The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

PG | 107-108 mins | Comedy-drama | March 1975

Director:

George Roy Hill

Producer:

George Roy Hill

Cinematographer:

Robert Surtees

Production Designer:

Henry Bumstead

Production Company:

Universal Pictures
Full page view
HISTORY

The film opens with an old style photo album with black and white photos of actual flyers and their birth and death dates. Included are Ormer Locklear (1891-1920), Earl S. Daugherty (1887-1928), [Charles] “Speed” Holman (1898-1931) and Ernst Udet (1896-1941). Interspersed between the album pictures are shots of “barnstorming” pilots in spectacular crashes. At the end of the film after “Waldo” flies off into the clouds to an unknown fate, an album photo of Robert Redford as Waldo, appears by his plane with the years 1895—1931 under his name. The movie watched by Waldo and “Mary Beth McIlheney” is the 1926 United Artists release, The Son of the Shiek , starring Rudolph Valentino who appears in the clips shown. An 18 Jan 1974 news item notes that The Great Waldo Pepper marked the American feature film debut of Swedish stage actor Bo Brundin. Brundin appeared in another 1975 American film, the Avco release Russian Roulette which was shot and distributed after        The Great Waldo Pepper . The small role of “Duke,” an air circus pilot, was played by Scott Newman, son of Paul Newman, Redford’s popular co-star in the 1969 Twentieth Century-Fox release Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (see above) and the 1973 Universal release, The Sting (see below), both directed by George Roy Hill.
       According to a Box news item, The Great Waldo Pepper was originally scheduled to be shot in Great Bend, Kansas. A 17 Dec 1973 film assignment credit listing includes a Chicago cameraman and two assistants, but there is no confirmation ... More Less

The film opens with an old style photo album with black and white photos of actual flyers and their birth and death dates. Included are Ormer Locklear (1891-1920), Earl S. Daugherty (1887-1928), [Charles] “Speed” Holman (1898-1931) and Ernst Udet (1896-1941). Interspersed between the album pictures are shots of “barnstorming” pilots in spectacular crashes. At the end of the film after “Waldo” flies off into the clouds to an unknown fate, an album photo of Robert Redford as Waldo, appears by his plane with the years 1895—1931 under his name. The movie watched by Waldo and “Mary Beth McIlheney” is the 1926 United Artists release, The Son of the Shiek , starring Rudolph Valentino who appears in the clips shown. An 18 Jan 1974 news item notes that The Great Waldo Pepper marked the American feature film debut of Swedish stage actor Bo Brundin. Brundin appeared in another 1975 American film, the Avco release Russian Roulette which was shot and distributed after        The Great Waldo Pepper . The small role of “Duke,” an air circus pilot, was played by Scott Newman, son of Paul Newman, Redford’s popular co-star in the 1969 Twentieth Century-Fox release Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (see above) and the 1973 Universal release, The Sting (see below), both directed by George Roy Hill.
       According to a Box news item, The Great Waldo Pepper was originally scheduled to be shot in Great Bend, Kansas. A 17 Dec 1973 film assignment credit listing includes a Chicago cameraman and two assistants, but there is no confirmation that any filming took place in or around Chicago. Production charts and other news items record that The Great Waldo Pepper was ultimately shot in and around Elgin, Texas and Piru, California. A 27 Nov 1973 HR article notes that the production received a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow a biplane to fly through the center of Elgin during filming of the stunt with “Axel” and Mary Beth. According to the article, the air unit director, Frank Tallman, piloted a 1917 J-L standard “Jenny” aircraft for the stunt. The stunt where Waldo grabs a ladder dangling from a plane was filmed previously for a feature made in the 1920s, according to the same article.
       The Great Waldo Pepper was conceived by producer-director George Roy Hill and many details in the script were based on the lives of the real stunt flyers pictured before the opening credits, Locklear, Daugherty and Holman. All three men were mid-western born and served in the American Air Corp during World War I. Later, all three participated in stunt flying and “barnstorming,” which included aerial tricks and wing-walking. Like Waldo Pepper, Daugherty was a flight instructor during the war. All three of the pilots died in plane crashes. Locklear died while stunt flying for the 1920 Fox Film motion picture The Skywayman (see entry) and the fatal crash remained in the film. Holman died while performing in an air show in front of a crowd and Daughterty, who had taken up commercial flying, died when his plane’s wing collapsed. Udet, who served as the model for “Ernst Kessler,” was one of the greatest German flying aces. The pivotal tale in the film of Kessler’s aerial combat against four American pilots was loosely based on a battle between Udet and the iconic French flying ace, Georges Guynemer (1894-1917). Upon coming upon each other flying alone, Udet and Guynemer engaged in various maneuvers trying to best each other and when Udet’s gun jammed, Guynemer waved and flew away. Udet committed suicide during World War II.
       As mentioned in the film by “Newton Potts,” a measure to promote air mail and assure the public of the safety of air travel was the Air Commerce Act, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge in May, 1926. The Act led to the creation of an Aeronautic Branch in the Department of Commerce which oversaw the testing and licensing of pilots and aircraft. Prior to the implementation of federal air safety regulations, there had been numerous nationwide flying accidents by “barnstorming” pilots. Although Newt mentions being the regional representative of the “C. A. A.,” the Civil Aeronautics Authority was not created until 1938.
