Jack Frye and 'The Aviator' Movie, 2004

The Portrayal of Jack Frye in... THE AVIATOR

Review by, Eric Johnson

Ever since I got my first gas powered P-51 Mustang control line model in 1962 for Christmas, airplanes, especially fast vintage ones have always had a great attraction to me. When I saw the Hughes H-1 racer spotlighted in the previews of The Aviator, well, I was smitten to see this movie with great anticipation. Just look at her here, who wouldn’t want to see this beauty slicing the sky! The main attraction, the star of the movie for me though was Jack Frye and his character played by Danny Houston. I had read many accounts, watched documentaries about Howard Hughes as most people have, so there were no real new-news items about him I was looking for. Movies tend to bend the edges a little bit to keep the viewers attention, and the movie goers shouldn’t be too surprised to see real personalities played out into somebody other than they really are. But as this movie unfolded before my eyes, I noticed some great disparaging role-reversals with both the Howard Hughes character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and especially the Jack Frye character by Houston.

In a nutshell, the screenwriter and producers made Jack look like a yes-man and Howard as the man in-charge of TWA when in fact that wasn’t the case by any stretch of the imagination. To set the record straight up front, Jack Frye was the powerful empire building president sporting a big cigar and his Texas bravado with class and gentlemanly style. It was Jack Frye’s vision and his dedicated employees since 1923 beginning with Aero Corp., that led up to making TWA the global airline powerhouse it was. Hughes just supplied the funding. And best of all, Jack Frye did it all while genuinely caring about his employees and his patrons. A trait that is lost today! This is not meant to take away from the massive talents of the actors and its director Mr. Scorsese as I truly enjoy many of his works on the big screen. It is only meant to dispel gross mis-characterizations of one of Americas great aviation pioneers who is still fighting to be recognized for who and what He was. I hope this will help in preserving his legacy.

Hughes H-1 Racer, assembled and flown 1935

I am sharing here my take, a personal review If you will on the overall movie and the scenes in which Jack Frye appears on the screen. The reason I am doing this is I have listened to Frye family members that are very disappointed about how the studio mis-portrayed their “hero of the family”. They and former TWA employees, and myself would like to finally see something said in rebuttal that attempts to regain Jack Frye’s true character and pioneering vision as we have so often shared here on the Jack Frye blog and others in the know.

The Great Role Reversal

Probably the single most important discovery in airline travel history was the topic discussed in this clip of the movie. This scene in the movie The Aviator depicting Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) and Jack Frye (Houston) discussing flying airliners in the sub stratosphere is completely reversed in real life. The historical fact is Hughes had no vision for the airline business and its workings. It was Jack Frye who while testing with Tommy Tomlinson “flying above the clouds” in the ‘DC-1 Experimental Lab’ and a Northrop GAMMA in the 1930’s, discovered the jet stream and the calm weather up there enabling them to fly faster and smoother. It was Jack Frye’s idea and vision to harness these newly found atmospheric conditions in airline travel, not Hughes as depicted in this scene.

The Facts:
Jack Frye in the timeline of aviation discovery already knew flying above 20,000 feet would give passengers a smooth weather-less flight before this scene in the movie. It was Jack that told Hughes they needed to move toward developing new planes to perform above the sub stratosphere, not Hughes. This all because it was Jack Frye who continually and relentlessly searched and set the standard for passenger comfort and safety at T&WA before Howard came on board in 1939. Howard was not the visionary running or guiding the company to new standards for the future. At this point he knew very little about the airline business and its supremely number one priority – passenger safety. The idea that Hughes dreamed up of only 1% of the population were flying and the need to get every man, woman and child “up there” feeling safe is another role reversal. These were all Jack Frye’s visions he and his crew birthed.

Shortly after this video clip in the movie, Hughes says he wants to buy T&WA. The director made Frye appear surprised Hughes would ask this question when in actuality Jack Frye and Paul Richter flew out to California and had a meeting with Howard to invite him to buy into the company. This is all documented on this blog and in the history books. And when they show Hughes walking away from Frye and he says to Howard, “Are you sure, don’t you want to think about it a minute?” It floored me to see Frye in a fictional subservient stance!

