The first annual Turner Classic Movies Festival kicked off last night with much celebration over a spanking new restoration of A Star is Born (1954). The gala, suitably, took over Grauman’s Chinese Theater and half a block of Hollywood Boulevard outside, but I went for a film that had done the same thing back in 1931, Frank Capra’s Dirigible. This was the movie that ushered Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures into the big time, theirs and Capra’s first million-dollar movie, their first to premiere at the premiere theatre in Hollywood and an unqualified success.
Yet like so many films from the early (and not so early) years of our still young film-art, it had sort of disappeared, denied a DVD release and, as an adventure film, obscure and anomalous amongst the pre-code sauciness and comedies of the common man in Capra’s oeuvre. Frank Capra III was on hand to laud the virtues of his grandfather’s movie in this brand new restoration, and his introduction was oddly appropriate to the film, stilted yet endearing, broad-brush inaccurate but with good old-fashioned optimistic enthusiasm trumping any more troubling issues.
The story centres on stolid dirigible captain Jack Braden (Jack Holt) and daredevil plane pilot ‘Frisky’ Pierce (Ralph Graves), both set on getting to the South Pole. Despite their being best pals, it turns into a rivalry contest, thoughtlessly initiated by Fay Wray, married to the latter but in love with them both. Capra hadn’t found his ear yet: the dialogue is remarkably uneven in its pacing, the human story is negligible (Holt is a stiff, Graves an arrested adolescent, Wray simpers throughout unable to decide what she wants) and the wonky tone is exemplified by a terrifically ironic reading of a love letter at the climax, immediately negated by a far-too-obvious accident and a weak “can you beat that?”
If that was all there was to the film it’d hardly be worth restoring, even with the Capra name on it. The real draw, however, is in the terrific aviation stuff and a splendid 3-acre Antarctic set built in the 90° heat of the San Gabriel Valley. There’s great footage of the USS Los Angeles taking off, landing and sailing majestically through a skyful of balloons, Pierce’s aeroplane soaring and corkscrewing through the clouds, and a fantastic sequence of the latter docking beneath the former whilst in flight (also of interest is extensive footage of the Lakehurst naval base, where the Hindenburg burned up four years later).
If the dirigible’s thunderstorm crack-up is rather underwhelming, there’s excellent model-work and process shots elsewhere, alongside actual flying footage, and a strikingly effective polar crash-land. Capra III told a rather grim story about using dry ice to simulate sub-zero breath (an actor losing several teeth and part of his jaw..) but the breath is all that’s missing from the Californian Antarctic; the bright cumulus skies photograph in black and white as crisp and frigid over an impressive vista of ice mountains and snow plains, and the grim hardships of a 900-mile trek over the ice are neither glossed nor gloated over. For all that it may lack in texture, Dirigible rattles along quite happily, eminently deserving of restoration not only as a significant picture in the history of Hollywood, but as a terrific document of a brief and exciting chapter in US aviation.