       In a modern biography, Hill states that The Great Waldo Pepper was one of the few aviation films without any special effects in the flying and stunt flying sequences. No rear projection or models were used in the film. Redford, Bo Svenson and Edward Hermann performed many of their own stunts, including wing-walking. In the biography, Hill also admits that the shift in tone between mild comedy and sudden tragedy with Mary Beth’s death was too severe and likely alienated audiences. Despite Redford’s previous success in The Sting , The Great Waldo Pepper had only mediocre box office results. Hill also noted that the “outside loop” was actually first successfully performed by aviation pioneer, James “Jimmy” Doolittle in the late 1920s when he was a military flight instructor and test pilot. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
9 July 1973.
---
Box Office
10 Mar 1975
p. 4762.
Daily Variety
17 Dec 1973.
---
Daily Variety
24 Jan 1974.
---
Daily Variety
3 Mar 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Nov 1973
p. 16.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Nov 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
18 Jan 1974.
---
Hollywood Reporter
29 Mar 1974
p. 20.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Mar 1975
p. 3, 6.
Los Angeles Times
17 Dec 1974.
---
Los Angeles Times
13 Mar 1975
Section IV, p. 1.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
12 Mar 1975
p. 78.
New York Times
14 Mar 1975
p. 24.
Variety
5 Mar 1975
p. 20.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Jennings Lang Presentation
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
Asst dir
Apprentice asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Chicago cam op
Asst cam
Asst cam
Chicago asst cam
Chicago asst cam
Still photog courtesy of
Cam mechanic
Gaffer
Elec best boy
Key grip
2d grip
Dolly grip
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
2d prop man
Const coord
Const grip
Const prop maker
Const prop maker
Const prop maker
Const prop maker
Const prop maker
Const prop maker
Const prop maker
Dec leadman
COSTUMES
Cost
Cost supv
Men`s cost
Men`s cost
Women`s cost
MUSIC
Orig mus
SOUND
Rec radioman
Sd mikeman
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles & opt eff
Eff supv
Spec eff man
MAKEUP
Cosmetics
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Texas casting coord
Air sequences supv
Unit prod mgr
Scr supv
Loc mgr
Loc auditor
Payroll timekeeper
Prod secy
Transportation capt
Air observer
STAND INS
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Air work
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
DETAILS
Release Date:
March 1975
Premiere Information:
New York and Los Angeles openings: 13 March 1975
Production Date:
15 November 1973--late March 1974 in Texas and Los Angeles
Copyright Claimant:
Universal Pictures
Copyright Date:
13 March 1975
Copyright Number:
LP46327
Physical Properties:
Sound
Westrex Recording System
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
Todd-AO 35
Duration(in mins):
107-108
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1926 Nebraska, charismatic stunt pilot, Waldo Pepper thrills the local farming communities by selling five minute flights. Dining with a local family one evening, Waldo reveals that he became a flyer at the very end of The Great War and flew against the famous German ace, Ernst Kessler. Urged to describe his war-time experience, Waldo relates a mission where his squad and an escort plane came upon Kessler returning to the German lines alone. After Kessler shot down the escort plane, Waldo and the others expected him to flee, but, instead, he took on the remaining four planes. Kessler quickly shot down two of the planes and sent the third pilot leaping to his death rather than burning in his flaming aircraft. Alone against Kessler, Waldo out-maneuvered the ace and finally got lined up in his gun sites only to have the gun jam. Seeing Waldo’s predicament, Kessler flew up beside him, saluted, then dove away. The next day, Waldo comes upon competitor Axel Olsson, the Stunt King, pitching his flying skills to a gathering crowd. When Axel refuses Waldo’s request to leave his territory, Waldo secretly undoes the bolts on Axel’s landing carriage causing the wheels to fall off when Axel takes off. Delighted, Waldo waves the furious Axel toward a nearby pond where he crash lands. Taking refuge in a movie house that afternoon, Waldo meets pretty and gullible Mary Beth McIlheney. Later at a diner, Waldo regales Mary Beth with his tale of confronting Kessler, only to be taken aback when Axel, Mary Beth’s boyfriend, joins them in a cast and on crutches. When ... +