The scene is Jack Frye and Bob Gross, President of Lockheed in a hanger where Hughes is showing off his newly designed XF-11 spy plane. He calls it his ‘Buck Rogers ship’. Frye informs Howard they have something to show him. It’s a model of the new L049 Constellation airliner. Gross explains the specifications that it will carry 60 passengers 3000 miles. Here is where the facts get bent. Hughes says, “Cross country”, Frye says, “Non-stop.”

The Facts:
It was Frye that informed Howard about his concept of the new ‘super airliner’ he and his crew had been working on since 1938. He also told him his vision of going global in a way that had not yet been realized. Now for the interest of time in the movie I can understand why they began a conversation about the purchase price of the new Connie and their exclusivity to T&WA before other carriers. The fact is, there was another meeting with Gross, Kelly Johnson, Frye, Richter and Hughes at 7000 Romaine Avenue to discuss the specifications and the final deal in which Hughes decided to invest 18 million to get the plane going. I can appreciate one truth in this scene and that is, Bob Gross told Hughes T&WA would have the first 40 planes exclusively. They didn’t show it but it was Jack Frye that insisted this be part of the deal. But in the movie one wouldn’t know this. So again, Jack Frye is minimized in favor of strengthening the Hughes character.

This is an interesting scene for which I have no hard data that supports it, so at this point I am going to assume it is fiction built around pure drama from the screenwriter’s pen. If somebody knows if this really happened I would be interested to know about it.

It starts off with Jack Frye and his wife Helen Vanderbilt Frye sitting at a table in a swanky club with Howard and his young teenage date for the evening, Ms. Faith Domergue. Then Juan Trippe, President of Pan Am Airlines, T&WA’s arch competitor walks up and says hello to Jack and Helen, and finally Hughes. Frye asks Trippe, “What brings you out this way?” He explains he is out to visit Douglas Aircraft about his new plane, the DC-4. Then he asks. “How is the Connie coming?” Hughes says “good”. Frye remains silent. "Can I get a peek?" I don’t think so says Howard. Then Trippe says “You know, TWA stole Ray Loewy (interior designer) from us”. Trippe asks, “What are your colors?” Frye says, stop fishing. Then Hughes asks, “You have buttons or zippers?” Trippe says, "I’m sorry?" Buttons or zippers on the window drapes? Trippe responds with a long pause, “Zippers – buttons.” Then Hughes gestures, “ah hah”. Frye is silent, another long pause.

Well, after the initial fishing for info passes, Trippe goes a step further and asks if TWA is expanding to Mexico being the Connie has a 3000 mile range. Frye says, “Why do you say that?” "Well, LA to Mexico to South America?" Frye chuckles and says, "That’s a good idea, anybody have a pen?" Then Hughes says, “Across the Atlantic”. Frye gets visibly upset. Trippe says, "Isn’t that too far?" Hughes responds with Frye remaining visibly upset, “New York to Newfoundland, to Ireland, to Paris.” A long pause with Jack Frye by now very perturbed but silent. Trippe says, “Pan Am welcomes you, we are overbooked as it is. Its such a burden to be all on your own you know?” Trippe leaves the table stating he will be buying the next 40 Connies after TWA.

As soon as Trippe excuses himself, Jack Frye says “Good going boss.” Then he is all over Howard for giving away TWA’s entire post war strategy to the competition. Then Howard totally out of his real character tells Jack in a loud screaming voice, “He can’t stop us Frye, He’s Pan Am, he can’t stop anything."

The Facts:
This was not Howard’s way of communicating whatsoever. It’s as if DiCaprio wanted to force his character. The whole movie portrays Howard wrong as well but he isn’t my concern. Then Hughes tells Frye, “I don’t know what you’re so damn giddy about”, then he leaves PO’d. This last snide and insulting remark would have never come from Hughes lips to his friend and business partner Jack Frye he highly respected in real life. You will see this respect of Hughes towards Frye later in this post. As a side note, the way Helen Frye was portrayed as a doting quiet wife was all wrong as well. The real Helen Frye was a lady full of life that had things to say especially at a swanky club where fun was the order of the hour.

