Hollywood and the Airship

Motion pictures featuring airships may be hard to find, but films about airships themselves are very rare. High quality LTA-subject entertainment projects can be counted without removing one’s shoes. (This ex-Navy “L” ship was used to advertise for “The Outlaw” though it was a Western – some have suggested Howard Hughes should have used two(!) for that Jane Russell film. Oddly enough a sister ship appeared in a Western – see listings.) Nonetheless, anyone considering creating a new airship movie should be aware of what’s come before.  This list was updated from the seventh chapter of our book, “A Century of Airships,” which itself is mainly concerned with actual airship footage from newsreel cameras and other sources.


(Silents) “The Airship Destroyer”, 1909 Also known as “Aerial Warfare” “Aerial Torpedo”, produced by Charles Urban. Clever model work as London bombed by a fleet of moored dirigibles. Radio controlled torpedoes (rockets) are used to defeat the airship and end the war.

“The Pirates of 1920”, 1911 film. Bad guys use an airship to attack a surface vessel.

“The Aerial Anarchists”, 1911. A fifteen minute film depicting an airship attack on London.

“The Twentieth Century Tramp, Or, Happy Hooligan And His Airship” (Prior to 1913) – This film was unique for the time inasmuch as the producer or cameraman attempted to show that a man suspended from a small gas bag could pedal-propel himself about and above NYC. The in-camera horizontal split screen process was accomplished by covering the lower half of the lens while the tramp was pumping his bicycle and the picture was photographed. The lens was then covered, the film was reversed, and the upper half exposed while the cameraman photographed the panorama of the city. The actor riding the bicycle suspended from the airship represents a comic strip character called Happy Hooligan.

DixonInset: This is Cromwell Dixon, who really did fly his pedal-powered airship in many American cities prior to 1913. Dixon eventually adopted an engine like his competitors, and copied their procedure, filling his airship with local CitiGas, which was mostly hydrogen. Dixon later purchased an aeroplane, which killed him.

(Prior to 1913) ‘S.1’, German, made by the Danish company Nordisk. Set in Germany, it features a general’s daughter, played by Asta Nielsen, who gets a ride in LZ10 Schwaben. The film used the airship extensively, with it in the hangar, on the ground, and there were also Ruhr shots from the air.

“Won in the Clouds”, 1928 Roy Knabenshue’s airship (possibly “City of Pasadena”) appears.

“Let’s Take A Trip In My Airship”, possibly a silent version remade into a sound version later, animated short from Fleischer Studios (later of Betty Boop fame) featuring animation of flying vehicles and live action bouncing-ball sing-a-long. (Prior to 1929)

 

(Talkies from 1929 on) “The Lost Zeppelin”, 1929, Conway Tearle, Virginia Valli. Story and technology obviously inspired by Arctic exploration flights of Italian semi-rigids Norge and Italia. Surprisingly elaborate sets and moving mockups simulate semi-rigid airship exploring the South Pole.

(Producer’s. Note: A later German film also told the story of the ill-fated Itlaia. )

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“Madame Satan”, 1930, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny. Possibly the worst film ever produced by Cecil B. DeMille, second half has costumed partygoers climbing mast stairs and boarding R-101-like airship singing “on the cat-walk” find it has hangar-like interior for elaborate dance numbers with a cast of seeming hundreds. Storms causes ship to break away and drift, passengers don harnesses and jump as ‘chutes strung in vertical tubes open above them.

 

 

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“Hell’s Angeles”, 1930, Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon, produced by Howard Hughes. WWI aerial drama featuring British pilots attacking a Zeppelin raider. Very accurate re-creation if hokey drama. Originally shot silent, film was re-done in sound; became the most expensive picture made to date. Source of “WWI Zeppelin footage” in most TV documentaries since it was used in official USN Rigid Airship History and is therefore sorta-public domain. Zep models supervised by Dr. Karl Arnstien himself and filmed in an Army blimp hangar.

“Lottery Bride,” 1930, first film of Bing Crosby, plays a radio operator on an airship.

SKMBT_22316071904190 - Copy (2)“Dirigible,” 1931, Jack Holt, released the week USS Akron was christened. Real USS Los Angeles used, most interesting hook-on footage ever filmed, from pilot’s POV via fuselage-mounted camera. (Used in official USN Rigid Airship History and is therefore sorta-public domain.) Opening scene of Navy Day Lakehurst 1930 with all types of airships aloft is stunning. Crewman reporting “All Present” is “Shaky” Davis, later hero who saved Macon over Texas. Imaginary airship rescue of stranded HTA pilot at South Pole, melodrama with two-timing love interest (Fay Wray).

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“Hell Divers,” 1931 Wallace Beery, Clark Gable. Flattop airplane crew sailors encounter three dirigibles during war games. Stock footage of ZR-3 landing on CV-3, mockup car built for movie. Producer’s Note: Other models inspired by early ZRS design, before Bu Aer design change #2 made the fins taller, and without radiators. Footage source for closing of USN rigid airship history, thereby believed to be public domain, thereby repeatedly used in TV documentaries.

 

“Hidden Valley”, 1932(?) Bob Steele, Gertie Messinger. Usual grade B Western, except girl chases and rescues wrongfully accused good guy via Goodyear Blimp. Actual California-based blimp, ladder and pilot used.

“Clyde Beatty”, 1934 Cecelia Parker, Syd Saylor, Warner Richmond. Passengers in dirigible panic during electric storm. Man with parachute, jumps from air-ship.

“The Flirty Sleepwalker”, 1934 2 reel comedy Arthur Stone, Dorothy Granser, Wade Boteler . Dirigible flies w/ sign reverend Barnes skypilot.

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“Here Comes The Navy”, 1934 James Cagney. USS Arizona sailor (Cagney) transferred to USS Macon. Chief Petty Officer rival (Pat O’Brien) is hauled aloft in incident inspired by actual tragedy of USS Akron. Real-time on location at Moffett Field, undocking Macon stern-first shown in great detail. Set re-creations.

 

 

“Murder in the Air,” 1935, Ronald Reagan. Imaginary airship USS Mason (some stock footage of USS Macon) to test new death ray weapon, is lost at sea.  Elaborate set re-creations of rigid airship. This film is the source of some wreck scenes used in USN Rigid Airship History, and thereby sorta public domain, usually seen on TV documentaries.

“Devil Dogs of the Air”, 1935 James Cagney. No LTA other than a unique bit of actual USS Macon dropping a plane during war games.

“Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery”, 1935, 12-chapter Universal serial. Clark Williams, Noah Berry, Jr. Much stock footage of half-dozen airships portraying “Dirigible 76” as Tommy hooks-on before chapter-ending crash. Unique model has many features of original Akron-Macon design including staggered engines and three-mainframe fins.

“Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island”, 1936, 14-chapter Republic serial. Mamo Clark, Herbert Rawlinson, John Ward. Newsreel footage of dirigibles. Mala (Ray Mala) is a special investigator who is sent by pacific Dirigible Airlines to learn who has destroyed their base.

“Alibi For Murder”, 1936 Columbia Pictures, Perry Travis, Lois Allen. Character steps off Hindenburg after arriving at Lakehurst. (Producer’s Note: The first episodes of the original “Buck Rogers” serial feature Buck [Buster Crabbe] losing an airship in a snowstorm.)

“Charlie Chan At The Olympics”, 1937. Detective and No.1 son (Key Luke) must chase bad guys across the Atlantic. To overcome head start, they board the Hindenburg. Usual stock footage of the airship, but only print seen has fin swastikas scratched out frame by frame(!). Interior a rather imaginative set, but airship is rather small part of story.

“Fly-Away Baby”, 1937 stars Barton MacLane and Glenda Farrell. It is the story of a jewel robbery / murder that becomes a round-the-world air race, starting in New York and going west. The last leg will be flown on a Zeppelin (un-named) from Germany to New York. In the final reel, the principals get on the Zeppelin, one suspect is murdered.

“Serial Adventures of Dick Tracy”, 1937, Dirigible on fire making a nose dive. Explosion. Parachuter survives crash. The Gold Ship. Dirigible in flight/double-winged airplane in flight / fist fight in dirigible’s gondola/dirigible goes down on fire/two men jump from airplane with only one parachute between them. Sinister mole-like looking character with hunchback. Inside ship’s radio room with all its controls and gizmos.

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“Thunder in the City”, 1937 film featuring three TC-14 like airships with ads over London.

 

“Stunden der Entscheidung” (“Hours of Decision”), 1938(?) German film about life of Count Zeppelin. Pre-WWII, contains LZ-129. Producer’s note: This the source of some of the too-good-to-be-true footage of the early Zeppelins often seen in documentaries.

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“King of the Texas Rangers”, 1941 Republic 12-chapter serial. Ranger King (“Slingin’“ Sammy Baugh) battles Nazi-like fifth columnists and sabotage agents aided by a Mexican Federal (Duncan Renaldo). Agents report to a Nazi-like uniformed bad guy aboard a LZ-126 style Zeppelin. Bad guy agent reports to leader by flying his airplane up to hook on to the airship. King is unable to shoot down the Zeppelin since bad guy leader says the airship is quite bullet-proof. Airship blows up (of course).

 

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“This Man’s Navy”, 1945 , Wallace Beery, Tom Drake, Jan Clayton (right) Selena Royle, James Gleason, Noah Beery Sr. Henry O’Neill, directed by William Wellman.  Locations used were operational bases Lakehurst, Moffett, Santa Ana, and Del Mar.Romantic daylight re-creation of only WWII blimp-vs-sub combat admitted by the Navy.  Only known motion footage of “M” ship J-2 Cub-dropping experiments. Working title of this film was “Airship Squadron Four.” Finest example of WWII real-time LTA Hollywood ever did.

 

Cartoon Fragment of a George Pal puppet film, featuring strange animation of an aerial battle, from the 1950s is listed in footage sources. A squadron of bat-like airplanes engages others in a dogfight; a Mexican bandit drops bombs on a town; a dirigible unloads war planes. (These shorts were called “Puppetoons.”)

Producer’s note: “The Dam Busters”, 1954, “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell”, 1955, and “Wings of Eagles”, 1957 all feature bits about airships or airship people without actual footage or model work. “Hole in the Head” features a blimp in the opening.

“The Mysterians”, 1957 Japanese. Toho film shows rocket propelled rigid airships with laser nose cannon destroying alien flying saucers.

“Master of the World”, 1964 Vincent Price. Quick shots of Jules Verne dirigible over city.

“Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid”, 1965 Russian, Gorky Studios. Jules Verne-style s-f based on Alexi Tolstoy story. One source says ship made for film, 82 ft. long, flew over Moscow on March 16, 1965. (Producer’s Note: “Help” United Artists, 1965. Bealtes film features Goodyear blimp in the Bahamas. “A Ticklish Affair,” 1963 Gig Young and Doris Day Features a hokey blimp model, may also be titled “Moon Walk.”1960s films “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” and “The Great Race” had small LTA content. )

 

SKMBT_22316071903591“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, 1968 Universal, Dick Van Dyk, Sally Ann Howes. Bad Guy (Gert Forbe) employs Lebuday-type airship to capture Grandpa and fly back to Vugaria. Actual airship was built and flown 10 hours, somewhat used in the film; miniatures; studio work with airship set pieces.

 

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“The Assassination Bureau”, 1970. Rich looking campy film starring Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg features elaborate re-creation of early Zeppelin to be used in bombing attempt. Detailed car mockups but fantasy interior and capabilities.

 

“Darling Lili”, 1970, Julie Andrews, Rock Hudson, produced by Blake Edwards. Film opens with Zeppelin raid on London featuring control car set. ‘Blue Max’ painted on control car, L-54 style.

 

“The Red Tent”, 1971 Paramount, Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale, and Peter Finch as Nobile. Based on the story of Italia’s ill-fated polar exploration trip. Somewhat difficult to follow film style, but one of the most entertaining films ever produced featuring an airship. Fairly good model work. Haunting musical soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is a masterpiece by itself.

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“Zeppelin”, 1971 Warner Brothers, Michael York, Elke Sommer. Fictional story of a WWI Zeppelin’s mission to steal British treasures in Scotland. Somewhat enhanced airship features and capabilities, but very elaborate models and sets. Cardington hangars seen. Paperback novel also written after screenplay by Arthur Rowe and Donald Churchill. Airship blows up (of course).

 

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“Island At The Top of the World”, 1971, Disney. David Hartman, Donald Sinden. Expedition to find lost son in the North employs Lebuady-type airship to overfly whales’ dying ground, locate lost civilization, etc. Noteworthy is treatment of exposed mechanic (poor guy must have been cold!)

 

SKMBT_22316071903590“The Hindenburg”, 1975 Universal Studios, George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft. Based on Mooney novel, concerns plot to explode a small bomb aboard the airship after landing as anti-Nazi statement by rigger “Boerth.” Most elaborate and expensive airship movie released in the century at 15 million 1975 dollars. WWII blimp base Santa Ana (then MCAS Tusin) stars as both airship bases. “Rivet-counters” delight, lots to like, and lots of technical detail slips. Principal model used in film donated to National Air & Space Museum and is on display in the lobby in Washington, D. C. with a plaque that reads: “This 1/28th scale model of the airship Hindenburg was built by Universal Studios for the feature film Hindenburg… As the Hindenburg attempted to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6th, 1937, it burst into flames. Static electricity apparently ignited the flammable lacquer-doped fabric covering starting the resulting conflagration. Amazingly, 62 of the 97 passengers and crew on board survived the disaster.”

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“Black Sunday”, 1976, based on novel by Thomas Harris. Ex-Navy blimp pilot (Bruce Dern) now flying for Goodyear-Florida conspires with bad guys to kill everyone at the Miami Super Bowl using a high explosive nail bomb hung on the blimp. Israeli secret service agent (Robert Shaw) tries to stop the blimp. Actual locations, equipment and Goodyear Florida personnel used extensively but not exclusively. Airship blows up (of course). Incredibly, this film was so effective that immediately after 9/11 airships were for a time forbidden to fly near stadiums even in security roles(!)

Notes: “Thank God it’s Friday” has a bit of Goodyear blimp nightsign footage. Two Minute Warning” showed Goodyear blimp as sniper spotter. “A Star is Born” a Streisand music movie had the blimp’s shadow passing over a stadium. “Condorman”, 1981 Disney, Oliver Reed, features small airship. “Hardly Working” 1981 has Jerry Lewis delivering a package for Joe Hajcak, Goodyear Airship Operations, and that ship in “Scareface,” 1982 shows its nightsign.

SKMBT_22316071903582“A View To A Kill”, 1985, MGM/UA, Roger Moore, Chris Walken, Tanya Roberts. Possibly the worst Bond film ever made, opens with a fantasy Skyship with boardroom interior and disappearing staircase. Climatic end scene has Bond hanging on nose line of actual Skyship 500 for duel atop the Golden gate bridge. Inflation of this ship is a Hollywood classic, good miniature work. Airship blows up of course, minus weight of car, envelope sinks into ocean(!)

 

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, 1989, Paramount, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery. Jones boys try to escape Germany via LZ-130 like passenger airship labeled “LZ-134.” A believable re-creation of an Zeppelin LZ-130 style two-level lounge. Keel features ZRS-style girder work(!) When they are discovered and ship turns around, the two make escape via hook-on airplane, making the comment he’d sabotaged the ship’s radio. Note: A great deal more footage concerning the escape wound up on the cutting room floor. This photo in a book shows three additional characters in the keel set, including a man in a leather pilot’s cap. Also: Zeppelins are seen in at least one episode of the TV series “Young Indiana Jones.”

 

SKMBT_22316071903560“The Rocketeer”, 1991 Disney, Bill Cambell, Jennifer Connelly. Young hero must use Howard Hughes rocket pack to overtake Zeppelin and rescue girl. Nice exteriors and models, interiors and other details weak. Airship “Luxembourg” (newsreel footage of 1936 LZ-129 visits) labeled “LZ-130”, hydrogen cells explode in bright flames—but one by one. (Producer’s Note: A model claiming to be that used in filming was on display at Dsiney-MGM Studios, Orlando, Florida, with is swastikas painted out. )

 

SKMBT_22316071904200 - Copy - Copy“Waterworld” 1995, Kevin Costner. In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.  Characters take to a home made airship toward the end.

 

SKMBT_22316071904200“The Quest”, 1996. Jean-Claude Van Damme embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery, a tiny part of which involves a small airship.

