right. Pete attacks a German aircraft carrier and sinks it, but is killed in the process. His soul ascends to heaven, where Ghost Pete finds out that pilots killed in flight become guardian angels and spirit guides to living pilots. Ghost Pete is assigned to be a spirit guide to Ted Randall (Johnson), a trainee pilot. Ted can't see Pete but he can subconsciously absorb Pete's advice, and Pete successfully guides him through Army flight school. Ted is then sent to New Guinea in the Pacific theater, and Pete goes with him, only to meet Dorinda again.
Star-Making Role for Van Johnson. Lionel Barrymore has a small role as the Commanding Officer, in charge of all the ghost pilots up in heaven. 46 years later this film was remade as a Steven Spielberg movie, Always, best remembered as the final film appearance of Audrey Hepburn.
Provides examples of:
- Ace Pilot: Pete, Dorinda, Ted, ace pilots all.
- Artistic License Military: Pete is killed in a bombing raid in which he sinks a German aircraft carrier. Nazi Germany did not have any operational aircraft carriers. The one they tried to build, Graf Zeppelin, was repeatedly bombed in the shipyard by the British and Americans and was never completed.
- Chekhov's Skill: The early scenes establish that Dorinda is herself a pretty talented pilot, serving the army in a non-combat role. This sets up the ending where Dorinda commandeers a plane and goes on the bombing raid to the Japanese island by herself, rather than let Ted risk his life.
- Coming in Hot: The first scene has Pete landing a plane with an engine on fire. This gives his CO a chance to chew him out for abandoning his squadron and hotdogging it again.
- Conversation Cut: One of the group of children who so admire Pete the Ace Pilot says "I'll bet you he's the best flyer in the world." This is followed by a cut to Pete's commander, inside the air field, saying "He's a grandstanding old windbag."
- Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Pilot Heaven is basically an empty void with clouds, although the Commanding Officer at least gets an office.
- Grand Staircase Entrance: Pete has bought Dorinda a dress. She dashes upstairs to her room in the inn to change, then makes a grand Staircase Entrance back down in her beautiful white dress.
- Meadow Run: How Dorinda and Ted come together at the end, after she gets back from bombing the Japanese ammo dump. (The original ending had Dorinda being killed in the raid and joining Pete in heaven, but test audiences didn't like it.)
- No Name Given: Lionel Barrymore's character, the CO of pilot heaven who sends Pete off to mentor Joe, is never named.
- Spirit Advisor: What dead pilots do, give advice and guidance to living pilots. The living can't see or hear the ghosts but can take in the advice subconsciously.
- Title Drop: One of the little boys admiring Pete at the air base in Britain calls him "Joe", explaining the generic American GI nickname: "Anybody who's a right chap is a guy named Joe."
- Verbal Irony: Ted does much better in his training flight when he has Pete behind him giving advice that Ted subconsciously acts upon. After he lands, a more confident Ted says "I'm a lot better when I'm alone, when I'm all by myself, than when I've got one of those instructors riding with me."Pete: Get a load of this guy.
- You're Cute When You're Angry: As Dorinda is ranting about Pete for unnecessarily risking his life, Pete says "You know Dorinda, the madder you get, the prettier you are."