Note: review contains a few spoilers
Frank Capra directed what was then Columbia's most expensive production, a million dollar epic tale of South Pole exploration mucked up by natural dangers (the breezy Antarctic temperature, rough mountain peaks) and an improper love triangle revolving around pragmatic veteran commanding airship / dirigible / zeppelin pilot Jack Bradon (Jack Holt), devil-may-care smart ass and ace pilot Frisky Pierce (Ralph Graves), and Helen Pierce (Fay Wray), Frisky's whiny wife who wants her hubby to settle down and mow the lawn once in a while instead of risking his life every month.
The creaky love triangle actually forms the film’s first third, plus the the rivalry between the two aviators, depicted during the launch of the fictional airship Pensacola (which Jack commands), and Frisky’s dangerous fly-bys and loops around and over the airship while an audience of servicemen, civilians, and media look on in amazement.
Frisky loves making and creating headlines, whereas Jack is a veteran serviceman, but his pragmatism is somewhat subjugated by a dogged determination to lead the first flight to the South Pole by dirigible – an expedition that’s granted, but ends in spectacular disaster when the airship is torn to shreds over a stormy ocean.
Frisky was slated to be a part of that expedition, but Jack dumped the rebel pilot as a favour to Helen, giving their marriage another try on home turf. Humiliated by Jack’s actions, Frisky accepts an offer to pilot a plane for a French explorer, a decision that unbeknownst to Frisky, pushes Helen into the arms of Jack. While Jack travels to the bottom of the world, he has no idea the letter he carries in his breast pocket isn’t an advance congratulation from Helen, but her decision to end their marriage and find stability in the arms of Jack.
It’s a silly and tiresome love triangle which is marginally spiced up by some pre-Code atmosphere – Wray’s evening dinner attire is revealing, and the illicit love affair is pretty clearcut – but the real draw is the footage of actual U.S. Navy airship Los Angeles, and Frisky’s futile efforts to lead the plane crash survivors back to the main Antarctic base.
Dirigible is very much an early disaster film: even with three key characters, one has romance, betrayal, secrets, honor, and self-sacrifice. More important is a beautifully choreographed launching of the Pensacola, where director Capra concentrates on a wonderful montage of minutia, inadvertently documenting a form of air travel that fizzeled when the Hindenburg went up in flames in 1937, and airships were more vulnerable to nature’s elements than steel-framed & plated airplanes.
The weakness of the great airships for trans-ocean travel is ironically covered in the ocean storm, where terrible winds rip into the damaged superstructure, and the crew scrambles to keep the Pensacola alive. Capra focuses again on evacuation procedures as well as the ship’s total destruction, and it’s a thrilling sequence worthy of an Irwin Allen disaster film.
Capra also documents the crazy trapeze device which allowed planes to latch on to the base of an airship, and remain stored until the pilot climbed down into the cockpit, started up the engine, and flew off again.
Equally impressive is the huge hangar in Lakehurst, New Jersey, that was built to house the airship, which Capra filmed in multiple angles to impart space, scope, and the tiny size of men among the massive crafts. The hangar also intensifies the feel of several scenes, such as the high angle shots used for the moment when Frisky leaves Jack after being dumped from the airship expedition to the South Pole, and the launching montages where a mass of airmen run with mooring lines to guide the craft out from the hangar. (The sheer volume of personnel must have been seen as an impractical and inefficient use of men compared to planes, which could take off and land without lines and lock-ups to anchor mounts.)
The South Pole wandering of the plane crew survivors offers a grim facet of how below zero temperatures slowly destroy a body, and but more intriguing is the way Frisky remains a heroic figure in spite of being a jackass. Having already flown over the South Pole, he goads the team leader to approve a landing to plant a flag – a decision that destroys the plane and ultimately kills almost everyone. He bullies the group to push on even though there’s no way they can travel the massive distance to the main camp, and he’s the dolt who ends up taking the few men left back to where they started, making their journey even more wasteful.
Also in the dramatic mix is the demeaning portrayal of blacks. The cook is a dimwit whose slow drawl inferns stupidity, and his skull is so thick that he barely reacts when a white team leader throws a tin mug at his head for singing a depressing song (which is restarted when the teammate decides it’s now okay to listen to some good ‘ol southern music). The cook also wishes he was ‘back in Birmingham,’ but at least the character was smart enough to see a disaster in the making, as he doesn’t join the expedition’s final stage where Frisky pilots the explorers to the South Pole.
Dirigible is an odd mix of romantic cliches, nascent disaster elements, and adventurism, and it works, partly because Capra intermingles so much documentary-styled footage of the airship and Antarctic expedition. The film has virtually no score, but features a rich collage of sound effects which capture the power of the giant airships.
The cinematography by the productions camera team, led by longtime Capra cinematgrapher Joseph Walker is equally superb, and Walker would continue to film most of Capra’s films, including Lost Horizon (1937), a dreamier tale of exploration, air travel, and a forbidden mountain locale.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan