Dirigible (film)

Dirigible (film)
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Harry Cohn
Frank Fouce
Written by Frank Wead (story)
Dorothy Howell
Jo Swerling
Starring Jack Holt
Ralph Graves
Fay Wray
Hobart Bosworth
Cinematography Maurice Wright
Editing by Joseph Walker
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) April 4, 1931
Running time 100 minutes
Country USA
Language English
Budget $650,000

Dirigible is Frank Capra's 1931 adventure film about the competition between American naval fixed-wing and airship pilots to reach the South Pole by air.

Fay Wray stars, as do Jack Holt and Ralph Graves, who also played fliers in Capra's 1929 talkie, Flight. In fact this film had been intended to emulate the success of 1927's Wings, another movie with a very similar plot. The film was characterized as "marginally science fictional" by scifilm.org. (Capra later planned to make a fully science fictional movie but was never able to.)[1]



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 best friend and glory seeker "Frisky" Pierce (Ralph Graves) to pilot the biplane carried on the airship. Frisky is eager to go, even though he has just completed another record-setting mission, a coast-to-coast flight, and has barely spent any time with his neglected wife Helen (Fay Wray). She sees Jack without her husband's knowledge and begs him to drop Frisky from the expedition. In love with her himself, Jack agrees to do so, and without letting Frisky know why. Frisky ends their friendship in the belief that Jack does not want to share the fame.

The expedition soon ends in disaster; the Pensacola breaks in two and crashes into the ocean during a storm. Frisky gets a leave of absence from the navy to pilot a Ford Trimotor transport aircraft for Rondelle's next attempt. This proves too much for Helen. When she is unable to get Frisky to change his mind, she gives him a sealed letter, to be read when he reaches the South Pole. In it, she writes that she will be getting a divorce and that she will ask Jack to marry her.

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

They attempt to walk the 900 miles back to their base camp, dragging Rondelle on a sled. Rondelle dies the first night 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 others are sleeping. The other two 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.

Meanwhile, Jack talks Rear Admiral Martin into letting him attempt a rescue with his new dirigible, the USS Los Angeles. He retrieves the two survivors. On the way back, Frisky remembers Helen's letter. Because he has snow blindness, he asks Jack to read it to him. After skimming it, Jack substitutes his own improvised version, in which Helen is proud of his accomplishment and waiting for her husband with undiminished love. When they return, Frisky uncharacteristically skips a ticker tape parade through New York City to be with his wife. He assures her that his glory-seeking days are over.



Capra and Columbia considered Dirigible as a step forward into the big time, with a $650,000 budget, the highest amount the studio had ever invested.[2] Shot at Lakehurst, New Jersey at the hangar that would house the U.S. Navy and later the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. The Navy gave "its full resources at Lakehurst" including the pride of the fleet, the USS Los Angeles to lend an air of authenticity to the production.[3] The Los Angeles was featured prominently and also portrayed the fictional USS Pensacola. USN Lieutenant Commander Frank "Spig" Wead, a former pilot, was given the story credit and stayed on as a technical consultant.

As production began, the old Arcadia airfield was converted into a set, complete with "artificial snow, fake ice mounds and painted backdrop attached to the back side of the dilapidated Army barracks."[3] With principal photography slated for September, dry ice in metal containers stuffed in actor's mouths sufficed for the usual Arctic breath.

Aviation aspects

This film is historically important to aviation buffs. A mid-air docking/recovery of a fighter plane with a dirigible is shown. The crash of an airship during a storm is accurately depicted. One can also spot the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, with her 8-inch guns in the background during a takeoff of an aircraft.

The aerial cinematography was by coordinated by Elmer Dyer.


  1. ^ Sindelar, David. "'Dirigible' (1931)". scifilm.org, 2008. Retrieved: March 21, 2010.
  2. ^ McBride 1992, p. 223.
  3. ^ a b McBride 1992, p. 224.
  • Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-30680-771-8.
  • McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Touchstone Books, 1992. ISBN 0-671-79788-3.

External links

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