Cast & Crew
Frank R. Capra
Rear Admiral John S. Martin informs Jack Bradon, commander of the Navy's dirigible fleet, that famous explorer Louis Rondelle is seeking the Navy's help with his expedition to the South Pole. Rondelle wants to use airplanes, but Jack is determined to impress him with the dirigibles, so he and his crews perform a demonstration on Navy Day at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Rondelle is impressed, but the daredevil antics of Lt. Frisky Pierce, an ace airplane pilot who is both Jack's rival and best friend, steal the show. Frisky's celebrating makes him late for dinner with his wife Helen, who is lonely because she spends most of her time alone. Jack is with Helen when Frisky arrives home, and when Jack asks if he wishes to join the Rondelle expedition, Frisky eagerly accepts. Helen overhears and is so distraught at the thought of Frisky leaving again that she begs Jack, who is in love with her, to take Frisky off the roster without letting him know she is responsible. Jack agrees, even though it costs him his friendship with Frisky when he tells Frisky that he cannot go. Jack's dirigible sets off soon after, but is torn apart in a storm. Frisky pilots the lead rescue plane, and after he returns Jack to Washington, D.C., Frisky resigns from the Navy to become Rondelle's partner in a new expedition. Helen writes Frisky a letter, to be opened at the South Pole, stating that she is tired of his treatment of her and is going to divorce him to marry Jack. Frisky takes the letter with him and soon reaches Antarctica. On a clear day, Frisky, Rondelle and their companions, Hansen and Sock McGuire, take off in Frisky's plane to complete the final 900 miles of the trip. Frisky insists on landing once they reach the Pole, but it is too difficult and the plane crashes. Helen and Jack read a newspaper article about the crash, and Helen's hysterical reaction makes Jack realize that she still loves Frisky. The injured explorers begin their torturous march back to camp, but the exertion and cold take their toll on Rondelle, who dies. Back in Washington, Jack convinces Martin to let him take his new dirigible to rescue Frisky. Days later, Frisky must amputate Sock's foot, after which Sock realizes he is a burden on the others and drags himself off into the frozen wasteland. Later, Hansen must lead snow-blind Frisky, but Hansen dies of exhaustion when they arrive back at Rondelle's grave and realize they are lost. Just before Frisky is about to succumb, Jack's dirigible arrives and Frisky is saved. On board the dirigible, when Frisky asks Jack to read him Helen's letter, Jack makes up a loving note of congratulations before he tosses the real letter out the window. They arrive in New York, where a huge parade is thrown for them, and while Jack rides in the parade, Frisky is reunited with Helen, whom he promises never to leave again.
Frank R. Capra
Samuel J. Briskin
W. J. Butler
Frank R. Capra
Edward C. Hahn
Edward C. Jewell
Commander Frank Wilber Wead Usn
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
Fay Wray (1907-2004)
She was born Vina Fay Wray, in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907. Her family relocated to Arizona when she was still a toddler so her father could find employment. When her parents divorced, her mother sent her to Hollywood when Fay's eldest sister died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The reasoning was that Southern California offered a healthier climate for the young, frail Wray.
She attended Hollywood High School, where she took some classes in drama. After she graduated, she applied to the Hal Roach studio and was given a six-month contract where she appeared in two-reel Westerns (25 minutes in length), and played opposite Stan Laurel in his pre-Oliver Hardy days.
She landed her first big role, as Mitzi Schrammell, in Erich von Stroheim's beautifully mounted silent The Wedding March (1928). It made Wray a star. She then starred in some excellent films: The Four Feathers (1929), the early Gary Cooper Western The Texan (1930), and one of Ronald Coleman's first starring roles The Unholy Garden (1931), all of which were big hits of the day.
For whatever reason, Wray soon found herself in a string of thrillers that made her one of the great screamers in Hollywood history. The titles say it all: Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat (both 1933) and, of course her most famous role, that of Ann Darrow, who tempts cinema's most famous ape in the unforgettable King Kong (also 1933).
Wray did prove herself quite capable in genre outside of the horror game, the best of which were Shanghai Madness with Spencer Tracy; The Bowery (both 1933), a tough pre-Hays Code drama opposite George Raft; and the brutal Viva Villa (1934), with Wallace Beery about the famed Mexican bandit. Yet curiously, the quality of her scripts began to tank, and she eventually found herself acting in such mediocre fare as Come Out of the Pantry (1935), and They Met in a Taxi (1936).
With her roles becoming increasingly routine, the last of which was the forgettable comedy Not a Ladies Man (1942), she decided to trade acting for domesticity and married Robert Riskin, who won two Best Screenplay Oscars® for the Frank Capra comedies It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). When Riskin died in 1955, Wray found herself working to keep busy and support her three children. She landed supporting parts for films like The Cobweb (1955), Hell on Frisco Bay (1956) and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). She also found work in television on such popular programs as Perry Mason and Wagon Train before she retired from acting all together in the mid-'60s.
To her credit, Wray did remain reasonably active after her retirement. She published her autobiography, On The Other Hand in 1989 and was attending many film festivals that honored her contribution to film, most notably in January 2003, when, at 95 years of age, she accepted in person her "Legend in Film" Award at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. Wray is survived by a son, Robert Riskin Jr.; two daughters, Susan and Victoria; and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Fay Wray (1907-2004)
Originally planned by Paramount as a sensational follow-up to Wings (1928), but they couldn't get the production off the ground. The story was sold to Columbia Pictures, and its final "lighter than air" plot reached theaters in 1931.
After the opening credits, a written dedication reads: "Dedicated to the United States Navy without whose cooperation production of this picture would not have been possible." According to a January 3, 1931 Motion Picture Herald news item, the picture cost $1,000,000 to produce and consisted of 28 reels before editing, including "125,000 feet shot at the naval air base at Lakehurst, N. J." Dirigible was Capra and Columbia Pictures' first film to open at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, a new sign of prestige for the studio. In the program for the premiere, photographer Victor Scheurich's name is spelled Sherick. The Variety review states that this was Columbia's most expensive production to date. According to contemporary sources, a French version was directed by Robert Harari, who also wrote the adaptation and dialogue, and a German version was directed by Egon Goltzen. A 1930 New York Times article mentions that Howard Hughes was working on a film to be called Dirigible, scripted by John Monk Saunders. It is possible, however, that the article was referring to one of Hughes' aviation films, such as Hell's Angels or Sky Devils, as he did not make a film entitled Dirigible. In a modern interview, sound engineer Ed Bernds states that a grip named Harry was killed in the hangar used for the dirigible when he fell from the rafters. According to Frank Capra's autobiography, the scenes of the South Pole were shot in the San Gabriel Valley, CA. Capra also states that the mooring used by the dirigible Los Angeles during the filming was the same one used by the Hindenburg zeppelin, which exploded in 1937 at Lakehurst, killing 36 people. Modern sources say that Boris Karloff had a bit part as a member of the dirigible expedition which fails, although this could not be confirmed in the print viewed.
Dirigible was the first of many films for which Commander Frank Wilber Wead wrote the story. Wead, an ace Navy pilot in World War I, led the fight to strengthen the Navy's air power once the war had ended. After he was paralyzed in an accident in the 1920s, Wead turned to writing and became a well-known novelist and screenwriter. Wead died in 1947 after visiting Pacific battle sites to implement reforms he had suggested to the Navy. In 1957, John Ford directed John Wayne in M-G-M's The Wings of Eagles, a biography of Wead based on his writings.