Within its 100 minute runtime, Dirigible runs its audience through a gamut of genres. It begins as a military drama focusing on two best friends—U.S. Navy officer Jack Bradon (Jack Holt) and hotshot pilot “Frisky” Pierce (Ralph Graves)—transporting renowned explorer Louis Rondelle (Hobart Bosworth) to the South Pole in the USS Pensacola, a massive dirigible. Full of patriotic pep and pride, these scenes boast the full power of American military might and scientific know-how complete with cheering, flag-waving crowds and lavish stock footage of Naval air power.
But in an astonishing twist, the indomitable Pensacola crumbles during a storm, crashing into the sea and ruining the mission. At the same time, the relationship between Jack and Frisky collapses. Before their doomed departure, Frisky’s neglected wife Helen (Fay Wray) began an affair with Jack and convinced him to have Frisky removed from the dangerous expedition. The juxtaposition of the war and romantic melodrama genres was not new to Hollywood—William A. Wellman won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture with the 1927 “romantic action-war picture” Wings—but the last third takes a bizarre turn as it becomes a survival drama. Frisky, who had signed up for the second expedition to the Antarctic with Rondelle, becomes stranded at the South Pole after accidentally flipping his aircraft during a landing. One by one the survivors die off as they make a mad 900-mile dash back to the coast. Only a miracle will help Jack and his rescue dirigible reach Frisky in time…
Dirigible feels less like a single film than a cacophony of set-pieces from other films. The only thing more stunning than its narrative audacity is the scale of its special effects. Boasting a $650,000 budget—making it at the time the most expensive Columbia Pictures project in its history—Dirigible boasts fantastic modeling work in the crashing of the Pensacola, daring stunt-flying, and a literal transformation of an airfield into an Antarctic set.
Modern day viewers might see the film as a stepping stone between the lavish yet stilted silent epics of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith and latter day action extravaganzas by Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. But cineastes will find Dirigible fascinating for its director, that old chronicler of can-do, aw-shucks American optimism Frank Capra. Many forget that before Capra found his niche in screwball comedies and idealist dramas, he helped drag Columbia out of Poverty Row by being a kind of genre journeyman, experimenting with romantic comedies, crime dramas, early talkies, adventure films, and musicals. Curiously for Capra, the dramatic scenes in Dirigible involving the romantic triangle and Jack and Frisky’s friendship are the weakest. Whenever Helen shows up the film grinds to a halt with a near-audible clunk.
The film only truly breathes when it loses itself to its own grandeur and scope. Capra demonstrates a visual acumen scarcely equaled in his subsequent career of small towns and pleasing middle-to-upper class interiors. His scenes of flying dirigibles and biplanes have a kind of geometric choreography that imbue them with a near modernist sensibility. The crashing of the Pensacola brilliantly cross-cuts between horrific long shots of the dirigible being ripped in half and claustrophobic close-ups of the crew desperately running about their duties like frenzied ants. One of the most daring shots of Capra’s entire career can be found when, fresh from being removed from the first Antarctic expedition, Frisky storms across an empty airfield in a bird’s-eye extreme long shot.
But above all, Dirigible reaffirms Capra’s idealism in the capacity of ordinary Americans to solve their own problems. Though a dirigible ultimately saves the day by arriving in time to rescue the stranded explorers, the greatest act of heroism comes when Jack sacrifices his own happiness to save Frisky’s marriage and their friendship. Technology might fail—airships might crash, biplanes might flip—but human beings will not.