Friday, April 27, 2012


Because of author Stephen Sullivan’s urging I had the DVR capture a film off Turner Classic Movies last month that I had initially decided to ignore. You’d think I would have been more interested given that the film was made in the 1930s and involved airships but the description of the plot somehow turned me away. It was listed as a tale about an attempt to reach the South Pole by Dirigible and while that might entice me if I was scanning what was showing on a particular night in front of the tube, when looking downrange I just gave it a pass. But after Mr. Sullivan brought it up on the B-Movie Cast as a movie of interest by way of mentioning it being made by a director who went on to bigger and better known things I became curious. I did a little research, discovered it was made by Frank Capra and was suddenly much more interested in seeing it. I’m not the world’s biggest Capra film fan but I do enjoy his work and the idea of him making a movie of this type piqued my curiosity. Boy, am I grateful that I was convinced to check this sucker out!

DIRIGIBLE (1931) is a fantastic film! It has several good things going for it, any one of which would have been enough to make it worth watching. First, it has the luminous Fay Wray playing the lead (actually, only) female character. Miss Wray will always be known primarily as one of the stars of the great KING KONG (1933) but she was in quite a number of very good movies in this era and she could always be counted on to turn in a fine performance. It doesn’t hurt that she was one of the most beautiful screen presences of her time. Of course, Capra shoots her close-ups in a slight soft focus to make her even more gorgeous but I think she looks best in the shots with other actors in which you can see the details of her stunning face. She is an always welcome sight in any film and her performance as the neglected wife of a daredevil pilot here is good and very convincing.

Another fine element is the great combination of real footage of dirigibles and acrobatic planes with very, very good special effects. It was usually clear for my modern eyes to discern the FX shots versus the real ones but the combining of them was nearly seamless. The scenes of flight actions are both fascinating and at times exciting. I’m almost as intrigued by old propeller powered airplanes as I am by lighter than air craft so any chance to see footage of these great vessels doing their thing can keep me glued to the screen. In this film the scenes are well integrated and they knew enough to occasionally speed up the footage to keep the rather stately pace of a dirigible docking maneuver from being deadly dull stuff. This is expertly done and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of the film. I just love watching these giant sky ships do their thing!

The one element that might be considered a hurdle for a modern viewer watching this film is the rather corny storyline involving the ambitious pilot husband and his blindness to what his career is doing to his long suffering wife. It’s a story told a thousand times before 1931 and just as many times since (even if has fallen out of favor in the movies) but I found even this familiar plotline enjoyable as it is played out with so much energy. The reason is Fay Wray as you might expect, because she is so moving in her emotional anguish as she tries desperately to communicate her feelings and fears to a man unaware of what his choices are doing to his beloved. It helps that Ralph Graves is an appealing performer as well even if he only really shines as the film reaches its dark third act. It’s this part of the film that put it in the ‘fantastic’ category for me as Graves and his crew are forced to crash land in the Antarctic. Their fight for survival is depicted as quite harsh and it’s in this segment that the movie’s Pre-Code pedigree shows. The nastiness of the hard choices that the increasingly haggard men have to make had me flinching away from the screen on a couple of occasions. It is some pretty strong stuff.

I heartily recommend this film to anyone interested in Hollywood cinema of the 1930s. It’s very good on many levels and might well surprise fans of Frank Capra expecting a lighter, more family friendly kind of tale.

No comments: