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Monday, October 19, 2015

Paramount's Polar Route for 1930

With Byrd At The South Pole (1930) Goes to Uncharted Places

Richard E. Byrd was second only to Lindbergh as public hero #1 during the 20's. He's less remembered now despite acts as daring as the Lone Eagle's, that attested by summer 1930's Paramount release of With Byrd At The South Pole, a feature tour of polar region unseen by audiences to that point (and barely since). Byrd was an aristocrat by birth, status compounded by marriage into Boston society. He knew how to self-promote and handily got travel backing from captains of industry who supped and socialized with Byrd plus prominent in-laws. Helping also was chiseled look of the man, a movie star ringer risking life to bring breath-taker footage home. Byrd had flown over the North Pole and figured for a try at its equivalent furthest south. Paramount saw boxoffice in the venture and sent cameramen along. This would be a project several years in gestation (the trip begun in 1928), but worth it. By Byrd's arrival in theatres, the silent era was past, and here came a non-talker (other than music and limited narration), but who cared where sights so amazing as these got through?

With Byrd At The South Pole is available on DVD, not from Amazon alas (nor reasonably on Ebay, where prices begin at $99.95), but copies are still had from Milestone at $49.95 ("less than 50" in stock), not cheap admittedly, but worth it for this OOP disc released in 2000. With Byrd At The South Pole is a hardship success that the earlier Robert Scott expedition was not, latter having reached the Pole, but never making it back. Byrd flew over the bottom tip with Para camera aces filming same, a sock pay-off for deprivations endured along the way. Audiences liked a triumph ending and this one had it by yards (or miles, as in thousands over frozen ground). Byrd was showman enough to invite a New York Times journo for exclusive dispatching, plus an Eagle Scout to tend sled-dogs and assure youth appeal throughout the trip. With Byrd At The South Pole would be the climax to an adventure lived vicarious by countless readership, a visual climax to imaginings stirred over two-years by print reportage.

What existed before of Antarctic actuals was footage and photography captured in 1910-12 by Herbert G. Ponting during the ill-fated Scott expedition, and this got an airing as an eager public awaited Byrd's return. Ponting's At The South Pole had a Broadway run at the Lyric in 12/28, Variety's review saying it would do as warm-up for main event that was Byrd. Paramount kept anticipation hot by sneaking glimpse of Byrd progress into newsreels, one such appearing in 3/29. A cold weather performance at one theatre saw the house organ inside a mock-up igloo with its player dressed in "polar bear pajamas" and "supposedly broadcasting (the) program to Byrd at the South Pole." It's unknown if Paramount sanctioned this stunt. With Byrd At The South Pole joined trade-announced titles in March 1930 as part of Paramount's summer program, and June saw a one-reel short, Back Home, commemorating Byrd's return with, among other things, a song composed by Para cleffers that patrons could sing along to, "a lesson in mob psychology, for by the skillful manipulation of deliberate heroizing, an audience lukewarm at the start was lashed into a cloudburst of enthusiasm," observed Variety. Byrd was meanwhile going ticker tape route a la Lindbergh after hero welcome arranged in part by Paramount, Zukor and execs going out personally to meet the Admiral's boat.

Paramount chief Sidney Kent dispensed with modesty: "Every Man, Woman, and Child In The World Should See This Picture," his company performing a "sacred duty" to distribute With Byrd At The South Pole to "every nook and corner" of the globe (he'd exult to sales staff that Byrd surpassed even The Covered Wagon, Para's so-far yardstick for epic-ness). Trade reviews more/less got with that flow, Variety applauding "thirty miles of film" cut down to two, and predicting that the film "may never stop making money" (a fair prediction, assuming current Ebay prices are being met). The usual bally "bunk" was discouraged this time in deference to Byrd's vaunted status, and besides, said the home office, this picture didn't need it. At least one showman went old-fashioned route, however, Omaha's Publicity Director Lionel Wasson tying up with a pair of ice cream companies to defrost their plants so he could have artificial snow to haul through town on flat-bed trucks, motorcycle police accompanying, with swimsuit-clad chorines tossing snowballs at citizenry otherwise wilting in July heat. The gag spiked Omaha attendance, but even push at unprescedented level failed to lift "falling down" Byrd in San Francisco, even as most markets called it a wow, Chicago and Minneapolis in particular getting benefit of word-of-mouth by amazed first-nighters who told friends.

