Oh the Humanity: Dirigible (1931)

June 20, 2017


Summer movie season is already upon us, with superheroes saving the world from various varieties of destruction. I’m turning back the clock to 1931 to look at a disaster film that uses the same playbook, Frank Capra’s blimp inferno Dirigible (For the throngs of readers who have been following my Jean Renoir series, it is taking a month-long break, returning on July 18th). Dirigible‘s thrills are premised on scale, on framing the enormity of these cruising zeppelins against the sky, and realistically rendering the chaos of such a behemoth coming apart at the seams. This was a million dollar production, with a lot of effort at authenticity, and much of the flying footage was shot on real Navy blimps with the compact Eyemo camera (cinematographer Joseph A. Walker says only two insert shots – of a train station and a sealing ship – were stock).  The movie alternates between these awe-inspiring feats of technological wonder and a rote love triangle that barely gets off the ground. This is a movie about the machines, not the people, which makes for dulling drama but stunning spectacle.

Dirigible is the second story credit for Commander Frank Wilbur Wead USN, a WWI veteran and aviation speed freak who advocated the Navy take part in races against Army planes. He would go on to serve as a test pilot before he broke his neck falling down a stairwell in 1926. It was then he turned to writing, becoming an in-demand scribe for air adventures large and small, from John Ford’s Air Mail (1932) and They Were Expendable (1945) to Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero (1936). Ford would memorialize Wead’s life in The Wings of Eagles (1957), where he was portrayed by John Wayne. But for Dirigible, Wead seems to have lifted some story elements from the 1929 independent film The Lost Zeppelin, which follows a journey to the South Pole shaken up by a love triangle.

Dirigible follows that story to the letter, except in this Columbia feature the woman (Fay Wray – two years before King Kong) stays home while the men go off and nearly kill themselves. Fay Wray plays Helen Pierce, the buzzkill wife of daredevil pilot Lt. Frisky Pierce (Ralph Graves). Helen had previously been wooed by the more straitlaced Commander Jack Bradon (Jack Holt), but in the end she chose Frisky. Frisky and Jack remain friends somehow, and Jack’s picture remains on Helen’s mantel. In previous drafts one imagines an open relationship was implied (Lubitsch’s Design For Living would base a whole movie on that subject in 1933), but here everything is prim and above board, assuredly to appease the Navy, who cooperated with the production and let them shoot on their massive dirigible Los Angeles. 

The Navy partners with explorer Louis Rondelle (Hobart Bosworth) on a journey to the South Pole, and Jack convinces them both that blimps are the safest way to get there. Helen begs Jack not to take Frisky along on the dangerous mission, and Jack agrees, which breaks Frisky’s adventurous heart.Midway through their trip the explorers plow through a vicious storm which tears the blimp in half as if it were papier-mâché. Through judicious miniature work matching the aerial footage, the crash is harrowing stuff. For the aftermath, in which the hulk of the blimp heaves out of ocean water like an alien monolith, Capra shoots in soft focus with an extra layer of matted-on fog. It looks like an etching or woodcut, disaster brought to its elemental basics. While that sequence is artful, almost impressionistic, the majority of the film is after authenticity. Capra was obsessed with the idea of the actors breath being visible on film during the South Pole expedition, even though they had assembled the Antarctic ice cap in the San Gabriel Valley where the temperature was pushing 90 degrees. So Capra went to his pal Professor Lucas at Caltech. “Dry ice, Frank. In the actors’ mouths. That’ll make the breath condense. Put a piece of dry ice in a tiny wire cage.”

Capra went along with this scheme and had his dentist create little wire cages, which he would stick to the roof of your mouth with false-teeth glue.  Capra recalls the results:

“Hobert Bosworth, a noble actor of the old, old school, unfurled the grand old flag, stuck it in the ice, and eloquently announced: ‘In the shname of the Shnooni — Stoonited–“.” He stopped, pulled out the wire cage, and “plopped the square piece of dry ice into his mouth as he would a big pill.” Bosworth would lose three back teeth, two uppers, part of his jawbone, and much dead tissue.” No other actor tried the stunt, and the breath isn’t visible in the finished film, though they do smoke a lot.

Obsessed with the journey he missed out on, Frisky quits the Navy and raises private money to do the trip with Rondelle. This time they will use his trusty biplane to putter their way to the bottom of the Earth. Helen is dyspeptic about this latest scheme, convinced Frisky just wants to get away from her, their life, and his responsibilities at home. She looks longingly at the portrait of Jack, of the stable, boring life they might have had together. So she writes Frisky a Dear John letter, but makes him promise not to reach it until he reaches the South Pole. Helen is a thankless character, the woman-as-killjoy reigning in man’s self-destructive tendencies. And the 23-year-old Fay Wray can do little to enliven a character whose main role is to sit at home and nitpick her husband, but for the split-second she writes this letter, she gains a personality.

