Boeing and Hollywood
With starring roles in decades of movies and close ties to the big stars, Boeing is ready for its close-up
BY MAUREEN JENKINS
In many ways, the histories of aviation and Hollywood have mirrored each other. At the advent, both were daring, sexy and new. They personified glamour and prestige to a world shaken by one world war and headed for a second.
And both ultimately would change the cultural and economic landscape of not just the United States, but the globe, making the whole world their stage.
And throughout the decades, Boeing and the heritage companies that comprise it have been in the forefront of helping shape these new horizons.
''Boeing is a lot about defining the future,'' said Fritz Johnston, director of Brand Management and Global Sponsorship. ''Where we're going as a company is very interesting to the public.''
But even while moving forward, he said, the company ''decided some time ago to protect its history.'' And that means ensuring that any appearance of the Boeing name and brand in movies, TV programs or documentaries captures the ''enterprising spirit'' that's defined the world's largest aerospace company from the beginning.
Within Hollywood, that's no small feat for Boeing, a company that generally markets itself to other businesses instead of the general moviegoing and made-for-cable-TV-watching public.
The annual Academy Awards will be handed out March 23 amid the bulb-popping glamour that defines this event—one that not only lauds recent top performances but also celebrates the industry's rich past. What better time to do the same for Boeing, recalling its Hollywood heyday and looking at its current impact on both the big and small screens. Ironically enough, ''Wings''—the 1927 silent aviation film that won the first Oscar for ''Best Picture''—featured Boeing-built MB-3A and PW-9 fighters.
Airplanes and celebrities
Back in 1920, Douglas Aircraft Co. founder Donald Douglas based his business in sunny Southern California, in an oceanfront town called Santa Monica. So it's little wonder, really, that Douglas and the fledgling motion picture industry in nearby Hollywood soon became a cozy pair.
''During the Depression, our [aviation] industry was growing by leaps and bounds because the technology was changing,'' said Larry Merritt, archivist and historian for Boeing's St. Louis operations. ''In order to entice the business traveler to fly, they would enlist movie stars. Obviously, as glamorous as that was, people would say, 'I want to do what movie stars do.'''
This borrowing of Hollywood glamour was made simpler thanks to Douglas' ties to many of Tinseltown's top names.
''Douglas knew Clark Gable—they'd hunt and fish together,'' Merritt said. ''He lived in Beverly Hills where the stars lived.
''Don Douglas Sr.—and to an extent Don Douglas Jr.—because they lived among these people and were friends with these people, they had no qualms'' about asking their famous pals to join publicity efforts.
Douglas Aircraft was in the business of selling planes and helping its customers make money and generate goodwill, so it enlisted actress Ann Miller to appear at an event celebrating the newest Braniff Super B Liner. And the company provided the same support to its military customer, getting actress Olivia de Havilland to pose at a Douglas plant in 1943, hair covered in a bandanna a la ''Rosie the Riveter.'' Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had their photos snapped inside a B-19, their Douglas Aircraft Co. visitors badges clearly in view.
A believer in the power of publicity, Douglas even hired dashing publicist ''Rocky'' Rochlen to help further build bonds between his aviation firm and the swelling Hollywood scene.
At Puget Sound-based Boeing, however, things were a bit more conservative and low-key, said company historian Michael Lombardi.
''It was the character of Mr. [William] Boeing,'' Lombardi said. ''He was a private man, and the company kind of followed his lead.''
But with the advent of World War II—and the slew of Hollywood motion pictures that overtly supported the war effort—things began to change. B-17 aircraft became staples of this era's films, including 1943's ''Air Force'' and the original ''Memphis Belle.''
''During the war,'' Lombardi said, ''you start to see the company did take some serious steps toward public relations and creating a public relations department, which they really didn't have before.''
The teaming of the U.S. military, aviation companies and Hollywood led to films that celebrated the aircraft that contributed to Allied success. But ironically, said Merritt, the 1938 Clark Gable film ''Test Pilot'' probably helped save the early B-17 program.
''Of course, the Army Air Corps saw this as some publicity to impress Congress with the capabilities of the B-17,'' said Merritt, who said the Army assigned a squadron commander to MGM to ensure the studio would have enough airmen and extras. ''The B-17 program was supposed to be scrapped because Congress thought it was too expensive. The Army was only too happy to participate and get some publicity for their programs.'' The Army Air Corps even went as far as allowing the MGM studio to use all 12 of its prototype YB-17s in ''Test Pilot.''
And since these films gave young Hollywood the chance to show off its movie-making prowess, this was a win-win situation.
''I imagine one of the appeals of this theme is the inherent drama within flight,'' said Scott Curtis, an assistant professor of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University who currently teaches a course on the history of film before World War II. ''It is living in a fragile world where your life is on the line every minute. It's a modern manifestation people still haven't gotten used to.''
Want to live like a star? Then fly
It's little wonder that Hollywood and aviation made a picture-perfect marriage in the old days—both were glamorous and exclusive.
While most people take commercial air travel for granted these days, arriving for flights in shorts and flip-flops, things were quite different in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Back then, Merritt said, flying ''was a very glamorous thing to do. There weren't many people flying. In the early 1950s, on the airlines' DC-6s and DC-7s, there wasn't first class, business class and coach—it was all first class.''
