Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dirigible (1931)



Dirigible is a film I had to see not just because it is an aviation film or because Fay Wray is in it but because the beginning of it was shot in Lakehurst, New Jersey. For those of you who do not know what is special about Lakehurst it is a naval base that was used for several years as a base where zeppelins or dirigibles would land and fly from. Lakehurst is famously known as the crash site of the Hindenburg in 1937. Why, you may be wondering, would I care so much if part of this film was shot in a small town in New Jersey on a small naval base? Well I live right down the road from the naval base. I live two towns over from Lakehurst literally right down the road.
            The United States Navy is holding its annual Navy Day at the Lakehurst Naval Base. Hundreds of people are there to see the dirigibles that float above them. Jack Bradon (Jack Holt) is captain of the Pensacola one of the dirigibles flying above the crowds. His friend is navy pilot “Frisky” Graves. Frisky is setting a new coast to coast record. He flies into the base and does some stunts through one of the hangars.
            While Frisky is being bombarded by the press his wife Helen (Fay Wray) is home waiting for him. Every time Frisky flies she is nervous and anxious waiting for him to come home safely. Jack goes over to the house to wait for his friend and to comfort Helen. When Frisky finally comes home Helen jumps into his arms and kisses him. Some his friends from the press are behind him but Jack manages to get them out of the house. Jack tells his friend that he wants him to go on an expedition to the South Pole. He wants Frisky to attach his plane to the dirigible and they can travel that way together. Frisky of course agrees to the adventure because it would mean more press for him. Helen pleads with him not to go and tells him how nervous and upset she gets when he is away. Her nervousness stems from the time she saw Frisky crash his plane after it spiraled. She also does not want him to go because they have been married for two years but she says since he goes away all the time it feels like they have only been married for two months.
             Frisky is all set to go on the trip. Jack knows how Helen feels about him leaving and asks Frisky about her. He says that he can go away for ten years and he can always expect Helen to be waiting for him. Jack gets a letter saying that Helen is in his office and needs to talk to him. She tells Jack that he needs to get Frisky off the expedition team she cannot bare to have him go away for such a long time and into great danger. He sees how much she loves Frisky and does what she asks. Jack tells Frisky that he does not want him going on the trip for a reason he does not mention but Frisky thinks it is because Jack is afraid he will show him up. Jack lies and says he does not need Frisky showing off since it is dangerous.
            Jack’s dirigible takes off on a smooth journey until they pass over the Caribbean where they run into a very bad storm. The dirigible crashes but no lives are lost. After being let go from the first expedition Frisky leads a new one. His team camps just at the edge of the South Pole and has to travel nine hundred miles to the middle.
            He travels with a team of four men including him. They reach the middle successfully until Frisky gets the idea to land. The landing does not go smoothly and the plane crashes. News of the crash gets back to Helen through the newspaper. She had given Frisky a note to read when he reached the Pole saying that she was going to Paris to divorce him and she would beg Jack to marry her and that she cannot be married to a headline any longer. Helen never did go to Paris she is worried sick about him. Jack can tell that she still loves her husband and decides to take his new dirigible to save his friend.   
            The ending is al happy and nice with Jack saving Frisky and Frisky going home to Helen.
            The cast was very good. Fay Wray was excellent in her scenes. I could not get over the fact that she was twenty-three when she made this film; she was beautiful and had such talent. Seeing Wray in this film and others makes me wish that she was not just known as Ann Darrow. Apparently Wray did not working with Frank Capra she said he was cold and they did not get along too well. Ralph Graves as Frisky was alright. At times he over acted but he fit the over confident flyer who liked to show off. You actually want to punch the character after the plane crashes at the Pole and mostly it is because Graves was too good at playing the cocky Frisky. Jack Holt was very nice as the older friend who cares for his buddy who was willing to risk his life to save him.
            Dirigible was made by Columbia studios who at the time was not really a major studio in league with MGM or Paramount. The premier of the film was shown at Grauman’s which was a big deal for the studio since it meant that it was finally getting some credit. This was due to Frank Capra who directed the film. Capra did an amazing job he got some great shots and told a great story. The US Navy gave the production full use of the naval base and also loaned them the dirigible USS Los Angeles to add to the films authenticity. Aviation buffs have claimed that the film is very accurate in its portrayal of the dirigibles.
diri 1
            It was very cool to see a place that is so close to me in a classic film. I volunteer at a local historical society where we have several artifacts from different dirigibles including the Akron and the Hindenburg (plates, letters, a piece of metal, among other things). We even have a few yards of the cloths that were used cover the aircrafts. That stuff is heavy! I really love the fact that a famous, talented director like Frank Capra was in New Jersey even if it was over eighty years ago!
            Dirigible is an entertaining film with its mostly documentary style footage. The romantic angle is a little tedious I could have done without it but it adds some tension to the story. Dirigible as of right now is not available either on youtube or DVD which is a shame. If TCM airs the film again try to catch it. 
A local New Jersey newspaper advertisement for  the film
This advert makes the film out to be primarily a (cheap) romance which it is not