Equality at 10,000 Feet: The Pioneer Aviatrix in the Golden Age of Aviation – Part II

Aviation history, Gender wars

Continue reading

Equality at 10,000 Feet: The Pioneer Aviatrix in the Golden Age of Aviation – Part I

Aviation history, Gender wars

❝ We had to prove that women were as good pilots… in an age where some men didn’t think a woman should drive a horse and buggy, much less drive an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly.❞
~ Louise Thaden[1]

⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆

The other afternoon the resident ABC evangelist on the wireless was rabbiting on that the PC word to describe female pilots, especially those early pilots of the airways, was aviator … he was saying that the term aviatrix was de rigueur, we should use only the ‘correct’ gender-neutral term ‘aviator’ which doesn’t make a distinction between the two sexes, etc, etc.

And in a purely technical sense the government-sanctioned radio evangelist is right, the name ‘aviator’ does better represent the spirit of our contemporary times, after all no one (hardly anyone, right?) these days uses poetess or even authoress – these descriptors sound a bit cumbersome and more than slightly ridiculous in 2017 … although I note that the staunchly conservative Oscar ‘cinemarati’ dole out prizes to screen actors every March for what they still insist on calling the “best actress” and “best supporting actress”. Notwithstanding all this, my preference to describe those pioneering women of the skies is for ‘aviatrix’, quaintly old-fashioned as the term may be … to me it does set them apart, identifying the uniqueness of their important role in the evolution of aviation history and as pathfinders for new female work roles, and in doing so, demonstrating that women were capable of doing anything than men could do.

The internet is awash with studies and information on untold number of pioneer aviatrices. A casual googling of “aviatrix history” will turn up a host of sites with titles like “Harriet Quimbey – First U.S. Aviatrix”, “Lores Bonney – the forgotten aviatrix”, “The History Chicks Aviatrix Archives”, “LadiesLoveTailDraggers | Aviatrix History”; “Aviatrix – Sheroes of History”, “BBC – Forgotten record of aviatrix Beryl Markham”, “Aviatrix You Should Know: China’s Amelia Earhart” and “Our History | Women in Aviation History | “Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharpie – Nebraska’s Aviatrix”. Clearly, most who write on the subject, on the World Wide Webosphere anyway, seem to concur with my preference for ‘aviatrix’.

Irish first wave aviatrix Lilian Bland
France gold, the US silver …
What becomes readily apparent when you delve into the history of the early, formative phase of aviation, is how internationally diverse the phenomenon of the aviatrix was. France and the United States led the way with the earliest pioneering achievements❈ – first woman to earn a pilot’s licence (Frenchwoman Baroness Raymondé de Laroche, 1910); first woman to pilot a motorised aircraft solo (American Aida de Acosta in France, 1903, in a dirigible owned by Alberto Santos-Dumont – six months before the famous Wright Brothers’ flight). Not to be outdone, women aviatrices in the English-speaking world were also quick out of the blocks – Anglo-Irish aviatrix Lilian Bland in Belfast 1910/1911 was one of the first to design, build and fly her own aircraft (which she called the Mayfly⌖)[2].

In the first 40 years of the 20th century the appearance of women pilots became a worldwide craze. Aviatrices took to the air in Belgium, Germany, Britain and Eire, Russia, Estonia, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Japan, China, Korea, Italy, Australasia, Canada, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Persia, in fact from any country that had a viable even if rudimentary aircraft industry.

Amy Johnson
Aviatrix “rock stars”
The public at large is familiar possibly only with a few of these pioneer aviatrices, the “glamour-pus” headline grabbers like American Amelia Earhart and England’s Amy Johnson, or if you are from the USA you probably have also heard of Ruth Law, Louise Thaden, Jacky Cochran and Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes. All of these high-flyers (literally) broke numerous records and won continent-to-continent, long-distance air races¤ and have been the subject of various biographies, television documentaries or biopics.

N-25 “Tourist Hauler” Biplane
There was a lot of women pilots by the twenties and thirties (especially in the USA), and the great majority of them weren’t as fortunate as Earhart and a select few of the elite aviatrices who could elicit sponsorship from newspapers and the like. There were few posts for commercial pilots available to women at the time (primarily due to systemic and deeply ingrained sexism), therefore many women pilots in the “Roaring Twenties” turned to barnstorming and if they could to working as a stunt pilot in the movies. Barnstormers moved around the country performing aerial tricks and manoeuvres, for audiences, either individually or in orchestrated clusters of Gipsy Moth type crafts (known as “flying circuses”). Barnstormers also made money by taking local townspeople up for joy rides[3].

Jean Batten
“First-wave” Australasian aviatrices
Gladys Sandford was the first New Zealand woman to be awarded an air pilot’s licence (1925), but without dispute the Shaky Isles’ greatest-ever aviatrix was Jean Gardner Batten. After wrecking her first biplane Batten talked the Castrol Oil Co into buying a second-hand De Havilland Gipsy Moth, in which she was the first woman to complete the solo round trip between England and New Zealand. Batten also won the Harmon Trophy three times and achieved a world record for flying from England to South America. Later in the thirties the relentless Kiwi aviatrix Batten obliterated Amy Johnson’s England to Australia record, bettering it by more than four days![4]

Australia’s first female flyer in an heavier-than-air plane was Florence Taylor in 1909 at Narrabeen, NSW. Taylor’s flight was in a glider designed by her husband George (which he had adapted from Lawrence Hargrave’s cellular box-kite prototype). Prejudice from male aviators and the industry meant that women in Australia were prevented from holding a commercial pilot’s licence until 1927 (Millicent Bryant was the first to earn her Australian licence in that year).

Other women soon took up the mantle of the earliest Aussie aviatrices, most prominent among these were Maude ‘Lores’ Bonney and the aptly named Nancy-Bird Walton. Lores Bonney, originally from South Africa, in the 1930s was “regarded as perhaps Australia’s most competent aviatrix”[5]. Bonney’s record-breaking feats started in 1932 when she became the first aviatrix to circumnavigate the continent of Australia (embarking on the marathon flight – the equivalent of Darwin to London in distance – after first gaining the permission of her husband). She was the first pilot of either sex to fly from Brisbane to Cape Town, and the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England.

Nancy-Bird Walton got her pilot’s licence at 19 and like Bonney and so many other early aviators (from Charles Lindbergh down) tried initially to make a living out of it through barnstorming. In 1936 Walton won the Ladies Trophy in the Adelaide to Brisbane air race in a record time. As the first woman commercial pilot in Australia Walton was responsible for the operation of a flying medical service in the outback (Royal Far West Children’s Health Service), using her own Leopard Moth as an air ambulance. During WWII she trained a women’s air corps as back up for the men pilots in the RAAF and in 1950 founded the Australian Women Pilot’s Association, paving the way for today’s female commercial pilots to make a career of the profession[6].

PostScript: Hollywood and the glamorous/socialite aviatrix
In the golden age of aviation aviatrices like Jean Gardner Batten and Beryl Markham were not adverse to infusing a bit of glamour into their public personas. It certainly didn’t hinder their careers and sponsorship was often needed by the young female pilots to finance their attempts to win races and break records. In the twenties and thirties nothing personified the idea of the modern woman more than the aviatrix, she represented the height of glamour and daring … and of course the ubër glam-aviatrix in the world was Earhart whose image and media-savvy husband secured her income from promotional and speaking tours and from product endorsement [7].

It is hardly surprising then that from early on Hollywood took an interest in the aviatrix, and in the whole burgeoning area of aviation which provided film-makers with fresh new storylines with lots of breath-taking action and thrills. Several of the glamorous aviatrices had stints in movie acting. Ruth Elder for instance, (known as “Miss America of Aviation”) juggled flying with a (part-time) actress job and a (full-time) one as a serial ‘matrimonialist’ (Elder was married six times). RKO cashed in the vogue by casting an up-and-coming Katherine Hepburn as a socialite aviatrix in 1933’s Christopher Strong. Capitalising on the appeal of feminine good looks and the fearless reputation of women pilots, studio photographers cultivated the “glamorous aviatrix look” for movie publicity purposes[8].

❈ the very first experiments with flight involving women began in France – 1784: first woman to fly in a hot-air balloon, Marie Élisabeth Thible (eight months after the Montgolfier brothers’ first successful accent); 1798: first woman to pilot an airship, Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse (Mme Labrosse was also the first woman to parachute jump from a balloon, 1799), www.centennialofwomenpilots.com. So, in a very real sense aviatrices were in on the ground (umm, off the ground) in aviation from the get-go!
⌖ as in may fly, may not
¤ Earhart and Johnson were both fated to die in mysterious circumstances, tragically if heroically in pursuit of their addiction to flying

[1] ‘Aviation Pioneer Louise Thaden’, www.arkansasairandmilitarymuseum.com
[2] K Mitchell, ‘Lilian Bland: Ireland’s first female pilot, the world’s first aviation engineer’, Engineers Journal (Republic of Ireland), 31-May-2016, www.engineersjournal.ie
[3] ‘Barnstorming’, Wikipedia, http://em.n.wikipedia.org
[4] Ian Mackersey. ‘Batten, Jean Gardner’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/4b13/batten-jean-gardner (accessed 20 May 2017)
[5] K Alexander, Taking Flight: Lores Bonney’s Extraordinary Flying Career, (2016)
[6] ‘Nancy Bird Walton AO’, (Australian Museum), www.australianmuseum.net.au
[7] K Lubben Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, cited in ‘Why Amelia Bombed’ (V Postrel), 10-Nov-2009, www.vpostrel.com
[8] S Kelly, Aviators in Early Hollywood (2008)]

The Emergence of Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s: (II) ‘Silents’ to ‘Talkies’, a Transition in Lento Time

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1920s was a decade for innovations in communications, as we saw in the earlier related blog “Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s I” which dealt with public radio, the emergence and popularisation of the medium in the US and world-wide. The 1920s also ushered in another form of mass media which would become the most momentous innovation in communications and public entertainment of the century – ‘talking’ motion pictures.

For the last 80 years sound has been integral to world cinema, giving the hitherto silent film an added dimension, building depth into the structure of the storyline. As for its filmic predecessor the silent movie, where are we most likely to see it these days?❈ Commercial screenings of silent era films are rare birds indeed … if we seek them out, we might find them if we’re lucky in an old, suburban Art Deco picture theatre, the initiative of a handful of specialised film societies dedicated to preserving the memory of the lost art form. Or we might catch grainy, monotone snatches of an old silent pix as archaic footage on TV docos. When we do manage to view a silent movie we are often struck by how unrealistic, how stylised they appear today, how over-the-top and melodramatic the acting seems. In the decade-and-a-half up to the late 20s the truth however is that silent films and the star actors of the day had an appeal to their doting audiences that was real and totally captivating.

The Jazz Singer
The advent of talking motion pictures did not come about because of a growing dissatisfaction with silent pictures on the part of film-goers. On the contrary patrons of cinemas were completely happy with the ‘product’, the experience, as it was already. Actually, ‘silent’ movies were not really silent, they had accompanying mood or background music provided by an orchestra or a piano to set the tone of particular scenes. As well, title cards (sometimes called “inter-titles”) were interspersed between shots to advance the story, or to clarify what was happening for the audience. Screen-transfixed audiences would engross themselves in the story action, the emphasis on body language and facial expression by actors to convey strong emotion (emoting ‘feelings’) and meaning. Prior to The Jazz Singer (1927), audiences hadn’t wanted to hear actors talk (or at least they hadn’t expressed such a wish)[1].

The coming of sound
Specific technological challenges needed to be overcome to realise the successful application of sound to film. Amplification had been addressed with developments in the phonograph and the viability of radio transmission facilitating public radio. The hub of the problem was synchronising the action, the visual image, with the sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.

Duelling sound systems
Enter Vitaphone … Vitaphone was an analogue sound-on-disc system developed by Western Electric (a subsidiary of IT & T) in competition with an alternate system devised by RCA/General Electric, which used a sound-on-film method. A number of companies experimented with sound-on-film methods (Fox Movietone, the German company Tri-Ergon, DeForest Phonofilm, RCA Photophone), this ultimately led to the development of a superior and more versatile analogue system to that of the more haphazard dual-processing Vitaphone[2].

Warner Brothers however were committed to the Vitaphone system and utilised it first on the 1926 film Don Juan which had synchronised music and sound effects, but wasn’t a ‘talkie’ (as it contained no spoken dialogue). The followed year they took it a step further with The Jazz Singer , the first (partly) talking movie, which audiences took an instant liking to, especially the presentation of Al Jonson’s songs¤.

Sound movies in, silent films out: an “overnight sensation” which took several years to happen
The Jazz Singer was a calculated gamble by Warner Bros which was in a financially precarious position at the time, but it turned out to be a ‘game-changer’ for the then minnow studio Warners and for cinema’s future as a whole … its positive reception signalled that audiences wanted sound. But this transformation from one type of feature film to another was no sudden event, the process away from profitable silents was a gradual process. First to emulate Warners was 20th Century Fox with its Movietone system, soon the other major studios followed the trail-blazers into sound. The big Hollywood companies tended to play it both ways at first, none of them stopped making silent films straight away. After all, how profitable talkies would become was still to be seen. In the two years following The Jazz Singer ‘s release, the major companies made a mixture of productions – some all-silent, some all-sound and some part-sound movies[3].

The major film companies’ decision to convert to sound, according to Donald Crafton, had mainly to do with power politics in the industry. Paramount and MGM held an oligarchic hold over the industry in the mid 20s, controlling not only the production of its films but the distribution and exhibition of them as well (vertical integration which was what Warners aspired to as well). Warners’ and Fox’s unilateral venture into the talkies was seen as a threat to the big boys’ hegemony and necessitated the majors’ eventual venture into talkies. The other minor studios including RCA and UA which didn’t immediately opt for sound pictures still survived as silent film-makers[4].


FN: The “Big Five” and the “Little Three”
By the 1930s the Hollywood hierarchy, after a series of expansions, mergers and takeovers, had settled into an (unofficial) two-tier industry power structure:

⁍ The Big Five: MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros, RKO
⁍ The Little Three: Columbia, Universal, UA (United Artists)


Sound at a price
Various factors acted as a speed bump in the transition to sound movies. There were new financial costs for the industry to take account of. Cinema theatres had to be wired for sound, the cost of which was almost prohibitive – in 1927 only 400 theatres in the US of the multiple thousands were thus connected … by the end of the decade over 40% of the country’s movie theatres had sound systems installed in them[5]. A background factor occurring concurrently with the studios’ efforts to sort out the wrinkles involved in sound pictures was that public radio in the US was still in the process of trying to establish a foothold of its own.

The international language of silent films
The silent cinema had a linguistic universality to it, exporting an American film to a non English-speaking country merely required translating of the credits and title cards. But with sound films this restricted markets for American and English films, and dubbing into the local language was an added expense[6].

Clara Bow
The ‘sound’ of silent stars
From the perspective of the actors, especially those who had established their niche in the silent era, there were formidable challenges to transitioning to the new, sound medium. Acting in sound movies and the whole dynamic was different, they discovered, sometimes to their cost. Actors now had to memorise their lines beforehand, and on set they had to not stray far from the microphones, basically stand still and recite their lines clearly. The voice became THE issue for many established silent stars … a number of Hollywood actors could not make the transition❉. Some with heavy foreign accents like Emil Jannings, Vilma Banky and Pola Negri had voices that sounded harsh, unmelodious and muffled on-screen. Other top silent stars were similarly hamstrung by their voices – John Gilbert sounded weak and squeaky on screen✾, and Clara Bow and Norma Talmadge had flat Brooklyn accents – which didn’t suit their romantic lead personas[7].