And since only wealthy, affluent businessmen (and they were men) and entertainers could afford to fly, commercial airplanes held a special allure for most Americans. ''The airplane was associated in the romantic sense with adventure and travel,'' Lombardi said.
Ironically, Hollywood tends to reflect the culture it also actively shapes. And as the world moved from the post-World War II era into one defined by civil rights and antiwar protests in the 1960s and early '70s, aviation-related films became decidedly less glamorous and urbane.
''You saw a lot more of the darker side,'' Lombardi said.
Enter the ''disaster'' film genre, one kicked off by the 1970 motion picture ''Airport,'' about 12 harrowing hours at a Midwest airport. (The film spawned three sequels during the decade.) At the end of the 1970s—not long after the Vietnam conflict—Hollywood began producing films that took a critical and often harsh look at U.S. military involvement and the soldiers who served.
Action films take center stage
It was during the 1980s—in the midst of President Ronald Reagan's administration—that films celebrating military prowess and swagger came into vogue. Witness 1986's ''Top Gun,'' which included shots of Douglas A-4 and TA-4 Skyhawks. The '80s also soared into space with ''The Right Stuff,'' an acclaimed film that featured interiors from the McDonnell-built Mercury spacecraft.
The 1990s saw the spawning of heavy-duty action films that featured heroes that were nearly as strong as the hardware they used. An AV-8B Harrier II helped save the day for a secret agent played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994's ''True Lies''; an MD 520N helicopter played a supporting role in Keanu Reeves' star-making vehicle ''Speed''; and the F/A-18 Hornet helps Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum battle evil aliens in 1996's ''Independence Day.''
But Hollywood started to turn the clock back, said Northwestern professor Curtis, releasing a slew of World War II- themed films. The 50th anniversary of the war's end also spurred renewed interest in the era, as witnessed by Steven Spielberg's ''Saving Private Ryan'' and similar films.
Curtis says that the proliferation of World War II flicks in the '90s reflected its hindsight status as ''a good war. It's also an attempt to find a good war, and so you're getting films like 'Windtalkers,' the 'Band of Brothers' HBO special, and 'Pearl Harbor.''' He said it's Hollywood's way of ''recasting in more familiar historical tones while framing them safely.''
Just as in years past, filmmakers and studios often turn to Boeing in a consulting role, trying to ensure the accuracy of a 1960s McDonnell cafeteria, the markings on ''Air Force One''—and, in the case of this year's ''Catch Me If You Can,'' an early 1960s aviation setting.
''That's the one thing about the aviation crowd,'' Lombardi said. ''They're engineers; they're pilots—they're very detail-oriented. Aviation people love to point out mistakes.''
Lombardi worked with the folks at Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG on this—even providing a mock-up of a Boeing 707 for the film.
''A lot of the sets were airports and airplanes,'' he said, ''because the main character [Frank Abagnale] poses as a pilot. We dug up old travel posters and photos of the interiors of the  planes, and the outfits the stewardesses wore.''
But what does Boeing get out of all this?
''One of the things we're trying to recapture is the romance of flight,'' Lombardi said. Today, ''you get packed into an airplane and worry about your ankles swelling. Working with a movie like that reminds you of the romance of flying. That's what we're trying to do in Commercial Airplanes, is get people excited about flying again.''
A view toward the future
It remains to be seen how today's current military focus, emphasis on homeland security and any impending war with Iraq and unseen terrorists will impact Tinseltown's near-term offerings.
''Does [Hollywood] really express what people are thinking?'' asked Curtis. ''Generally, it's like opinion polls. Opinion polls don't gauge people's opinions, they create them. The way the question is phrased pretty much determines how you'll answer. In the same way, motion pictures don't as much gauge opinion as create it.''
Hollywood is a high-tech-obsessed industry, and today's aviation-related films show it. They take real-life looks at modern combat in films such as 2001's ''Black Hawk Down'' and ''Behind Enemy Lines'' (which featured Boeing-built MH-6 Little Bird helicopters and F/A-18F Super Hornets, respectively) and show off the high-tech capabilities of Pentagon-owned hardware.
Boeing's even taken the future behind the scenes in Hollywood with ventures such as Boeing Digital Cinema, which last May introduced director George Lucas' digital ''Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones'' to 23 satellite-equipped movie theaters in the United States and the United Kingdom. Since then, the Southern California-based Digital Cinema has beamed 11 more digitally formatted hit films to theaters, helping transform the industry from the inside out.
''Boeing Digital Cinema provides the Hollywood studios and theatrical exhibitors worldwide with a phenomenal capability to deliver pristine digital movies to theater screens securely and accurately over satellites,'' said Executive Director Frank Stirling. Even though his business is treading new ground, Stirling said Boeing Digital Cinema has already become the world leader in satellite-delivered films.
''It also provides The Boeing Company with huge visibility in the world,'' he said. ''One of the major accomplishments is that we have established very warm and friendly relationships with all the major studios and exhibition chains.''
And it's those relationships—tied together through the studio consortium called the Digital Cinema Initiative—that Stirling expects to help his business soar and make digitally delivered film the industry norm.
''Next year,'' said Stirling, ''we hope to be the system engineer and architect to help the studios with the $5- to $8-billion deployment of domestic screens—followed by a much larger international deployment—and to help them deliver movies to all screens globally.''
And as it always has, Boeing is still shaping new frontiers by creating them. Just the stuff Hollywood's made of.
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