When Airplanes Ruled The Movies

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The years between the world wars are widely considered the Golden Age of flight. In the midst of it, Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, air races were wildly popular, aircraft were making huge strides in performance and safety and passenger flights were accessible, if not cheap. Americans couldn’t get enough of airplanes and this was reflected in the popular culture, no more so than in motion pictures.

By 1930, Howard Hughes’ famous Hell’s Angels World War I fighter pic had the sound of roaring Liberty engines and Lewis guns to accompany what was then groundbreaking aerial footage. During the same period—1933—Thornton Freeland directed what became an iconic, airplane-centric feature called Flying Down to Rio. It starred, among others, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first-ever screen pairing. They made eight more films together.

The film linked here is the trailer and builds on the thinnest of cinema pretexts. The Rio hotel has no entertainment license so the storyline stages a chorus show entirely atop airplanes flying overhead, while band leader Fred Ayres (Astaire) conducts and Ginger Rogers as Honey Hale leads the chorus from the turtledeck of a Buhl Bull Pup. Most of the chorus line struts atop a Douglas M-1 Mailplane and a Fairchild FC-1, but the famed Lockheed Vega also makes a brief appearance.

For its day, the cinematic effects devised by Linwood G. Dunn were stunning and frankly, nearly 90 years later, they don’t hold up too badly. Today, this would be done digitally with chroma keying or computer-generated imagery, but Dunn used a technique called traveling matte. The aircraft were placed on a mount above a featureless background. The dancers actually danced and were shot from the appropriate angles. The second component of the matting shot was the moving background and each shot had to be composited frame by frame into the final print. It was expensive and time-consuming and akin to animation. (Unknown is how the dancers kept their heels from puncturing the airplane fabric.)

Flying Down to Rio was among a few dozen so-called pre-code films. That’s why it contains some pretty racy footage of braless dancers and dresses ripped off by the slipstream. By mid-1934, the Catholic church agitated for enforcement of the Hays Code and depictions of sexual suggestion, criminal immorality and violence were scrubbed from films. Prohibition ended that year, so even if you couldn’t be titillated you could at least get hammered legally.

Contemporary films are famous for “brand integration” of commercial products. BMW writes a big check for an appearance in a Bond film, Coca-Cola spends millions to appear on the table in a restaurant scene. Nothing new here. The newly formed Pan Am Airlines was heavily involved in Flying Down to Rio and a Pan Am Sikorsky S-40, complete with logo, is prominently showcased in the film.  Also prominent is an Astaire-Rogers dance number. It’s not in the trailer, but see it here. It’s not bad, but I like this one better from Swing Time. You can also buy or rent the full feature on YouTube.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Nice relaxing entertainment here Paul. Thank you for the distraction.

    Where were Thornton Freeland, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when I needed them most? That would have been during the results of the 2008 economic downturn when corporate pilots were dropping like flies from rosters and I had to recycle myself back into the industry at the age of 60 by taking a job flying a milk run from Miami to Rio. Somehow while flying down to Rio, the intertropical convergence zone, arrival slots, departure slots, Brazilian customs at one end and US customs at the other obscured any racy footage of braless dancers and dresses ripped off by the slipstream on that swept wing. But, hey, it’s aviation to which some of us are addicted in a hopeless, dysfunctional codependence.

    Now more than a decade lapsed, I look back on those midnight flights and can actually see the dancers on the wing.

  2. “Hollywood” and GA don’t mix. Like a fast car driving on a winding mountainous road, within a few minutes it will end up in a 500gallon gasoline fed fireball tumbling down, a GA airplane will have the engine “sputtering” in minutes(even turbo props…), crash uncontrollable in a lake or desolate wilderness. Booooring.

  3. Paul, you find the most wonderful treasures and you write about them so well. Thank you for your skilful eye and pen!

  4. Where the heck did the Country and a movie industry that spawned a video like THIS go ??

    Now you’ve got my curiosity piqued … is THIS where you get the ideas for some of your zany aviation videos that you make? 🙂 Maybe you were born too late?

    Thanks for an O dark thirty laugh and smile.

  5. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Paul. It’s always a treat to watch Fred and Ginger “fly” about the dance floor!

  6. Thinking about it all day … all those pretty gals had flight goggles on but weren’t wearing ’em. I’m gonna have to turn them in to OSHA. 🙂

  7. Great subject Paul!
    Nice article! You brought to us good entertainment, history and some good memories. So nice to see such a movie and the way movies were made back in the days. I’m born and raised in Brazil, lived in Rio for three decades, late 60s to late 70s and 80s so I am suspicious to say how beautiful the city is from above. Especially at that time. just few houses not high rise buildings yet. What a treasure! Copacabana Palace Hotel, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon all from above filmed at that time is just wonderful.
    Thanks for the mix of art and aviation. We need more of this approach to GA. Too much of “safety” and “accidents” talks kills the poetry and the spirit of adventure.
    I am all for adventure when comes to GA.
    Again, thanks for the article.
    Made my day 🙂

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