Video: Early Aviation “Cinemagazine” Illustrates Power Of Women, Dreams And Innovation

Ruth Elder, "Aviatrix" in 1927

A recently discovered video from 1927 is an example of a Cinemagazine, a media format produced by British Pathe in the 1920s.  Created to entertain as much as to inform, films of this genre typically covered trending topics in fashion and technology.  In particular, women's fashion and evolving role in society were common focal points.  One thing this film does not suffer from is over-production; it feels accessible and genuine, like people, and not a media company, were in charge of telling the story about how fantastical things can happen when personalities collide with rapid innovation.  The future, represented by Ruth Elder, was too exciting to ignore, despite the fatal hazards of the chase.  Each clip appears like an intimate micro-climate of events transpiring over a brief and exciting time in American history.   The closeups combine with aerial shots of planes in flight to give a sense of how important personalities were to aviation.  They were the era's technology entrepreneurs.  Little did they know that this shiny stretch of time would soon be interrupted forever by unforgiving gale force winds - and hurl the whole spectrum of human ingenuity onto the alter of survival. 

The Columbia lifts off in a mist

A suffusing veil of mist obscures the horizon as Clarence Chamberlin pilots a fuel-laden Wright-Belanca WB-2, named Columbia, from an airstrip in Long Island, New York in an attempt to break the long-distance flight record - a record that had recently been established when Charles Lindbergh recorded the first trans-Atlantic solo flight.  Aboard the Columbia was the owner, Charles Levine, who became the world's first trans-Atlantic passenger when the plane touched down in Germany 43 hours later, having exceeded Lindbergh's long distance record by flying 3905 miles - 295 miles more than Lindbergh.

Charles Levine, aviation entrepreneur

All the rage at the time was actually focused on an aviation prize that gained wide media coverage for involving most of America’s famous aviators. Raymond Orteig, a successful (emigrant) entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast, offered a $25,000 prize ($330,000 in today’s dollars) for the first pilot to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, Orteig’s native city.  It was later dubbed the Great Atlantic Air Race and the Orteig Prize.  Levine failed to participate in Orteig’s contest due to a delay caused by a commercial dispute with his original pilot. 
Flying to Germany several weeks later proved fortuitous for Levine;  it placed him in Europe as an aviation hero in search of his next adventure, a startup aviation manufacturing company named Atlantic Aircraft.   The extensive media coverage from his record-breaking flight fueled Levine’s passions and crystallized his dreams to build an aviation company.  After all, it had been only twelve years since Orville Wright, the surviving Wright Brother, had sold Wright Co. to a syndicate for $1.5 million ($35.4 million in today’s dollars).  That syndicate would become the company that built Levine's Columbia.

Levine held above a German crowd in a victory parade - aircraft in the background

Upon landing in Germany and securing the world distance record, Levin and Chamberlin celebrated with various luminaries including Germany’s Chancellor Marx.   What was happening in the air in Germany proved to be quite different from what was happening on the ground.  Several hundred miles away in the German region of Bavaria, Adolf Hitler had become the leader of the small but growing Nazi party.  His probation and public speaking prohibition had just been lifted, allowing him to charm upper class socialites attracted to his public charisma. 

Great video is not all about recording lush and gorgeous images.  As this Cinemagazine proves, it can also be a resource for understanding history.  Despite the film's quirky, artless videography, Ruth Elder enchants the viewer as her vitality comes barreling out against the constraints of the silent, black & white media.  Her spirit illuminates the screen with imaginary color - and projects a stark contrast with the darker, corrupting forces gathering steam on the continent the racers are so desperate to conjoin.   The 23-year-old actress and beauty pageant winner grasps the controls of her airplane and throttles to the runway among teaming fans as a challenger in the Great Atlantic Air Race.   The imagery conveys a physical dimension (mastery of aviation) and a meta-physical dimension (possibility that women are equal to men). 

Her plane, American Girl, a Stinson Detroiter aircraft, was selected for its long-distance capabilities.  Weather and mechanical failure forced the plane into the ocean 360 miles from Europe.  A Dutch steamer rescued her and her co-pilot, who were briefly reported to be lost at sea.

Despite the setback, Elder broke the distance record for a female pilot.  As the footage suggests, she was adored for her stylish approach to challenging boundaries traditionally dominated by men.  She is described in the video as an “aviatrix” – and she later accurately predicted that women would one day become fighter pilots.

Levine and Chamberlin meet with German Chancellor Marx after historic flight

After his flight, Levine found his way from Germany to Paris.  There, he met Alexander Kartveli who had fled his home country of Georgia to chase a dream to become an aeronautical engineer.  Kartveli found work at the Louis Bleriot aircraft company, where one of his designs established a world speed record.  Kartveli also worked as a trapezist in a circus act to make ends meet.  Impressed with his credentials, Levine hired Kartveli as a designer for his new aircraft company which was to be based in Long Island, New York.  That year, Kartveli moved to the United States and eventually become the most important military aircraft designer in the world with design claims to the P-47, F-104, F-84 and the famous A-10 Warthog, a close air support fighter that is still in service today.

The Cinemagazine’s soundless, off-speed collage of black and white images captures more than excessive enthusiasm about advances in aviation.  In hindsight, it is easy to see film’s cultural impact as a new media format collides with aviation’s power to move people and resources towards a future with different social and cultural norms.  That future will also require a whole new vision of aircraft as weapons of war - and pilots willing to risk it all for victory.   What would have tormented Hitler's refrigerated heart the most is that a group of rowdy, risk-taking, immigrant, female, circus act trapezists, and innovators would combine forces and use technology to defeat his tyrannical regime. 



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