A bond deeper than their male friendship mars the mission even before it begins. Exhausted by her husband's constant life-threatening adventures, Frisky's wife Helen (Fay Wray) begs Jack to stop her risk-taking husband from joining this assignment. In their two years of marriage, Helen tells Frisky, they have only been together two months. When Jack tells his buddy that he cannot join his expedition to the pole, the pair become enemies and Frisky's desire to conquer the pole is intensified. Shortly after undertaking his journey, however, Jack's dirigible crashes in a violent storm over Manhattan and Frisky makes his bid for aviation immortality. He takes up the endeavor alongside explorer Louis Rondelle (Hobart Bosworth). While flying over the South Pole with Louis in his aircraft, Frisky discovers there are limits to his abilities too when his plane and crew crash and are stranded in a world of ice and snow. It is then up to his former friend Jack to save the day.
Columbia produced three adventure pictures featuring the acting team of Ralph Graves and Jack Holt, including War Correspondent (1932), Flight (1929) and Hell's Island (1930). Dirigible - their fourth collaboration - was exceptional: a hugely successful production and worthwhile gamble of its large production budget of $650,000.
Frank Capra's rousing yarn loaded with Elmer Dyer's thrilling aerial footage and tense moments was the first from Columbia to debut at the prestigious venue Grauman's Chinese Theater. For a studio described by star Fay Wray as an "underdog," the success was a major coup.
Capra received a great deal of cooperation from the Navy in making Dirigible (they are thanked in the opening credits), who even loaned the production the enormous 650-foot-long dirigible Los Angeles to shoot key scenes.
The Los Angeles was docked in an enormous hangar in Lakehurst, New Jersey, which was also the site of an ugly, violent battle between the unionized New Jersey and New York film workers who demanded the right to work on the Hollywood financed local production. The men literally fought amongst themselves for work on the production. The Lakehurst site of the filming was the exact one where, six years later, the Hindenburg would take flight and then burst into flames.
Capra had studio head Harry Cohn backing his production all the way. Cohn even allowed the director to spend thousands of dollars to recreate the South Pole in, of all places, the sweltering San Gabriel Valley. The effect was achieved with tons of bleached corn flakes.
More difficult was recreating the effect in 95 degree weather of the puffs of breath that would erupt from Frisky and the other stranded explorers' mouths in the South Pole scenes. Small metal boxes containing dry ice were first placed into the actors' mouths, but made their speech garbled and hard to understand. Out of frustration, Hobart Bosworth took the dry ice from the box and shoved it angrily into his mouth. The results were instantaneous and Bosworth wailed in pain.
He had to be rushed to the hospital. He lost five teeth and part of his jawbone. Though no one suffered as miserably as Bosworth, donning fur parkas and beards in the stifling heat was punishing work for the other actors. Another irritation was the prop man's solution for displaying the effect of ice clinging to the explorers' beards; it was created by using heated paraffin painted onto their faces with a brush.
There were human obstacles to overcome too. Jack Holt, for instance, had a tendency to drink during filming. When he showed up drunk for an important scene in which he addressed the personnel of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, Capra decided to teach Holt a lesson. He allowed Holt to proceed with his bobbing and weaving and his garbled speech. When Holt later saw the rushes he was so ashamed, he never again appeared on the Dirigible set drunk. A new scene was shot with a now-sober Holt and the production proceeded normally except for a tragic incident involving a grip working high in the rafters of the air hangar who fell to his death.
The story for Dirigible was penned by the famed Naval Academy graduate and aviator-turned-screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead. John Ford, a friend of Spig's, based his film The Wings of Eagles (1957) on Wead's life story with John Wayne in the lead. Wead was a big proponent of speed competitions and air racing. And it was just those demonstrations of the Navy's might which pushed that service branch into the public consciousness. Public pressure then turned on Congress to fund the advancement of aviation technology. Wead transitioned into writing when he broke his neck in a fall in 1926 and became paralyzed (though he later regained the use of his forearms and legs). He would go on to receive two Academy Award nominations, for Test Pilot (1938) and The Citadel (1938).
Fay Wray, an actress who found her big break in Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1928), was cast next to a succession of male luminaries in her career including William Powell, Gary Cooper, Fredric March and a giant gorilla. But Wray may have started off on the wrong foot with Capra when she showed up late on the first day of production on Dirigible. In her autobiography On the Other Hand: A Life Story she said she sensed the stress Capra was under due to the film's huge budget...and then there was the matter of the film's content. "The film had its own kind of weightiness even if the title could be defined as a craft 'lighter than air,'" Wray remarked. "The story was all strong, male-chauvinist, adventure stuff."
Wray, of course, was quite familiar with machismo, both human and primate, since her most famous role was one where she is cradled in a giant ape's paw in King Kong (1933). That role made her a screen legend, even if she was upstaged yet again, by a chest-beating creature with traditional ideas about a woman's place.
Producer: Harry Cohn, Frank Fouce
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Frank Wead, Dorothy Howell, Jo Swerling
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Maurice Wright
Cast: Jack Holt (Cmdr. Jack Bradon), Ralph Graves (Lt 'Frisky' Pierce), Fay Wray (Helen Pierce), Hobart Bosworth (Louis Rondelle), Roscoe Karns (Sock McGuire), Harold Goodwin (Hansen).
by Felicia Feaster