Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
01 May 2007

Pancho and Ramon

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A Hollywood director once described Ramon Novarro as having "...the physique of Michelangelo's David and the face of an El Greco Don." Victoria Thomas, writing in Hollywood's Latin Lovers says that Ramon Novarro was "...the most truly beautiful of the silent era Latin Lovers and a more gifted actor than...Rudolph Valentino." He was one of the most accomplished, highest-grossing stars in the movie business, and he was a friend and companion of Florence "Pancho" Barnes.

For a time, in fact, they seemed inseparable. That may seem ironic given the fact that Pancho was not herself glamorous, but fitting when you consider her zest for life, artistic nature, and the fact that in many respects she lived a double life. Ostensibly as Florence Lowe Barnes she was the wife of a prominent Episcopal reverend, but in reality she was a bit of a hellraiser. Novarro also had a split in his personality. He may have been one of the biggest heartthrobs of the silver screen, a he-man who wowed audiences for his portrayal of a fearless "Ben Hur", but Novarro was also closeted. He was one of the few actors from the silent era to make a successful transition to the talkies, appearing in 1932's Mata Hari opposite Greta Garbo. Yet tragically, Novarro's sexual orientation and his refusal to marry, even just for the sake of appearances, ultimately cost him his career. By 1940, according to Victoria Thomas, he was "virtually blackballed from Hollywood".

The Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive contains many wonderful photos of Pancho and Ramon. There is a terrific energy to the couple, seen posing in front of Pancho's Travelair biplane or riding in the star's Lincoln roadster. Some of these photos are simply beautiful, and not just because of who is in them. Most likely they were shot by another friend of Pancho and Novarro's, MGM chief photographer George Hurrell.

The Archive also holds a few handwritten notes from Novarro to Pancho, including one which accompanied a gift of flowers on her birthday in which he writes tenderly, "Florence there is nothing I can do to show you my deep gratitude and love..."

Pancho was also friends with Ramon Novarro's brother, Mariano Samaniego. Mariano accompanied the aviatrix on her historic flight to Mexico City in 1930, and acted as her interpreter.

Unfortunately, this story like many real ones in Hollywood, had a bad ending. During WWII, Pancho got into some financial troubles while trying to build up her Rancho Oro Verde. She defaulted on a $2000 promissory note to the bank, and on a nearly $9000 loan from Novarro. He sued her for principle and interest, and the two apparently never spoke again.

It's worth noting that during Pancho's friendship with Novarro, he was at the pinnacle of his career and paid $10,000 a week. By the time of the lawsuit, his star had faded considerably. He eventually retreated to a small home in Laurel Canyon in the early 1950's. According to Victoria Thomas, in the 1960's he had an occasional role on TV. Sadly, in 1968 he was murdered by some young hoods on Halloween morning, an incident famously recounted in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon.

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.