Tuesday, March 28, 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)"
25 April 2007

The "Other" Pancho Barnes Movie

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Free-spirited. Rebellious. A woman ahead of her time, whose adventures are the stuff of legend. Somehow it seemed inevitable, given Pancho Barnes' life and the way she lived it, that Hollywood would find her story worth telling. Or would they? After all, she wasn't exactly the most beautiful, or the most couth of ladies, and her romantic proclivities weren't exactly the stuff of Harlequin novels.

Well, Hollywood did come knocking or, I should put it another way, someone brought Pancho to Hollywood's attention. That person was David Chisholm, a young writer for television whose father had been a jet pilot, and who grew up in the Lancaster vicinity. As a teen he'd even been friends with the children of Ted Tate, who knew Pancho and later released a book about her, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus. David heard a bit about Pancho's life story, and was hooked. Although she was deceased, and he did not know exactly how to proceed with writing a script about her life, he began doing some research. Along the way he met some of Pancho's friends and got a pretty good sense of what made Pancho tick. Buoyed by the success of the movie The Right Stuff, he wrote a treatment and began working with some producers who packaged Pancho's story. They began shopping it to the TV networks as a movie-of-the-week.

It might have been an impossible sell for a lot of reasons -- in the 1980s keep in mind there were no cable TV networks to speak of, and it was questionable whether a sponsor would want to support a film about such an eccentric character.

According to Chisholm, who was kind enough to meet me for lunch a few months ago, the secret to getting the film made proved to be, what else?, making Pancho's life "pure Hollywood". That meant tossing out much of the reality of her life, and instead making a film about a character who had some relationship to Pancho, but only faintly. That wasn't what Chisholm'd envisioned doing, by the way, but the decision of the producers. While he'd worked hard to get the idea to the small screen, David found himself in an uncomfortable position, attempting to maintain some of the heart and soul of what intrigued him about Pancho and her character, while the producers fought to make the film commercial. In the end Chisholm lost out. He would be replaced on the film by famed writer John Michael Hayes, who penned the screenplay for Hitchcock's Rear Window. The script that Hayes produced made CBS extremely happy and brought a corporate sponsor on board, but in the end the story had very little to do with the reality of Pancho's life.

And who would end up starring in the role of the rough-and-tumble, tough, abrasive-yet-wonderful Pancho Barnes? Someone you'd least expect, that is, unless you think like a Hollywood producer. The star of the film would be beautiful, cheery starlet Valerie Bertinelli, best known now for her starring role on TV's Touched by an Angel.

The resulting film is, as one might expect, not a real biography of Pancho. Yet it does trace the bare outlines of her life, and features a fair amount of flying and a long segment about the Happy Bottom Riding Club (although it looks a bit more like a country club in the movie than it did in real life!) The producers used Jim Younkin's wonderful replica of a Travelair Mystery Ship for much of the filming of her flying days, which adds some excitement and pizzaz.

While the film is a disappointment to some, and a sort of light entertainment for others, it did get fairly good reviews at the time it was released. When you watch it now, it's important to keep in mind that for the time it was made "Pancho Barnes" was something legitimately different. Before "Lifetime" existed, it was rare to see any kind of film or TV program with a woman at its center, driving the action. (Photo at left: Valerie Bertinelli stars as "Pancho Barnes")

Postscript: Several people have sent emails asking where they can obtain the Pancho Barnes film. Although it is apparently out-of-print and was never released on DVD, you can find VHS tapes on eBay in the $20-35 range.

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