After much hype, movie theaters are graced this month with the release of Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 movie Top Gun. The original Top Gun features some of the most memorable naval aviation scenes in film history, due in large part to the cooperation of the U.S. Navy with the filming of the movie. Although some may presume this is the first time a major Hollywood film joined forces with U.S. naval aviation, that honor belongs to the 1931 film Dirigible.
Title Card for the 1931 film Dirigible. Actor Jack Holt is seen on the left, and Fay Wray and Ralph Graves are seen on the right.
Dirigible is based on a story written by Frank “Spig” Wead, a pioneer and advocate for U.S. naval aviation. The story follows Jack Bradon, played by actor Jack Holt, a U.S. Navy airship pilot, and Frisky Pierce, played by Ralph Graves, a U.S. Navy aircraft pilot, as they make attempts to be the first to reach the South Pole by air. With great confidence in airship flight, Jack convinces the Navy to support a civilian expedition to the pole via airship. His best friend and fellow pilot Frisky accompanies the expedition with his biplane attached to the underside of the dirigible.
Before the flight can occur, Frisky’s wife Helen, played by actress Fay Wray (later of King Kong fame) implores Jack to prevent Frisky from going on the mission for fear of him being lost, due to his penchant for reckless feats of flying. Jack abides by Helen’s request, and orders Frisky off the mission, causing great resentment between the two. Jack begins his attempt to make it to the South Pole in the fictional USS Pensacola airship alone.
Helen Pierce, played by Fay Wray, implores Jack Bradon, played by Jack Holt, to keep her husband from embarking on the dangerous flight to the South Pole.
The airship is severely damaged en route to the pole in a violent storm and crashes into the sea, where the crew must be rescued. Frisky, still upset by his removal from the flight, decides to help the mission to get to the South Pole by air by volunteering to fly an aircraft for the second attempt. Although he and the crew are successful at reaching the pole via aircraft, they crash while attempting to land and set up an American flag. Upon hearing the news of the crash, Jack convinces the Navy to let him fly the new airship USS Los Angeles to rescue Frisky, saving his friend and redeeming lighter-than-air flight from its previous embarrassment.
Dirigible featured numerous scenes of real flight shot in partnership with the U.S. Navy, who is directly thanked in the opening of the movie for their help in the project. The film had a $650,000 budget (approximately $12,000,000 today) which was incredibly large for the time. A May 10, 1931, Washington Post article explained, “The Bureau of Aeronautics made available for location four of the most important naval stations—Anacostia, San Diego, Pensacola and Lakehurst…. The principal players, directors and cameramen spent more than a month at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and here the entire personnel comprising the crews and ground crews took active part in the making of ‘Dirigible’.” As with later films, including Top Gun, the Navy also assisted with some of the stunt scenes seen in the movie. The same Washington Post article goes on to explain:
To Capt. Harry E. Shoemaker, commandant of the Lakehurst station, goes a large share of the credit for the planning of the stunt shots which punctuate the first 3,000 feet of the film. He arranged with the Bureau of Operations for the use of the Lakehurst-developed appliance on the Los Angeles which permits a plane in flight to attach itself to a dirigible in flight…. The authentic note which is apparent in the various aerial shorts taken at Lakehurst is due entirely to the desire on the part of the Navy Department to adhere strictly to actual naval activities, without the usual movie embellishments. Among the maneuvers which are show in ‘Dirigible’ is a Navy Vought Corsair plane looping the loop around the midsection of the Los Angeles. His difficult and rather hazardous ‘stunt’ was filmed also for the first time in the production of ‘Dirigible.’
The film also captured shots of the entire lighter-than-air fleet airborne at the same time while stationed in Lakehurst, a flight specifically made on behalf of the film.
Although Dirigible does not contain the same intense adrenaline pumping action sequences (by today’s standards) seen in Top Gun or Top Gun: Maverick, it did set the stage for later cooperation between US Naval aviation and Hollywood, creating memorable movies that forever changed our perspective of carrier aviation. If you are interested in viewing the new Top Gun: Maverick, filmed with help from the U.S. Navy, it will be shown at the Airbus IMAX Theater at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Tickets can be purchased here.