Still in the club, Howard tells Jack to get in touch with Mr. Joyce, Mr. Berg, his boys in Washington and set up a meeting with Jesse Jones. “We are going to need terminals in both Ireland and France and some tax breaks from them.” Ok, this short exchange really put me out. Firstly, the idea of addressing the need for terminals in other countries didn’t birth itself in a club. It came from Jack Frye’s vision of the future and officially out of his office to the board of directors. There was no dramatic emotional response as shown in this scene. The idea to go International required great logistical and monetary studies from the TWA team. Jack Frye was a leader with strong intentions and planning in order to pull his visions off. I understand for the interest of time the producers had to make this a quick and dramatic section so DiCaprio can show his talent. But, as an amateur historian and to family members it’s very frustrating to see such a greater man as Jack Frye be minimized to a yes-man again and again!

Next Hughes says, “No airline should have a monopoly of flying the Atlantic.”

The Facts:

In real life Frye already knew this back in the mid 30’s with the DC’s. The whole scene here is pretty sickening in my opinion. For the few minutes of screen time they allowed for the Frye character, a man who actually ran TWA for 13 straight years during the golden age of aviation and with over 17,000 employees by 1947, you would think they would honor him with a little bravado and leadership in the movie.

Finally, a true representation of our favorite airline executive Jack Frye in scene 5. And he isn’t even on the screen. This scene has Juan Trippe and Senator Owen Brewster of Maine recognizing Jack Frye is lobbying everyone in town and all the banks. Brewster tells Trippe, “TWA is serious about going International.” Yes sir he was and he did.

The Hercules (Spruce Goose) air transport plane is being built in a hanger and Frye tells Howard, “Trippe is working with Senator Brewster. "As soon as the airline bill becomes law we are done my friend. We need to get rid of all the nasty foreign airlines competition and have our own airline all alone over there.” Hughes says, “I’m not cow toweling to Washington.” Frye asks Hughes, “What do you want me to do? You need me to bribe Senators? “No Jack, I want it done legally. I want them bought, and put a team of investigators on Brewster. I need to know everything about that shit bag. Get onto it right now Jack.” “All right Howard, I’ll get right on it.”

The Facts:
Are you kidding me? This was so insulting! Jack Frye's character and personality was excruciatingly wrong. In real life, Jack knew way before this scene what he needed to do. He was a master of wining and dining and entertaining dignitaries and politicians including the likes of Harry Truman and Winston Churchill. Hughes never had to “Tell Jack Frye” what to do. He did it himself and quite well with honesty, respect and dignity. There are no records of Jack Frye devising any underhanded tactics to get what he needed done to progress the company. None! This was a terrible portrayal of Jack Frye. I am so glad I am bringing this to our audiences attention.

Another historical fact the movie missed of Jack Frye is within the XF-11 aircraft crash landing accident that nearly killed Howard Hughes. This occurred July 7, 1946 in Hollywood California. While flying his new prototype reconnaissance aircraft, the first of two ever built, one of the twin propellers reversed pitched causing the plane to drop the right wing and point it into an uncontrollable dive. Hughes was finally able to keep her flying parallel to the earth but eventually crashed into some homes with violent results. It was a horrible sight!

Prototype XF-11, 1935, 1 of 2

Howard nearly dead was saved by Marine Sgt. William Lloyd Durkin, stationed at the El Toro Marine Base, and Capt. James Guston, 22, son of the industrialist and recently released from the Army. He was then transported to Beverly Hills Emergency Hospital and given a “50-50″ chance to live. Now here is a little known fact that hasn't been told but if included in the movie, would have shown the public a certain closeness Jack and Howard shared that might well have been a good human touch to the storyline. Jack got a call informing him of the accident, so he immediately flew to LA. When Howard finally made it to his private hospital room after treatment, it was Jack Frye who spent the night in the hallway keeping vigil.