Other silent film heavyweights had an instant aversion to the idea of sound films and avoided them, eg, leading silent actress Mary Pickford simply retired from acting rather than change over to sound; Charlie Chaplin, whose craft relied heavily on mime, never really embraced talkies and proceeded to make films only irregularly into the sound era (his Modern Times in 1936 was a film without spoken dialogue). Myrna Loy, an actress who successfully made the transition to sound, has recollected how much silent movies were loved. Fans felt as though that they possessed an ‘intimacy’ with their favourite Hollywood stars. Like many contemporaries Loy believed that the art of pantomime was perfected in the silent film[8].

The new medium hamstrung by technological limitations
The new sound technology transformed how movies were made, the ambience on the set completely shifted in a manner directors found inhibiting. Directors, accustomed to shouting directions to actors whilst scenes were being filmed, were hushed up by sound technicians who now in effect called the shots, demanding silence on the set so that incidental noises didn’t interfere with the recording of dialogue❦. Not only did directors feel that sound imposed a break on their free rein over the set, but the movie studio heads felt a similar loss of the financial control of their pictures … sound film production required a huge capital outlay of studios which meant that producers and moguls couldn’t keep the same tight budgetary holds on film expenditure as they previously had[9].

Directors weren’t the only movie personnel affected by sound. Projectionists at the back of the theatre had their work doubled, now having also to operate phonographs as well as projectors during screenings … the projectionist needed to be ever alert as the equipment had a tendency to jump around and result in a loss of synchronicity between image and sound. Again technological breakthroughs eventually came to the rescue after a new type of film was invented allowing for the sound to be recorded directly onto the film itself[10].

Paramount Studios
The take-up of sound films spelled bad news for a myriad of theatre musicians … the silent era had been a fruitful source of employment for them, but once movie houses had installed sound systems their services were no longer needed. On the other side of the coin, talking pictures required fully fleshed-out screenplays and the coming of sound was a boon for scriptwriters![11]

The early sound equipment was an impediment to the filming of action scenes. To avoid the camera noise being picked up by the sound recorder, the cameraman had to be ‘quarantined’ off in a stationary box to the side. Bereft of the freedom of movement enjoyed in silent movie-making, talkies became just that, static scenes in which characters stood round talking to each other (derisively referred to by some as “tea cup dramas”). The lost spectacle of the silents’ scenes of fast-action adventure caused disquiet among the audiences of early talkies. Within a few years this problem was overcome with the creation of new, quiet cameras[12].

For a section of the viewing audience who had enjoyed silent movies, the coming of sound to the cinemas created a new, consequential problem. Talking films per se excluded movie-goers who were deaf or had hearing issues. Some theatres tried to compensate for this by providing special headphones, but these were not fully effective and were of no help to those people who were completely deaf[13].

In time all of the problems and obstacles that came with the emergence of talkies were more or less ironed out … by 1930 the film-going public had voted resoundingly in favour of sound movies at the box-office – audiences at US picture theatres by 1929 had hit 90 million per week, up from an average of 50 million per week in 1920[14].

PostScript 1: Silent film stars – the ‘superstar’ sui generis thesis
The prestige and kudos of Hollywood movie stars circa 1920 was at an unparalleled high in American society. The personas of silent movie stars often came to take on a “godlike” status. As Jeanine Bassinger describes it, the film star of the early 1920s had a “level of adulation that simply had not existed before movies were invented”[15]. The leading silent stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and Pickford, were uniquely celebrated and adored by the public to a level not achieved by later film stars even in the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. The silent stars of the screen were modern society’s first superstars, they did not have to compete for the public’s affections as the later sound film actors did. They were no pop or rock stars in the 1920s to share the limelight with … similarly, stars of spectator sports in America were very much still a phenomenon in the making[16].

