Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dirigible (1931)

Director: Frank Capra                                      Writer: Jo Swerling
Music Dept.: David Broekman                         Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Jack Holt, Ralph Graves, Fay Wray and Hobart Bosworth

Long before the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, people were aware of the dangers of lighter than air ship, and Columbia used that to it’s advantage in producing Dirigible, a suspense film revolving around the use of these aircraft by the Navy. The story comes from an original idea by U.S. Navy commander Frank Wilber Wead, who would also stay on the film as a technical advisor. It was adapted by Russian born Jo Swerling who would not only go on to be a major talent in Hollywood in the forties continuing his work with Frank Capra as well as working with Alfred Hitchcock, but he would win a Tony Award for his work on Broadway as a writer and lyricist. The film was inspired by the success of William Wellman’s Wings three years earlier, but while it has some aerial photography it lacks much in the way of realism the earlier film contains because it is so dependent upon special effects. The film was a major step forward in Columbia’s attempt to produce prestige pictures, and having Capra at the helm was certainly the way to achieve that. Unfortunately the story was a bit too speculative on the one hand, verging into science-fiction territory, and clichéd in terms of the romance on the other hand, and only received lukewarm reviews at the time.

The film begins with a dedication to the U.S. Navy for their assistance in the film. Jack Holt is called in to admiral Emmett Corrigan’s office and told he is to fly his dirigible to the South Pole. At the same time, explorer Hobart Bosworth is in Washington trying to get support for his South Pole expedition, and the admiral wants Holt to convince Bosworth to go by balloon in order to garner support for the ships in the public eye. At a naval air show at the air station in Lakehurst, Bosworth is suitably impressed, with both the balloon and the coast-to-coast flight of Ralph Graves that ends the same afternoon. That night when Holt comes over to congratulate Graves, he finds his wife, Fay Wray, alone and crying. It’s clear she has affection for Holt, possibly more than for her adventure-loving absentee husband. When Holt convinces Graves to go on the South Pole expedition, it’s more than she can take, and she begs Holt to tell Graves not to go. But the dirigible is testing out a new airplane tether that can launch and land a plane right on the ship, and while Graves is clearly the man for the job, he honors Wray’s request and takes him off the trip. But when the airship goes down in a storm, Graves takes a leave of absence from the Navy and decides to go with Bosworth on the expedition by boat, much to the dismay of Fay Wray.

The second half of the film concerns the suspense surrounding the expedition to reach the pole, intercut with the melodrama of Wray being left by herself with Holt. Though Joseph Walker is credited as the director of photography on the film, there were several cameramen working on the impressive aerial and miniature sequences. The special effects showing the air ships in long shot are also very good for the day. Capra does a great job with the moving camera on the ground as well, whether its panning behind Graves’ trophies, or walking along behind Holt and Graves in the hanger. Even at this early stage in his career, the director has a strong cinematic sense, using close ups and long shots, especially those from the top of the blimp hanger, to great effect. The acting is par for the course, though some is certainly better than others. The real low point is the posturing of the all-American hero role of Ralph Graves, which might have played well at the time but seems incredibly dated today. And of course what would a Hollywood film be without overt racism against blacks, this time in the form of Clarence Muse, who aside from having to read horribly stereotyped lines, is alternately patronized and abused by the other actors throughout the expedition. Overall, Dirigible is a solid production, a must for fans of early Capra, but a well-produced pre-code film in its own right.

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