But of course Frisky carries on anyway, and this second journey is far more successful, getting them to glide right over the pole. But it’s not enough for Frisky who wants to set foot on that virgin land, but his attempt to land the plane flips it over, stranding them in the true middle of nowhere. The only thing that can save him and their stranded crew is the new supersize blimp, the Los Angeles, which has to motor down to the pole and hope the crew hadn’t frozen to death in the process. The only one who can save them, of course, is Jack in his new supersized blimp, the Los Angeles. So he motors down apace, trying to get there before they all die of exposure. These final sequences in the snow remind one of any number of survivalist mountain climbing movies, including the recent Everest (2015), where the hubris of their cocky leader brings about their own demise.

Dirigible is a durable construction, that, if it was in color and starred Pierce Brosnan, would air with the same regularity as Dante’s Peak (1997). The actors don’t have much to work with, but the effects, in this case real life navy dirigibles, are the stars of the show. And DP Joseph A. Walker and his daredevil cameraman Elmer G. Dyer make them larger than life when in the sky, and as fragile flesh when tumbling to the ground.


December 25, 2012

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It’s A Wonderful Life has screened so often it has become cultural wallpaper, the background noise to tree decorating and on-line discount shopping. When it shifted into the public domain in 1974, television channels could air it without paying fees, and it became program filler for twenty years before subsequent copyright battles (it is now owned by Viacom/Paramount). Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least apathy, and It’s A Wonderful Life  is treated more like a nostalgia piece than a work of art. That was my ignorant attitude, at least, until I watched it again this past weekend, and for the first time fully appreciated its melancholic rendering of adulthood’s parade of dashed hopes and perpetually delayed dreams. It was Frank Capra’s  first narrative feature after four years of making propaganda films for the Army during WWII, and it feels like he imbued it with a life’s worth of disappointments, tagged with a vision of transcending these failures in an ending only Hollywood could provide.

The story for It’s a Wonderful Life was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, who sent it out in a 1943 Christmas card. A Civil War historian and sometime fiction writer, Van Doren Stern started work on his short story, then entitled The Greatest Gift, in 1939, but couldn’t find a publisher, so included it in his’43  holiday mailings. It somehow reached Cary Grant, who brought it to RKO’s attention. RKO bought the rights, and started to prepare a version in which Grant and Gary Cooper would star. After treatments by leftists Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted in 1947) and Clifford Odets (who testified before HUAC) were both rejected (were their versions too downbeat?), RKO sold the story rights to Liberty Films, a newly formed company started by Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel J. Briskin after their release from WWII service. Liberty would produce and RKO would distribute, with Jimmy Stewart, also freshly released from wartime service, to star. Liberty borrowed $1,540,000 from Bank of America to fund their first production.

Capra began shooting It’s a Wonderful Life in April of 1946, just as William Wyler began production on The Best Years of Our Lives, which dealt with the war’s aftermath more directly. Capra was not interested in memorializing the war. He told Richard Glatzer:

Yes, the war did affect me. I didn’t want to see another cannon go off; I didn’t want to see another bomb blow up. War lost its glamour for me. Just to see those trembling people in London during the Blitz, poor sick old ladies crying, crying in terror…children. There’s got to be something better than bombing old ladies and children. I lost…there’s nothing glamorous about war. I didn’t want to be a war hero, nothing. That’s why I made a movie about an ordinary guy.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is listed 4F for the war because of his bad left ear. He is an outsider to his age, missing out on WWII as well as the post-war economic boom when he fails to invest in his old school buddy’s plastics business. His only dream is to travel, but with the death of his father and the entire Building and Loan company depending on him, he stays in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, deferring his adventurous plans year after year. There is one devastating shot when this dream finally dies. George meets his brother Harry at the train station, and learns that Harry will not be taking over his job at the Building and Loan. Stewart’s face collapses in passing, before re-composing enough to congratulate his brother on his marriage and his new life. That expression is Bailey’s private funeral for his future, one now forever bound to be anonymously lower middle class. George is Capra’s ordinary guy, one who sacrifices his own life so his brother can join the stream of history and become the subject of Hollywood hagiographies. But at least in It’s a Wonderful Life, George is the star.

Capra emphasizes George’s subordination, keeping most action in the background while George is oblivious in the fore. As kids, Harry sleds right by George and into a crack in the ice. George has to save him, and loses part of his hearing in the process, setting up his sacrificial role for life. Then there is the school dance, in which George and his girl Mary (Donna Reed) dance without noticing that the gym floor is slowly cracking open, revealing the pool underneath. The rest of the party has noticed and stepped back, but George is again oblivious, and drags Mary along with him into the drink. Capra artfully deploys this water-as-oblivion metaphor throughout, culminating in the snowstorm that marks his decision to jump into the abyss one final time, a potential suicide leap off a bridge.

