The pilots and aerial stuntmen of early film – some of who gave their lives for their art – take flight once again in a fine new book by Shawna Kelly, Aviators in Early Hollywood (Arcadia). This photo rich book, which features nearly 200 rare images, is a must have for anyone interested in early aviation – as well as anyone interested in early film. It is an appealing blend of both histories.
As even the most casual film buff knows, the film industry in early Hollywood was wide open. Stars were discovered in the ranks of extras, secretaries wrote screenplays, and cowboys became actors. Similarly, early aviators working in and around Los Angeles not only flew planes and performed aerial stunt sequences in films, some acted and also wrote and directed motion pictures. These “heroic knights of the sky” were both aviator actors, as well as actor aviators.
Shawna Kelly’s Aviators in Early Hollywood is chock full of images of not only pioneering pilots (aviation itself was still rather new), but many of the biggest names from the film world of the silent and early sound era. Charlie Chaplin, for example, along with his brother Syd and fellow comedian Max Linder are depicted at the Chaplin Aerodrome, his private airfield.
Thomas H. Ince, the legendary producer who helped invent the studio system, owned Ince Airfield, which became the hub of Hollywood aviation. Also depicted is Cecil B. DeMille. The famed director was so enthralled with aviation that he owned three airfields.
Silent film stars Rudolph Valentino (who attended flight school with fellow actor Norman Kerry), Mary Pickford, and Oliver Hardy all performed in motion pictures with aviation scenes. Other stars included in this book who also acted in aviation-themed films include Florence Vidor, Colleen Moore, Viola Dana and Ruth Roland, among others.
One of magician and actor Harry Houdini’s biggest films was The Grim Game (1919). In it, Houdini’s character hangs by a rope between two airplanes – a daring stunt so dangerous it drew large crowds wherever the picture was shown.
Two of the biggest films of the silent and early sound era were Wings (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award for “Best Picture,” and Hell’s Angels (1930), Howard Hughes thrilling multi-million dollar air spectacle. Each is given center stage in Aviators in Early Hollywood – not only because of their aerial theme, but because each utilized the talents of pilots and stuntmen in the making of the films.
And, because each was directed by a pilot. Wings director William A. Wellman served in World War I in the famed Lafayette Escradrille Flying Corps. His love of flying is legend – and the director strove for a high degree of authenticity in the making of his acclaimed air epic. Similarly, Howard Hughes - a record breaking pilot (and later founder of TWA), lavished attention and money on the aerial aspects of Hell’s Angels, his story of WWI pilots.
Aviators in Early Hollywood covers the many intersections of aviation and film, and concludes with a tribute to those aviators who died in the line of duty. As Kelly notes, a number of aviators gave their lives for Hollywood. One military pilot “folded his wings” during the making of the Wellman epic, and three pilots died during the filming of Hell’s Angels. Many others – including those who specialized in crash scenes – risked live and limb on a near daily basis.
Notably, the author’s great grandfather is aviator actor "Daredevil" DeLay. Prominant in the book, DeLay was an innovator of several aerial firsts for motion pictures and one of the aviators who gave his life for the entertainment world. DeLay was involved in over 50 films, including westerns, comedies and dramas. He also acted and performed aerials with the "Thriller Queen" Ruth Roland, comic actor Oliver Hardy, and other notables.
Shawna Kelly will be signing copies of her new book, Aviators in Early Hollywood on Saturday July 11th at the Castro Theatre. Kelly’s signing, which takes place during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is scheduled to follow the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” program at approximately 11:00 am.
Also signing after “Amazing Tales from the Archives” is film historian Christel Schmidt, from the Library of Congress. Schmidt contributed to Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture (Little, Brown and Company). Both Kelly and Schmidt will be signing books on the Castro mezzanine.