Best served were spots along Admiral Byrd's personal app route, a lecture or drop-in by him always a spike to ticket windows. For a documentary minus spoken dialogue, and sans romance of any sort, With Byrd At The South Pole had stout legs, especially among youth whose own ambition seemed evenly divided between aviation and exploration, choice of role model coming down to Lindy or Byrd for adventure-seekers. Paramount's link-up with the Boy Scouts gave most momentum to publicity, the organization's leadership encouraging attendance for troops nationwide. Everyone liked triumphal finish to struggle against nature and adversity, that being best reason why Byrd clicked, just as Lindbergh had. With Byrd At The South Pole would be forgot, but for that short season while it was fresh, there'd be nothing to approach fact-based thrills offered here. Its spell is still potent via the DVD, Milestone's transfer being of excellent quality from original elements and highly recommended.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Speaking of studio-backed documentaries of the '30s... have you ever seen or heard of "Mussolini Speaks"? It's narrated by Lowell Thomas and was released by Columbia in 1933. (Harry Cohn allegedly had an autographed photo of Il Duce in his office until we entered the war.) A ten minute clip on YouTube makes him out to be the Second Coming. It looks bizarrely-entertaining, although I'm sure Columbia has done its best to make it disappear.

11:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Greenbriar featured "Mussolini Speaks!" in a 7-28-14 post here:

12:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer finds a dark corner amidst heroic ventures of Admiral Byrd:

Richard E. Byrd was a glamorous figure in American aviation, but a problematic one. He seemed to be given opportunities less on the basis of his ability than on the prestige of his family name. His signal triumph, being the first to fly over the North Pole, is now generally thought to be unverified, if not a fraud.

On May 9, 1926, Byrd and his pilot, Floyd Bennett, took off in a Fokker tri-motor from Spitsbergen in northern Norway, intending to fly from there to the North Pole and back, a distance of 1,360 miles. They returned in 15 and a half hours, almost five hours sooner than expected, with a tale of triumph. At least, as it was told by Byrd. Bennett, who died two years later on flight to rescue downed aviators in Greenland, told a number of people that he doubted whether they had ever reached the Pole. He had no way of knowing for sure, of course, because there were no geographic landmarks and Byrd was doing the navigational calculations. The ground speed of the airplane had been well in excess of its top speed, if it made the claimed flight. This immediately raised questions as to whether they had flown the complete distance. Byrd attributed it to a fortunate tail wind both coming and going. Bennett, however, described them as fighting a head wind on their way to the Pole. A serious oil leak developed in one the engines of the laboring plane, which immediately imperiled them. Going down in that area would probably have meant death. They flew on for a while, until Byrd took a sextant sighting and said that they had made it. Only then did Bennett bank the plane and begin the return trip.

In 1996, Byrd's diary from the flight was finally released. In it were still legible erasures of sextant sightings. The astronomer Dennis Rawlings examined them and found that they were in marked variance to those from the same time in Byrd's typewritten report. Rawlings concluded from his study of this and other information that Byrd had flown about 80 percent of the distance to the pole before turning back, and that he had falsified the data in his official report in order to claim the Pole. Later computer modeling based on weather data of the past one hundred years indicated that an anti-cyclonic wind that would have provided Byrd with his coming-and-going tail wind would have been extremely unlikely in that region.

Byrd had successfully gotten them back to Spitsbergen, which was no mean feat of navigation. It also meant, however, that he had known what he was doing when he wrote his report.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

John: And I even left a comment on that piece! My memory is really slipping.

10:32 AM  

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