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Sunday, 21 January 2007

Dirigible (1931) Frank R Capra

Made a year before Forbidden, here's another Frank Capra movie that doesn't seem like a Frank Capra movie. It's an adventure story, full of the old Jules Verne school of adventure: tackling what hasn't been done purely because it hasn't been done. It's dedicated the US Navy, which makes complete sense given the subject matter and the obvious help the filmmakers were given, but at the same time it's thankfully no cheesy piece of propaganda. Propaganda maybe, but without much of the usual cheese, which instead is reserved for the love triangle.

Commander Braden has been summoned to Washington DC to see Rear Admiral John Martin. A French explorer named Rondelle wants to fly to the South Pole and for some reason he's asking for US Navy assistance. Rather than sail down and then fly to the pole from Antarctica, Martin's idea is to use a dirigible, still well in fashion given that this is 1931 and the Hindenberg wouldn't explode until 1937 in Lakehurst, NJ, which just by coincidence seems to be where Martin sells his idea to Rondelle on Navy Day.

Braden, as portrayed by Jack Holt, is the reliable, serious yet still romantic officer who counterbalances Lt Frisky Pierce well. Pierce is a hotshot grandstander who has already won a huge amount of glory reaching no end of artificial milestones, like bringing a newspaper from the west coast to the east coast of the States in one day. He's played by Ralph Graves, who does his job very well indeed but who also looks for posterity like a cheap version of Pat O'Brien, who did this sort of thing perfectly. The thing is that O'Brien was busy arriving in 1931 in The Front Page, but Graves had been in movies since 1918 and had already made over seventy of them. The two are friends but have also both been rivals for Helen, Frisky's wife, played with no shortage of melodrama by Fay Wray, who knew aviation well through being married to John Monk Saunders, who wrote many of these sorts of films at this time, including Wings, which won the first Best Picture Oscar.

The love triangle is too melodramatic, but that's not Fay's fault, and there are apparently a bunch of technical mistakes, not errors as such but blatant changes in reality. Luckily I don't know enough about this sort of thing for it to make a difference for me. What this is really about is the adventure and the conquest of the air. It's fascinating to watch these huge dirigibles manoeuvre around the sky, and all the more powerful knowing that six years later in the same place, Lakehurst, NJ, they'd be effectively wiped out by one spectacular explosion that killed 36 people. The flying scenes are spectacular, especially those over Antarctic landscape, and they're all the more so for not being CGI. I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff and I really appreciate it when it's done well. These really early Capras have been real eyeopeners for me. They're solid films, especially so for the era, but they're also solidly not Capra-corn.

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