Sunday, May 17, 2009

Before the Hindenburg

When most people think about the olden days of blimps, the first thought is probably of the Hindenburg, which famously exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Lighter-than-air craft had only been around for a few decades, and during that time, people were trying to come up with all sorts of uses for them, including military applications. An interesting look at those days of airships can be seen in the 1931 movie Dirigible, airing May 18 at 11:45 AM ET on TCM.

To be honest, the fact that the movie is about airships is probably more interesting than the plot. Two men are in love with the same woman. One an airplane pilot for the military, is married to her; the other, a dirigible pilot, has a perhaps-not-unrequited love for her. A French explorer comes along with an idea to lead an expedition to the South Pole. The military feels this is a perfect opportunity to test out their dirigibles, but in the training flights, one of the dirigibles is ripped to shreds, leaving our airplane pilot hero to rescue the dirigible pilot. This also results in the expedition deciding to use planes instead of dirigibles.

Of course, you know what's going to happen next: the planes are going to run into difficulties trying to get to the South Pole, and it's going to be up to the dirigibles to rescue our airplane pilot hero. Oh, not only that, but it's going to look like the airplane pilot might lose his wife to the dirigible pilot. Yeah, it's a predictable plot that's overworked and toothless. Oh, the humanity.

Having said that, the movie still has a lot of interest. It's an early talkie, so it's fun to see what moviemakers were trying to do in those creaky days. In this case, the moviemaker is interesting because the director is one Frank Capra -- the same Capra who went on to make classics like It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life. (Indeed, Dirigible is being shown as part of a TCM birthday tribute to Capra.) The screenplay was written by Frank "Spig" Wead, a former US Navy airman who would go on to write about two dozen more screenplays for movies based on military aviation, and whose life story would be told in the movie The Wings of Eagles. There's also the interesting vintage footage of airships as they were in those days before the Hindenburg. Finally, watch for the love interest. That's a young Fay Wray, two years before King Kong.

Dirigible has not been released to DVD. It might be a good candidate for a Frank Capra box set, even if it is one of his more obscure titles.

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