Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: DIRIGIBLE (1931)

At the end of his career, Frank Capra wanted to make a science-fiction movie. It would not have been that futuristic a picture, its subject being the contemporary American space program. Marooned ended up being filmed by John Sturges, with Capra's son getting a producer credit. Had it been Capra's coda, we might think of his career differently, and films like Dirigible would loom larger in his filmography. Dirigible pretty much was the Marooned of its time, though its special effects were closer to state-of-the-art than the actual Marooned's were. For all that Capra is identified with the "corn" often suffixed to his name, he clearly thought of himself as an ultra-modern filmmaker taking on cutting-edge subjects. Technically and pictorially, Dirigible is a tour-de-force. Capra employs nearly every trick in the book to keep the picture lively. As far as effects go, he combines location footage from the airship base at Lakehurst NJ with authentic stunt flying, ambitious model work, and carefully composed process shots to sustain the illusion of stars Jack Holt and Ralph Graves taking part in the action. Cinematically, Capra films from every angle, assisted by a small army of cinematographers. His shot selection is more diverse and interesting than most 1931 pictures and he tries to do more with light and shadow than many contemporaries dared. Overall, Dirigible is visually spectacular, especially when you judge it by the standard of its time, but whether it really belongs in the Pre-Code Parade is another issue entirely.

Jo Swerling gets the main screenwriting credit but Dirigible's story is a product of Frank "Spig" Wead, now probably best known as the subject, played by John Wayne, of John Ford's biopic The Wings of Eagles. On this evidence, and in spite of the ad campaign, Wead hadn't a Pre-Code bone in his body. Dirigible was re-released in 1949 (which is why the current edition has a more modern Columbia logo) and I doubt anything had to be cut from it to meet Code standards. There is a sort of romantic triangle in the movie, but it's pure hoke. Flyer "Frisky" Pierce (Graves) and dirigible commander Jack Bradon (Holt) are friendly rivals for glory and rivals in the heart of Frisky's wife Helen (Fay Wray). Helen is fearful and starved for attention while Frisky seeks glory. She goes so far as to beg Jack to kick Frisky off his dirigible expedition to the South Pole -- the airship will have a plane attached, Frisky having proven the feasibility of a mid-air hook-up -- in order to keep her husband out of harm's way and under her roof. But when Jack's airship wrecks (he's rescued at sea) and Frisky attaches himself to a naval expedition -- he'll fly over the Pole -- Helen decides to divorce him. Her way of informing him is to put a Dear Frisky letter in a sealed envelope to be opened when the hero reaches the Pole. The letter will also inform him that Helen intends to make a play for Jack. But when word reaches the U.S. that Frisky's plane has crashed at the Pole, she freaks out in a manner that convinces Jack that he has no real chance with her. Like a good sport, Jack takes another dirigible to Antarctica to rescue Frisky and any other survivors of his plane. The melodramatic climax comes when the temporarily snowblinded Frisky, who has held on to the unopened letter through his ordeal, asks Jack to read it for him. Jack plays Cyrano (or John Alden) and recites what he presumes to be Helen's true present feelings for Frisky, though given the bromance aspect of the picture, Frisky might almost be excused for asking, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jack?"

Holt and Graves were Columbia's counterparts to Cagney and Pat O'Brien at Warner Bros. or Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen at Fox -- belligerent buddies or intimate rivals depending on the story whose commitment to each other, or country, often outweighed the needs of women. They're likable enough here but lack the superstar charisma to stay foregrounded in Capra's spectacle. You wonder what Wray sees in either of them, but she rarely had a co-star worthy of her -- why else do people identify her most with a giant ape? Dirigible is also noteworthy for a Clarence Muse sighting. Muse is the black actor of the period most likely to get through any picture with his dignity intact. Here he plays "Clarence," a Navy steward who volunteers for the Antarctic expedition. When he explains that he's familiar with all things "South," having hailed from Birmingham, you sincerely wonder whether he's just putting his superiors on. Some of his behavior is stereotypical: he sings spirituals and puts store in a lucky rabbit's foot, but his best friend among the white crewmen is no less superstitious and takes the proffered charm with him on Frisky's flight for all the good it does him -- the foot ultimately becomes an ingredient in a desperation soup. Sporting sunglasses and a parka in one outdoor scene, Muse is unusually modern looking, adding to the odd impression that he's in but not of his time. I wish he had a bigger role, but people aren't really Dirigible's main attraction. It's not an inhuman picture in the cartoonish manner some Pre-Code pictures affected, but it's chiefly a technological spectacle that in its advocacy of airships became a kind of science fiction after the fact.

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