In 1926 Nebraska, charismatic stunt pilot, Waldo Pepper thrills the local farming communities by selling five minute flights. Dining with a local family one evening, Waldo reveals that he became a flyer at the very end of The Great War and flew against the famous German ace, Ernst Kessler. Urged to describe his war-time experience, Waldo relates a mission where his squad and an escort plane came upon Kessler returning to the German lines alone. After Kessler shot down the escort plane, Waldo and the others expected him to flee, but, instead, he took on the remaining four planes. Kessler quickly shot down two of the planes and sent the third pilot leaping to his death rather than burning in his flaming aircraft. Alone against Kessler, Waldo out-maneuvered the ace and finally got lined up in his gun sites only to have the gun jam. Seeing Waldo’s predicament, Kessler flew up beside him, saluted, then dove away. The next day, Waldo comes upon competitor Axel Olsson, the Stunt King, pitching his flying skills to a gathering crowd. When Axel refuses Waldo’s request to leave his territory, Waldo secretly undoes the bolts on Axel’s landing carriage causing the wheels to fall off when Axel takes off. Delighted, Waldo waves the furious Axel toward a nearby pond where he crash lands. Taking refuge in a movie house that afternoon, Waldo meets pretty and gullible Mary Beth McIlheney. Later at a diner, Waldo regales Mary Beth with his tale of confronting Kessler, only to be taken aback when Axel, Mary Beth’s boyfriend, joins them in a cast and on crutches. When Mary Beth recounts bits of Waldo’s story, Axel reveals that he was in the squadron that included the pilots who fought Kessler and that the sole survivor died months later. Dismayed by Waldo’s blatant lie, Mary Beth departs with Axel as Waldo insists that he should have been the one to battle Kessler. Days later, Waldo joins his childhood friend, airplane engineer Ezra Stiles, at the New Harbor Flying Circus show, where Kessler is performing. Ezra reveals that he has completed the first stage of his new monoplane and assures the skeptical Waldo “that the biplane is dead.” Later, Waldo approaches the flying circus manager, Doc Dillhoefer, who insists he has no need of stunt fliers unless they can perform a death-defying trick. Needing to earn money, Waldo offers flying lessons, but gets no customers. One afternoon, Axel and Mary Beth visit, and Axel claims Waldo’s plane to try out for Dillhoeffer, as his craft is still under repair from the pond crash. Indignant, Waldo refuses, until Mary Beth urges the men to join forces. Axel then designs a trick where he flies over a moving car carrying Waldo who grabs a ladder dangling from the plane which then soars skyward. In repeated attempts, with Mary Beth driving the car, however, the team has trouble matching the speed between the car and plane. During another try, Mary Beth tries to tell Waldo that they are racing directly toward a barn, but intent on grasping the ladder at last, Waldo ignores her, only to smash into the roof of the barn as Axel jerks the plane and ladder skyward. With a broken shoulder, arm, ribs and leg, Waldo goes home with Ezra, where his sister and Waldo’s longtime girlfriend, Maude, react angrily upon seeing Waldo’s battered condition. That night Maude apologizes, but asks Waldo if they will only see each other when he is injured. Some weeks later when Waldo has almost recovered, Ezra shows him the new monoplane, which is complete except for an engine which Ezra cannot afford. Deeply impressed with the plane when Ezra assures him that he could perform the daring outside loop in it, Waldo promises to provide the money. Ezra explains to Maude that the outside loop is “the last great trick,” which even Kessler has been unable to do. Upon his complete recovery, Waldo rejoins Axel and devises a wing-walking stunt. On the first attempt, however, a nervous Axel steps through the bottom wing’s canvas and returns to the cockpit to allow Waldo a try. Carefully stepping along the wing’s edge, Waldo hoists himself up the struts to the top wing where, leaning against the bracing wire, he stands upright. Although Dillhoefer hires the pair, he demands that they continually transform their wing-walking act, which comes to include Waldo dressing like a female opera singer. One afternoon, Dillhoefer insists that they can only excite the audience by adding sex to the stunts. When the fliers look puzzled, Dillhoefer orders the men to put Mary Beth in their act. Surprising everyone, Mary Beth is enthused by the idea and demands top billing in the advertising as the “’It’ Girl of the Skies.” With Dillhoefer’s guidance, Axel and Waldo develop a stunt where Mary Beth walks out to the end of the lower wing, then pretends to be overcome by fear as Axel flies the plane low over the town’s main street. The plan goes well with Mary Beth’s outer garments shredded purposely to have them rip off easily as she goes out on the wing. After Axel flies through the town with Mary Beth screaming for help, however, he realizes that she is frozen with fear and cannot move. Knowing that he cannot land with her on the wing, Axel circles the flying circus field to attract Waldo’s attention. With another pilot flying, Waldo takes off and in mid-air climbs on board Axel’s plane. Instructing Axel to put the plane in a shallow dive to support both his weight and Mary Beth’s on the same wing, Waldo goes partially out on the lower wing, where he calls to Mary Beth to take his hand. To Waldo and Axel’s horror, Mary Beth lunges abruptly toward Waldo and plummets to her death. Later at the town police station later with Axel and Dillhoeffer, Waldo is surprised to meet his former air squadron leader, Newton Potts, who is the regional air inspector for the Department of Commerce. Newt informs the stunned Dillhoeffer that he