Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zeppelins in the Antarctic

Zeppelins are cool. I love seeing photos and films of these graceful vehicles floating over a cityscape. Even cooler (pun intended) are zeppelins in the Antarctic.

Before the Hindenburg blew up, zeppelins were reckoned to be the next big thing in air transportation.

Two movies in the early days of talkies celebrate zeppelins and the men who fly them. Of course, this being Hollywood, both movies shoehorn in the old standby, the love triangle – two men in love with the same woman. It’s too bad there aren’t enough women around. Without all that fighting over the same women, they might get more work accomplished. Of course, the movies would be a lot shorter.

In 1929, an independent production company called Tiffany-Stahl Productions gave us “The Lost Zeppelin” an ambitious look at a zeppelin’s attempt to reach the South Pole. Thanks to a terrific storm, the zeppelin crashes in the icy wilderness and a search party is formed to rescue them. The special effects are quite good here, as the zeppelin crashes into the mountains and tumbles to the ground, killing many of the crew. Even better is a sequence showing the zeppelin flying over the Caribbean through a storm, its massive shape silhouetted against the dark clouds and the massive, jagged lightning streaks.

Alas, the first 30 minutes or so of this 70-minute movie is taken up by the aforementioned love triangle, with stalwart Conway Searle married to Virginia Valli and supposed best friend Ricardo Cortez trying to win her affections for himself. None of the three leads are very appealing, and Valli is kind of annoying. Her high-pitched voice isn’t helped by the early crude, sound recording. If I was Cortez, I would have let his buddy Conway keep her and go out and find another woman.

The film’s sound effects are very crude and obvious. While watching it, it’s easy to joke about the wind machine sounding like something the Tiffany-Stahl sound engineer found at the local five and dime. But one must remember that sound movies were just a year old, so there was not a huge library of sounds effects tracks to choose from. Yet in its own satisfying way, it adds to the primitiveness of the film’s Antarctic locale.

I don’t know how successful the film was at the box office, but two years later fledgling Columbia Studios produced its most ambitious project to date, “Dirigible” with a very similar story of two men (Ralph Graves and Jack Holt), who fly dirigibles for the Army. Graves is forever flying off on a new assignment, leaving wife Fay Wray to wish he was more like his friend, dependable (and older) Jack Holt, who would love to comfort Fay on a more permanent basis.

Graves gets the assignment to fly to the South Pole in his bi-plane, where he crashes. Holt leads a rescue mission in the title vehicle in a race against time before Forbes is lost forever in the Antarctic wilderness.

The special effects are quite good here, and probably better than “The Lost Zeppelin.” The story is strictly formula, but the cast is quite likeable, thanks to director Frank Capra.
Formula is the key word here, as Graves Holt and Capra had previously made two service films very similar: “Submarine” (1929) and “Flight” (1930). I taped “Flight’ off TCM, but haven’t watched it yet, though I hope to soon.

Supposedly, exterior scenes of “Dirigible” were filmed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the Hindenburg later crashed and burned. These scenes of the dirigibles floating through the air with bi-planes buzzing around them look like something out of a pulp fiction fantasy, except that they’re real. Wonderful stuff here. I almost found myself looking for The Rocketeer flying around up there.

Rating for “The Lost Zeppelin”: Two stars.
Rating for “Dirigible”: Three stars

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