 

“Mystery Men,” 1999, features computer annimation of cityscapes with airships aloft. Centropolis, film maker of “Godzillia” of 1999, produced a time-travel s-f film “The 13th Floor” mentioning the LZ-129 fire; both films have their company’s rigid-airships-over-city animation logo.

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“The Mummy Returns”, 2001. Brendan Fraser,  Rachel Weisz,  John Hannah.  The mummified body of Imhotep is shipped to a museum in London, where he once again wakes and begins his campaign of rage and terror. Main characters travel by fantasy airship. (There  is mention of “gas” but never called hydrogen.)

 

In spite of its LTA title and some impressive bits of rigid airship CGI, 2002’s “Equilibrium,”  a bleak view of a future drug-suppressed society has nothing to do with LTA.

 

SKMBT_22316071904190 - Copy“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, 2004.  After New York City receives a series of attacks from giant flying robots, a reporter teams up with a pilot in search of their origin, as well as the reason for the disappearances of famous scientists around the world.  Film opens with “Hindenburg III” mooring atop the Empire State Building.

 

SKMBT_22316071904210 - Copy“Flyboys”, (2006) James Franco,  Jean Reno,  Jennifer Decker. The adventures of the Lafayette Escadrille, young Americans who volunteered for the French military before the U.S. entered World War I, and became the country’s first fighter pilots. Includes pilots attacking a low-altitude Zeppelin in broad daylight.

 

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“Stardust” , 2007. In a countryside town bordering on a magical land, a young man makes a promise to his beloved that he’ll retrieve a fallen star by venturing into the magical realm. Features Robert De Niro as captain of a fantasy airship whose crew collects lighting in the clouds. Wonderful detail in the airship, particularly while docking.

 

SKMBT_22316071904220 - Copy (2)“The Golden Compass”, (2007) Nicole Kidman,  Daniel Craig. In a parallel universe, young Lyra Belacqua journeys to the far North to save her best friend and other kidnapped children from terrible experiments by a mysterious organization. The civilization makes extensive use of rigid and non-rigid airships. Note: Possibly the only, or one of the very few films whose merchandizing sales featured model airships from the film.

 

“Fringe” (TV Series 2008-2013) Episodes revolve around characters’ interaction with and in an alternative, parallel universe in which large rigid airships are the primary visual indication one is viewing or present in the alternative universe. Characters actually ride on a rigid airship in one episode (though animated) and rigids are often seen in the skies. We suspect more footage was shot than actually used, as a teaser has a quick shot of “Peter Bishop” (Joshua Jackson) as an airship passenger that did not make it to the final cut. Repeated use of the Empire State Building mooring mast, with most of the airship appearances in seasons three and four.

 

SKMBT_22316071904220 - Copy“UP”, 2009, Disney animated. Seventy-eight year old ravels to South America in his home equipped with balloons, inadvertently taking a young stowaway. Dog-piloted hook-on airplane sequence inspired by real ZRS operations around rigid mothership is quite interesting in 3-D.

 

“The Three Musketeers” (2011)  Three former legendary but now down-on-their-luck Musketeers must unite and defeat a beautiful double agent and her villainous employer from seizing the French throne and engulfing Europe in war. Giant wooden men-o-war fly under huge gasbags, fancy animation but weak LTA technical know-how.

 

 

TELEVISION NOTES

Prior to digital television and its “letterbox” 16:9 aspect ratio, documentary makers searched for affordable original footage to intersplice with “talking heads” and thereby fill their time slots. We compiled a list of all known real airship footage in our book,  A Century of Airships. Reading like a history in itself, one would assume a complete record has been offered, until one realizes most of that footage was far too expensive for licensed use on television. TV producers looked for the small percentage that was royalty-free, public domain footage; hence, most of their shows use the same footage, and tend to repeat the same errors of omission and commission. (Not to mention script writers cannot use the word “hydrogen” without the required preamble “highly flammable,”  “dangerously explosive,” etc. as if the majority of airships were simply accidents waiting to happen.)

TIMELESS – NBC TV Series 2016, premiere shows digital dramatization of Hindenburg accident. Time traveler then prevents ropes from grounding only to later have a single ordinary bullet destroy airship. Re-creation no worse than other TV, but disagrees with itself, i.e. “Morrison” saying “nose ropes” while animation shows lines let down from mid-ship(!)

 

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