And yes there were celebrities and high achievers in the performing arts prior to the advent of motion pictures – standout performers from theatre, vaudeville, opera and burlesque – but these stars were never remotely on anything like the (global) scale of silent film stars, who engendered mass adulation in their fans felt that they had an intimacy with their favourite screen stars.

Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929): Britain’s 1st talkie

PostScript 2: The international drift to a cinema of talkies
This blog has concentrated on the story of the evolution of sound pictures in America – elsewhere things took longer to evolve. Cinemas in Europe were not fully wired for talking pictures till the 1930s, and the USSR and Japan were still making silent films into the mid thirties. Once sound (belatedly) consolidated itself in these overseas film industries, it sparked a surge in the international production of talking pictures in native languages[17].

❈ in the sound era only a very select few film-makers have maintained fidelity with the spirit of the silent movie, Jacques Tati is one such throwback whose cinema harks back nostalgically to the silent days of Chaplin and Keaton with its reliance on visual gags interspersed with a modicum of incidental and incoherent dialogue
¤ Warner Brothers’ 1927 sound picture triumph has been attributed to a greatly improved quality of sound in the Vitaphone system, (‘Bob Allen asks… Why the Jazz Singer? … and puts forward a personal theory’, www.web.archive.org)
❉ there were of course a number of established silent movie actors who did successfully make the switch to talkies, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Laurel and Hardy
✾ in Gilbert’s case technology did him no favours – his high-pitched voice on film was perhaps made worse by sound adjusters giving his voice too much treble. A suspicion at the time was that the studio deliberately sabotaged the actor because his salary (highest in Hollywood) was costing them too much, (‘Talkie Terror’)
❦ the 1952 film Singing in the Rain accurately captures the shambolic disruption to the profession of film-making brought about by the advent of the talkies … the recent French film The Artist also concerns itself with this subject

[1] E Thompson, ‘A Very Short History of the Transition from Silent to Sound Movies’, (Wonderstruck), (2011), www.wonderstruckthebook.com; ‘Silent Film’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.org. Two years after the first sound film there was still much negativity about talking pictures, even the premier industry magazine, Variety, opined in 1929 that “movie stars should be screened, not heard”, M Donnelly, ‘The Birth of the “talkies” sounded the death knell for many silent stars’, Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 02-Jul-2016, www.dailytelegraph.com.au
[2] D Hanson, ‘The History of Sound in the Cinema’, (1997), www.cinematechnologymagazine.com
[3] C Gallagher ‘Introduction’ in C Gallagher et al, ‘The Silence After Sound: Hollywood’s Last Silent Movies’, 08-Feb-2009, www.notcoming.com. It became standard practice at this time for production companies to make the same movie in both talking and silent versions
[4] a number of theatres in America did close after the changeover to talkies but Crafton attributes this more to other economic factors, such as increased radio listening and automobile driving, D Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931
[5] ‘The History of Film’ (The 1920s – Part 4) (Tim Dirks), (AMC Filmsite), www.filmsite.org
[6] ibid.
[7] the studios employed diction and voice coaches to aid those contract performers struggling with their voices and elocution, although some contemporaries opined that they could have done more to help the actors adjust, J Doyle, ‘Talkie Terror, 1928-1930’, (The Popular History), 19-Oct-2010, www.pophistorydig.com; Thompson, op.cit.
[8] cited in G Flatley interview, 1977, ibid.
[9] ‘Talkie Terror’, loc.cit.
[10] Thompson, op.cit.
[11] ibid.; ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, www.cinecollage.net
[12] Thompson, ibid.
[13] ibid.
[14] ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, (Digital History), www.digitalhistory.uh.edu
[15] Excerpt from ‘Silent Stars’ (by J Basinger), New York Times (1999), www.nytimes.com
[16] although the 1920s did witness the beginnings of newspaper-‘created’ sports stars, eg, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, ‘Digital History’, loc.cit.
[17] ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, loc.cit.