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Hollywood: Clippers Go to the Movies - Page 2

Frank “Spig” Wead penned the screenplay for China Clipper and several other aviation films in the 1930s.  As a Navy patrol pilot into the 1930s, he only began to write after being crippled from a fall down some stairs.  Since some Clipper pilots also were drawn from the Navy and were people he already knew, he naturally could write the script.  As Bogart might say, and plenty of modern audiences have said, the film was “sappy.”  It did do what Pan American Airways’ own advertising did though:  show American ingenuity and pluck.  Like PAA, Wead made his own contribution to the war effort.  It was he who came up with the idea for “pocket carriers.”  A pocket carrier was a quickly built ship composed of a flat deck welded on to the hull of a mass-produced Liberty Ship to serve as a small aircraft carrier.  Wead, a close friend of John Ford, would pen his own autobiography, The Wings of Eagles (1957) directed by Ford and starring John Wayne, who considered Wead one of his heroes.  Also starring was Maureen O’Hara, who would herself marry a flying boat captain, Charlie Blair of PAA’s rival, American Export Airlines.  Later, Blair and O’Hara would create their own Antilles Airline using one of the last of the old flying boats, still hooked on the romance of the Clippers long after the war.  Recently O’Hara has been instrumental in supporting creation of the flying boat museum in Foynes, Ireland, the Irish Atlantic terminal for the Clippers.

The dramatic story of the making of the The China Clipper marked milestones in cinematic popular culture.  Because O’Brien and Bogart became mega-stars, frequently overlooked was the supporting cast, particularly Henry B. Walthall.  The China Clipper proved to be his final performance.  What happened to his character in the script eerily paralleled what happened to him at the time of the filming.

Walthall was one of the most popular stars, if not the most popular star, of early pre-World War I and World War I Hollywood, largely due to his starring role in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  He became known as the Little Colonel through his portrayal of the gentlemanly Confederate officer, hero of the film.  Cigarette cards of the time proclaimed that he had appeared in more movies and places and had become more popular than any other actor of his time.  As well as acting in several Clara Bow and Lon Chaney films, he appeared in Wings (1927), the first motion picture to win an academy award.  He successfully transitioned from the silents to the talkies working with such rising stars as John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Will Rogers.

In China Clipper Walthall played Dad Brunn, an engineer who designed the China Clipper and who was being pressured by Dave Logan (O’Brien) to meet a deadline at any cost.  The grandfatherly Brunn pleaded for time off, as the demands were too much, but Logan refused.  Brunn’s doctor told him that his heart would give out if he continued, but he sacrificed himself so that the Clipper could fly from San Francisco to Macao to meet mail contract demands.  The melodramatic script called for Brunn to die as the Clipper took off across the Pacific.

Walthall himself became very ill, collapsing on the set.  Nevertheless, he persevered.  A nurse was brought onto the set to sustain him through the filming, but he could not finish.  Just as the O’Brien character literally killed Brunn in the movie, the movie literally killed Walthall.  He died before his movie death scene could be filmed.  Consequently, the script required changes.  Instead of showing his death, the movie showed pilot Hap Stuart (Bogart) of the China Clipper being informed of Dad Brunn’s death by telegram as the Clipper landed in Manila and faced a typhoon for the last leg into Macao.  Hap Stuart of course punched the plane through the storm for Dad Brunn’s honor.  Bogart went on to fame while the public forgot Walthall.  In the cruelty that can be Hollywood, Warner Brothers ungratefully dropped Walthall to tenth billing on the movie credits after his death.

He did not fall alone.  Another cruel blow fell on aspiring star Ross Alexander, who was on nearly equal acting footing with Bogart at the time.  Like Bogart, he played a pilot in The China Clipper, but he was also co-owner of the fictional airline.  Five weeks after the release of the film, Alexander, age 29, committed suicide.

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