Disgusted with forever being on the periphery of the American dream, George decides to end it all, which triggers the appearance of Clarence (Henry Travers) the deus ex machina angel. Only through fantasy, through the construction of a George Bailey-less alternate reality, where Bedford Falls becomes a seedy juke-joint town called Pottersville, can his existence be justified. That is, through cinema itself, for what is Clarence if not the director of this nightmare, constructing it with the flick of his finger?  His grindhouse version of Bedford Falls has Bailey as agog as a gullible teen at an opening night of Paranormal Activity, wide-eyed with terror. But instead of glorifying Hollywood trickery, what makes It’s A Wonderful Life so unbearably moving is that it urges George to escape artifice and return to banal reality and celebrate what meager joys are left to us here.  It is the saddest of happiest endings.


January 18, 2011


Two versions of the community-made man. Gary Cooper’s John Doe and Willem Dafoe’s Ray Ruby are nothing without their coterie of speech-writers, money-men and erotic dancers.  Meet John Doe (1941) and Go Go Tales (2007) each speak to the anxieties of being propped up by the labor of others, with main characters haunted by the possibility of losing their support and having to go it alone. They are paeans to American industriousness, satires of American greed and excess, and hum with the patter of the American workplace. Meet John Doe was recently released on a disappointing DVD by VCI (DVD Beaver has the specs here) and Go Go Tales is currently screening at Anthology Film Archives in NYC. It’s also available on an Italian Region 2 DVD.

John Willoughboy (Cooper) is a burnt-out ex-ballplayer with a bum elbow, in the days before Tommy John surgery. Living the hobo life with The Colonel (a zealous Walter Brennan), he’s hoping to make a quick buck at a newspaper when he sees a lineup outside. What tabloid journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is after though, is a flesh and blood dope to embody the outraged John Doe whose letter of civil disobedience she forged in order to pump up circulation and save her job. Soon she builds up John into a folksy voice of the people, promoting neighborliness into a kind of small-town socialism. His immense popularity, represented in nationwide John Doe Clubs, is co-opted by his backer, millionaire D.B. Norton, in a scheme to install a pseudo-fascist state.

The film is strongest early-on, replete with Capra’s pungent dialogue and rich caricatures. The punchiness starts in the opening, with The Bulletin’s old motto, “A free press means a free people”, jackhammered off to make way for The New Bulletin’s tagline, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” This visual joke is more relevant than ever, and sets up the knockabout opening where a baby-faced, Mickey Rooney type axes the staff in pantomime, with gestural throat slashes underlined by whistles. Capra captures the impersonal devastation of this corporate takeover in a few flicks of the assistant’s wrists.

Ann, desperate to salvage her job, invents the John Doe letter, whose anti-government, DIY tone loosely echoes the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement (aside from the community organizing he supports). Soon Willoughby is speaking to millions of people around the country, as Ann hones Doe’s image around the philosophy of her late father. The political message Capra is trying to send gets increasingly slippery, as he is both satirizing the gullibility of the American people, who immediately believe in this rather dopey Doe, while still managing to lionize the work ethic and morality of those same citizens. The latter impulse drains the former of any impact. Capra had trouble reconciling these ideas, and filmed five separate endings, and was never satisfied with any of them. In his autobiography, he said:

For seven-eights of the film, Riskin [screenwriter Robert] and I felt we had made The Great American Motion Picture; but in the last eighth, it fizzled into The Great American Letdown.

Whether or not the film coheres thematically (I agree with Capra, it does not), the figure of Doe is surprisingly similar to the character of Ray Ruby in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. Ruby is the proprietor of Ruby’s Paradise Lounge, a struggling NYC strip club facing massive debts and a restive work force. Ruby is the manic and disarmingly sensitive patriarch of this whirling world of sequins and exploding tanning beds. His wild hopes rest on the American standbys of gambling and conning: playing the lotto and convincing his brother to stay invested.

Doe and Ruby face similar threats, the hellish bureaucracy posed by The New Bulletin’s maxim is transposed by Go Go Tales into the screeching landlord’s (Sylvia Miles at her harpiest) gentrifying threat that she’ll sell Ruby’s building to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Both Doe and Ruby will themselves into believing that they are self-made and impervious to these deprivations,  but they are heavily indebted to a web of investors, politicians and relatives to stay afloat.  This denial also fuels their finest qualities, creating a naive, idealistic belief in the power of community. In Doe’s case it’s a nationwide mission of charity whose tenets he adopts for himself, and for Ruby it’s the idiosyncratic camaraderie of his Lounge’s denizens. There are his raspy host Bob Hoskins, berating the tourists who idly pass the door, his whimsical Irish accountant/partner-in-crime Jay (Roy Dotrice), and a web of bar squatting wiseguys who provide a never-ending squall of vulgar cracks. Near the end, as the strippers and bouncers put on their weekly talent show of Bronx-accented Shakespeare and interpretive dance, Ruby gives a rousing speech that exposes the philosopher inside the crabby capitalist, and is one that Capra could have used as the sixth ending to Meet John Doe:

Everyone in this room has a chance to become more than they think they are. Freedom of expression, creativity, passion, love for each other, that’s what this is all about.