Thursday, May 23, 2024

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)"
30 November 2009

A Key Photo and a Mystery Solved

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One of the coolest photos in the collection of the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate is PanchoasPanchothe one that appears at right.  It shows Florence Lowe Barnes in her "Pancho" persona.  Boy does it ever!!  The lit cigarette, sombrero and serape give a good idea of how Pancho might have disguised herself in Mexico and passed herself off as an hombre during her travels in 1928.  This iconic photo, which appears in our film at a critical moment — it symbolizes her transformation from society girl to wild adventuress — has always been a bit of a mystery to me.  You'd think the photo would have been shot in Mexico, but a close study of the background reveals something unexpected.  The building in the background appears battle-scarred, with bullet holes and broken windows.  And there's a sign on the wall over Pancho's shoulder, and if you stare at it long enough you'll see it's in a foreign language, either German or French but definitely not Spanish.  The last word on that sign is clearly "Verdun".  As in, the famous city in Meuse, France that was the scene of a World War I battle.  So what in the heck would Pancho be doing in France and why did I never hear about that trip?

PanchoasPancho2Well, a clue appears in the lower right corner of the photo.  That's where a faint stamp appears, which I've blown up at left.  The stamp says "Elmer Dyer Hollywood."  Elmer Dyer, for those of you who have never heard of him, was the first cinematographer in "the business" to specialize in aerial photography.  He shot many of the key sequences in Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels", Frank Capra's "Dirigible" and the movie "The Lost Squadron" starring Richard Dix.  "Lost Squadron" is a really interesting picture about Hollywood stunt pilots.  Made in 1932, it starred the acerbic film actor and movie director Erich Von Stroheim as, what else?, an acerbic movie director.

Those of you who have seen The Legend of Pancho Barnes know that Von Stroheim and Pancho Barnes were good friends and sometime enemies as well.  Now here's where our photographic story takes an interesting turn.  While trying to find some visual material for use in the film, I stumbled across a publicity photo from "The Lost Squadron" (below left).  In it, Von Stroheim is shown PanchoasPancho4in his role as director Von Furst on the set of a World War I movie.  What caught my eye about this photo was an area in the rear center of the frame. PanchoasPancho5 If you look at it closely in the detail shot below, you will notice the building on the right side has a peculiar type of architecture.  There's a sort of wall on the lower portion of the building.  Well guess what?  This same detail appears to be in our photo of Pancho as Pancho (take a look)!  It's not definitive proof, but given the evidence — Pancho was friends with Von Stroheim, Elmer Dyer was the director of photography on "Lost Squadron", and "Lost Squadron" was about the making of a World War I picture — it seems likely that our photo was shot in 1932 at the RKO lot in Culver City.  Come to think of it, that's only a couple of miles from my house.  Neat!

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