Friday, May 16, 2008


This adventure film breaks down neatly into two halves. Part 1: Navy commander Jack Holt, anxious to drum up support for the Navy's dirigible (airship) fleet, talks Hobart Bosworth, leader of an expedition to the South Pole, into using a dirigible to get there instead of planes. Holt asks his buddy, ace pilot Ralph Graves, to fly along in his plane, but Graves' wife (Fay Wray), whom Holt has feelings for, asks Holt not to take Graves away from home again, so without telling him why, Holt dismisses Graves from his team. On its way south, the airship runs into a huge storm and breaks apart over the ocean. Graves leads the rescue team, then takes a leave of absence from the Navy to become a full partner in Bosworth's expedition. Part 2: The unhappy Wray writes Graves a letter to be opened when he gets to the Pole, telling him she's getting a divorce (she's "tired of being married to a headline") and will be begging Holt to marry her. The group sets up a base camp on Antarctica, but when Graves flies a handful of men to the Pole, they crash and the plane burns up. A harrowing sequence follows, showing the men planting a flag, then trying to make the long trek back to base camp in harsh conditions, with the gravely injured Bosworth strapped to a sled. Holt and his crew take an airship to the Pole to attempt a rescue, but not everyone survives.

Last year, Turner Classic Movies showcased films involving aviation and this little-seen early effort by Frank Capra was included. It feels like one of the military preparedness films of the late 30's, though in this case, it's not about getting ready for war, but for selling the public on the Navy's use of dirigibles--by WWII, only a few such airships were being used by the U.S and the fleet was soon phased out altogether. Actually, the film, with its "man vs. natural phenomena" setpieces, feels more related to the German Mountain films, especially SOS ICEBERG. The relationship subplot is tedious and predictable, but the two big disaster scenes are well done and involving, especially the airship crack-up at sea. Capra's usual themes, such as the championing of the little guy, and his sentimental streak are not in evidence here, but there is an interesting modern feeling to the direction, with some use of casual overlapping dialogue. Neither Holt nor Graves would have been my first choice for their roles--maybe the young Spencer Tracy and Douglas Fairbanks--but they're OK, better than Wray who doesn't have much to work with. I don't know where the location footage was done, but I didn't have to suspend much disbelief to imagine they were near Antarctica. Roscoe Karns does a nice job as one of the potentially doomed members of the Pole expedition. Worth seeing, especially for a different take on Capra. [TCM]

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