KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975 “The Great Waldo Pepper”

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

The Great Waldo Pepper

It was almost impossible for me to believe, but it turns out I have not written about this film before. I could have sworn that I’d done a post on it for the original project in 2010. As I looked back and could not find it, I realized that the movie opened in March of that year, which was outside of the parameters’ of that original summer project. My vivid memory of seeing the film is something I will discuss at the end of this post, but the movie itself deserves quite a bit of attention. 

This film comes from Writer, Producer, Director, George Roy Hill. His previous film was “The Sting” for which he won the Academy Award. He co-wrote the screenplay with William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Hill’s earlier film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Both of those films also featured actor Robert Redford as the star. At this point, Hill was a successful film maker, but critics suggested that he did not have much style. “The Great Waldo Pepper” represents an opportunity to do a film based on a subject he was completely fluent in, flying. Hill was a fan of barnstorming pilots from the 1930s and got his own license to fly when he was sixteen. We was also a flying veteran of  both WWII and Korea. The story idea for this film came from him, and he frequently was flying the planes in the show as he was directing the flying sequences in this movie.

Waldo Pepper is a charismatic pilot, making a living as a barnstorming flyer. He lands his plane in a farm field in Nebraska, and for five dollars, gives local a chance to experience flying themselves. Set in 1926, it is a different world than the one we live in. Aviation is barely twenty years old, WWI is less than a decade in the past, and commercial aviation is on the horizon. Pepper is a combination of Charles Lindbergh and P.T. Barnum, being both a good pilot and a good storyteller. The fact that some of his best stories are not his own comes out pretty early, but it does not undermine the investment that we make in him as a character. In the first part of the film, he bests, gets outed by and partners up with another flyer played by Bo Svenson. This was a break for Svenson who would go on to star in several movies and tv shows after this. He was replacing Paul Newman, who declined Hill’s offer to star in this picture along side Redford once more. For the rest of the story Axel Olsson and Waldo Pepper, trade off which of them is going to be most injured. 

As good natured as the relationship between the two pilots becomes, there is some serious tragedy in the story as well.  Death is a real possibility for the stunt flyers and it comes with legal consequences and survivor’s guilt. It may be that the reason the film was not more successful, is that it has an aura of sadness that hangs over it, including the conclusion of the film. Hill was able to pull this off with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, but it does not quite work here. The tone is elegiac with the era of bi-planes coming to a close and air travel becoming a shared experience. The opening of the film suggests that this will be the way the film ends as well, with a nostalgic and sad look at the chapter we are closing. 

I was hooked from the very beginning of the movie, as the huckstering Waldo Pepper, gets a young boy to be his gas runner on the promise of a free ride. There is a teasing moment when it comes time to pay up, and that shows Waldo can be a bit of a cad but will come through in the end. I love the fact that the kid not only gets the ride, but that he brings his dog with him, that’s the kind of childhood most of us would love to remember, even if we did not live through the depression. The following scene, when Waldo enthralls the kids family over dinner with a war story of aerial combat was hypnotically told, with the kind of details that seem like they must have come from first hand experience. We later learn that it wasn’t Waldo’s own story, but it should have been.

There is a cute sequence where Waldo picks up a girl at a movie by adopting the perspective of the screen character they are watching, and suggesting his actions before they come up on screen. Either Waldo is a hero like the Valentino-like character, or he has seen the movie before and he is exploiting the naivete of the girl. She is played by Susan Sarandon who is making her second appearance on the Throwback Thursday 1975 project, after having starred in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show“. I’ve admitted it before, in my post on “Bull Durham“, I have a little crush on Susan Sarandon. She has beautiful big eyes and a voice that a hummingbird could gather nectar from. She is an innocent who gets caught up in the idea of the fame of the aerial act the partners are planning for the flying circus that they join. You can certainly understand how the owner of the circus would encourage her to bring a little sex to the show. On of the reasons that this film may have under performed on it’s initial release could very well be Sarandon’s character’s story arc.

If there is one very strong element to the film, it is the authenticity of the flying sequences. The actors are really in the planes as they are flying. The stunts are being performed for the camera, they are not special effects. As far as I could see, there was only one process shot used in the flying sequences, it was very brief, and it was to show how the propeller of a plane was eating the tail of another plane. Everything else is authentic. There were not a lot of quick cuts and frantic editing, most of the scenes were shot complete with very little cutting except between perspectives. 

A surprise about the film, and probably not a good one, was the relative lack of music on the score. There are some piano themes, that reflect the era, provided by the great Henry Mancini, but their presence in the film is sparse. George Roy Hill was a music lover who preferred Bach and understood music well. It is puzzling that the emotional beats of the film lack a musical track to set them off. Maybe the goal was to let the flight stunts speak for themselves, but audiences react to music and I think some opportunities are missed. It is puzzling since “The Sting” used the music cues so well and his later film “Slap Shot” is filled with contemporary music prompts. 

Redford is great in the film. He has a natural likability that seems to fit with that era. He worked perfectly for movies set in that time period, including “The Natural” and “The Sting“. In fact, it looks to me like Redford liked the era so well because he looks good in the newsboy style hats that were part of his costume. Edward Hermann had appeared in a film with Redford, right before this one, “The Great Gatsby” and here he is an old friend who understands aeronautics but even better, has a sister that is Waldo’s sometime lover, played by Margo Kidder, pre Superman. Marking his third appearance in the Thursday Throwback 1975 series is actor Geoffrey Lewis, who has been in “Lucky Lady” and “Smile” so far. This will not be his last film on the project either. He plays Waldo’s old Platoon commander and the Civil Aviation Authority official who is forced to crack down on the antics of his old friend. 

I said at the beginning, that I had a memory to share. Let me give you a little trigger warning, it is a tough memory connected to a tragedy in my life.

In April of 1975, my older brother, Chris, died at the age of 24. My parents were of course devastated. My Mother went into a period of almost agoraphobic mourning. She was unwilling to leave the house and she stopped working with my Father in the magic act they had been doing since before they were married. We were all in a pretty fragile state when my father decided we all needed to get out together as a family. “The Great Waldo Pepper” was playing at the Garfield Theater, about a half mile down the street from where we lived. We all went to see it, probably in late May or Early June. My younger brother, Mom , Dad and I all sat together in the dark and did a little healing by spending some time together out of the house. We went across the street to  The Pizza Pub, and had a late dinner after the movie. My Mom was not cured, and we did not stop mourning, but we all drew a collective breath that evening, and we knew we could get on with life. A film can have a powerful effect on people for reasons that may have nothing to do with it’s qualities. That is one reason I love the movies and a reason that I remember this film fondly. 

I joined my friend Todd Liebenow for a discussion of this film on his podcast the Forgotten Filmcast.


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