must close the air show, and suspends Waldo and Axel from flying pending an investigation into Mary Beth’s death. When Waldo protests Newt’s authority, he explains that flying is becoming a business subject to government regulation and that the days of reckless barnstorming is finished. After Newt departs, Waldo defiantly insists that Newt will “come around,” in two weeks, when he intends to try for the outside loop in Ezra’s plane at the Muncie Indiana Fair, but Axel says he is through stunt flying. Two weeks later in Muncie, Waldo waits anxiously while Newt inspects Ezra’s plane, dubbed the Sky Streak, but Ezra confirms that Waldo cannot fly. Promising to let Waldo tour with the Sky Streak after he completes his suspension, Ezra says Waldo must decide whether Ezra should try for the outside loop. With Waldo’s approval, Ezra takes the Sky Streak up and, as Dillhoeffer, Waldo and the audience watch anxiously, makes two attempts at the outside loop but is seconds late powering out of his dive to pull the plane up and over. On the third attempt, the plane stalls and Ezra crashes before the shocked crowd. Waldo races to the plane to find his friend alive but pinned in the wreckage. As a crowd forms around the debris, a man throws a cigarette down near the plane which immediately bursts into flames. Unable to free Ezra who begins burning, Waldo knocks his friend unconscious then rushes to a waiting plane and, taking off, dives repeatedly at the crowd before stalling and crashing. Weeks later, Newt visits the recovering Waldo at Maude’s. After informing Waldo that he is permanently grounded, Newt tells him that Kessler performed the outside loop two weeks earlier. Months later, a restless Waldo seeks out Dillhoeffer who insists that stunt flying is finished and that the public is now interested only in speed records. Although Dillhoeffer calls Waldo dangerous, he reveals that Axel has found success in Hollywood. Soon after, in California, Waldo joins Axel doing stunt work for the movies. After working on several films, Waldo learns from Axel and his girlfriend Patsy that Axel has turned down an opportunity to stunt fly in a film. When Waldo urges Axel to join him in the flying film, Axel explains that he has served out his year suspension and is applying for an airline pilot’s license. Promising to fly under an assumed name if Axel will vouch for him, Waldo talks his friend into accepting the job. A little later at the studio, Waldo, using the name Brown, discovers with shock that the movie centers around the famous air battle between Kessler and the four American pilots. Outside on the field, Waldo comes upon a remake of Kessler’s famous black and yellow checkered tri-plane, named “Lola.” Confronting the director about the historical inaccuracies of the script, Waldo is dumbfounded to be introduced to Kessler who is also serving as stunt flyer. When Waldo confides his real identity, Kessler is impressed and expresses regret at Ezra’s death. Later, Axel tells Waldo that he will be doing the stunt jump from a burning plane as Kessler has requested to fly against Waldo. The morning of filming the air battle, Waldo asks Kessler about his memories of the famous mission. Kessler admits that only when he flies is life clear and filled with courage, honor and chivalry, unlike life on the ground. The camera planes, Waldo, Axel and Kessler go aloft after the director’s admonition to Axel not to open his parachute too soon and spoil the shot. Patsy watches from the ground as Axel throws himself from the burning plane and opens his chute only a few hundred feet above ground, but lands unhurt. After an evening celebrating, Waldo and Axel return to their bungalow where they are met by Newt, the new regional head of the CAA who is examining Axel’s pilot application. Newt mentions the film and says he will come out to watch the stunt flying, but Waldo feigns indifference. The next day, Waldo hides from Newt on the outdoor set until time for the planes to go aloft. At a signal from Kessler, Waldo also leaves his parachute behind before take off. To the dismay of the director, Kessler and Waldo begin a real air “battle,” ignoring the choreographed routine for the camera planes. Although Axel insists a pilot named Brown is flying against Kessler, Newt knows it is Waldo and, as the air skirmish intensifies, cheers him on. Kessler and Waldo dive and loop in efforts to out maneuver each other. After Kessler damages Waldo’s rudder by ramming him, the men begin head-on attacks and Waldo’s wing cuts through Kessler’s struts. On the next pass Kessler damages Waldo’s landing gear, but destroys his wing flaps. Knowing that neither can land safely, the men level their planes side-by-side, salute each other, then fly off separately into the clouds. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

TOP SEARCHES

CASABLANCA

During World War II, Casablanca, Morocco is a waiting point for throngs of desperate refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Exit visas, which are necessary to leave the country, are at ... >>

CITIZEN KANE

Seventy-year-old newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane dies in his palatial Florida home, Xanadu, after uttering the single word “Rosebud.” While watching a newsreel summarizing the years during which Kane ... >>

REAR WINDOW

Laid up with a broken leg during the height of summer, renowned New York magazine photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries enters his last week of home confinement, bored and ... >>

RAGING BULL

In 1941, at a boxing match in Cleveland, Ohio, pandemonium breaks out when Jake La Motta, an up-and-coming young boxer, loses a decision to Jimmy Reeves, suffering his first ... >>

CITY LIGHTS

At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into ... >>

The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.