Dirigible (1931) ***


It's easy to forget the films Frank Capra made before his style-defining breakthrough masterpiece It Happened One Night.
History has rightly made monuments of the later blockbuster paeans to the American spirit (though pygmies frequently take pot-shots at them, they're standing firm at present) but it could be argued that there is more variety, more cinematic dexterity, certainly more surprises, in earlier masterpieces such as American Madness, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen or any of the three he made in 1931.
Of these, Platinum Blonde and Miracle Woman are widely known and celebrated, but Dirigible, though less acclaimed, is a big, technically demanding picture in no way meriting its relative obscurity, and hugely entertaining. I suppose auteurism is to blame: of all thirties Capra, this is the one where the revelation of his presence as director would come as the biggest surprise to anyone watching it unaware. ("The story was all strong, male-chauvinist adventure stuff," Fay Wray recalled in her autobiography, with "none of the delicate comedy sense that Robert Riskin was to help him find and establish as a trademark.")

It's part love triangle and part disaster spectacular, with some amazingly convincing effects work and dramatic scenes of aerial and polar peril. (According to Capra, actor Hobart Bosworth was hospitalised and lost some teeth and part of his jaw when one of the small cages of dry ice the actors used in some shots to simulate visible breath broke in his mouth.) The actual plot has Fay married to a daredevil aviator and would-be Lindy called Frisky Pierce but secretly in love with his superior, though the real attraction (apart from Fay, of course) is the disaster movie stuff, which is still gripping.
Historically, it is an interesting snapshot of the time when the US navy bought a bunch of German airships and went into production on their own, a scheme soon abandoned when all of the massive, cumbersome and uneconomical things crashed. The use of real documentary footage adds an extra layer to this already fascinating venture.