“Dirigible” the MOVIE!

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Described by scifilm.org as being a “marginally science fictional,”  Dirigible is a 1931 American Pre-Code adventure film directed by Frank Capra. The movie stars Jack Holt, Ralph Graves and Fay Wray and focuses on the competition between naval fixed-wing and airship pilots to reach the South Pole by air. Dirigible was Capra’s and Columbia’s first film to be given prominence with a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but despite high hopes, the film received lukewarm reviews.


In 1927, the success of the film Wings prompted a series of aviation action romance movies. Just two years prior to Dirigible, Capra directed the airborne adventure Flight (1929) which also featured actors Jack Holt and Ralph Graves.

DirigibleThe plot of Dirigible starts when famed explorer Louis Rondelle (Hobart Bosworth) requests the U.S. Navy‘s assistance in reaching the South Pole, officer Jack Bradon (Jack Holt) convinces Rear Admiral John S. Martin (Emmett Corrigan) to offer his dirigible, the USS Pensacola, for the attempt.

Jack requests his best friend “Frisky” Pierce (Ralph Graves) to pilot the biplane that will be carried on the airship. Frisky, who is adventurous to the point of recklessness, is eager to go even though he has just completed a record-setting coast-to-coast flight and has barely spent any time with his wife Helen (Fay Wray). Basking in the acclaim, he has even forgotten to read the sealed love letter she gave him to open when he arrived.

Helen loves Frisky, but cannot make him believe how much the risks he takes hurt her. She sees Jack without her husband’s knowledge and begs him to drop Frisky from the expedition, and for the sake of their marriage, not tell him why. Jack, who also loves her, agrees. Frisky assumes Jack does not want to share the fame, and ends their friendship.

Dirigible_photoThe expedition soon ends in disaster: the Pensacola breaks in two and crashes into the ocean during a storm. Frisky participates in their rescue by aircraft carrier. He now gets a leave of absence from the navy to pilot a Fokker Trimotor transport aircraft for Rondelle’s next attempt at the South Pole. This proves too much for Helen. When she is unable to get Frisky to change his mind, she gives him another sealed letter (to be read when he reaches the Pole), but this time it says that she is divorcing him and will ask Jack to marry her.

Frisky, Rondelle, Sock McGuire (Roscoe Karns), and Hansen (Harold Goodwin) reach the South Pole. When Frisky suggests landing on the snow, Rondelle accepts his judgment that there will be no danger. But in fact the aircraft flips over and bursts into flames, destroying most of their supplies. Rondelle’s leg is broken and Sock’s foot is injured.

After radioing their base camp, they attempt to walk the 900 miles back to it, dragging Rondelle on a sled. Rondelle soon dies and is buried. Later, Frisky has to amputate Sock’s foot. When Sock realizes he is too much of a burden, he drags himself away to die while the other two are sleeping. They carry on, but Hansen breaks down when he finds they have been going in a circle and have returned to Rondelle’s grave. Frisky refuses to give up and forces Hansen to continue on.

Dirigible_(1931)When Helen hears the news of the crash, she realizes no longer wants a divorce and wishes she could go to Frisky. Jack realizes he can, and talks Rear Admiral Martin into letting him attempt a rescue with his new dirigible, the USS Los Angeles. The two survivors are found and rescued. On the way back, Frisky remembers that he has again forgotten to read Helen’s letter, but he has snow blindness and asks Jack to read it to him. Jack quickly substitutes his own improvised version, in which Helen is proud of his accomplishment and waiting for her husband with undiminished love. He then destroys the letter. When they return, Frisky uncharacteristically skips a ticker tape parade through New York City to be with his wife. He is the first to mention the contents of the letter; to Helen’s great relief, she realizes that Jack has not only brought Frisky back to her, but also saved their marriage.

Despite the success of Capra’s previous airborne adventure film, Dirigible failed to cause the same degree of excitement. Variety called it “unconvincing,” and more recent reviews noted that “the odd mix of romantic cliches, nascent disaster elements, and adventurism …” “It works, partly because Capra intermingles so much documentary-styled footage of the airship and Antarctic expedition.” 


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