Frye keeping vigil at Beverly Hills Hospital

When Howard regained consciousness, Jack Frye was the first person he asked to see. Others including some business associates were in and out, but it was Jack Frye who didn't leave until he knew his old friend would pull through it. This little known fact about Jack Frye was never put out there, and if I know him like I think I do, it was probably Jack Frye that required it be kept quiet. Well, now you know another human interest story about Jack Frye...

Another fictional scene has Noah Dietrich, Jack Frye and Howard Hughes walking out to the tarmac where all the Connie’s are grounded making no money for TWA. This happened after the deadly crash in Reading PA. Hughes says, “How long are they keeping us grounded?” Frye says, “Until they finish investigating the Reading crash.” Dietrich then rips into Frye and Hughes that they are already running a 14 million dollar deficit, “How are you going to keep the Connie’s out of service a week?” Hughes says. “We’ll make it up.” Dietrich brings up the new CAB bill and its restrictive monopoly in favor of Pan Am via the Brewster committee in DC. Frye speaks up and says, “We are fighting the CAB bill.” Then Dietrich says he’s “glad Jack here is feeling so sunny about things here, but I’m telling you we are in serious trouble. You need to make a choice. Do you want to be bankrupted by the big plane (Spruce Goose) or by the big airline?” Hughes then says. “Go to the Equitable in NY. Get a loan using the planes as collateral, everything including TWA equipment, capital, desks, pens. Try to get me 40 million!”

The Facts:
The point is, Jack Frye I am sure when and if this little encounter between the three executives occurred, Frye would have had a more commanding say and contribution to the conversation that truly portrayed his positive and enthusiastic approach to this mess as Dietrich called it. He may have even been the one to suggest to Howard to exhaust other resources to keep the airline afloat. He was its president and chief and he would have explored all avenues to keep it fluid. The problem for Jack in real life though, up to this point Dietrich had been filling Hughes with anti-Frye rhetoric to try and get him fired. This would have made a great side story in the movie including Frye’s resignation over Howard's lack of trust in Jacks leadership of the company. And it would have shown the eccentric Howard Hughes didn’t always get his way. I’m sure DiCaprio would have sunk this idea before it had any feet.

The final scene of Jack Frye in the movie only shows him in front of the parked Spruce Goose in Long Beach, CA. November 1947. Nine months after Jack Frye’s resignation from TWA. I have no proof otherwise, but, what is Jack Frye doing promoting the H-4 Hercules to the public and the press when the war is already over and he is the new CEO of General Aniline Company? Drama I guess. And as they say, That's Hollywood...

Jack Frye speaking with the press

Overall it was a very entertaining movie accompanied with fantastic airplane scenes, incredible moments of beauty and emotion, and some pretty good acting. Danny Houston bless his soul gave it a good shot in portraying Jack Frye, he’s a great actor. But the effort fell short of capturing the soft persona of Jack’s Texas gentleman class. He looked too edgy and citified in this role. I don’t blame him as I am sure the director and the writer didn’t do their homework on Jack. Unfortunately, every time I re-experience the movie I get frustrated and end up skipping to the airplanes. The next time you watch The Aviator, keep in mind that all of the bravado and leadership of TWA was because of Jack Frye’s 13 years of pioneering determination and leadership to make TWA not necessarily the largest, but the best airline in the world. And he did it with respect and professionalism. Howard Hughes did not run the company or make company decisions on the ground. While playboying and off somewhere designing and flying he bankrolled a made suggestions to management on what he thought should be put in place. President Jack Frye made the final decisions and took responsibility for them.

Whoever does the new movie about the Frye legacy, I hope they at least get it half right and refrain from character assassination as seen here. Jack Frye's true story and his magnetic personality is sufficient to produce a great piece of cinema to the masses. It ought to be a recapturing story of glamour, politics, invention and heroism that explores conquering man's limitations in the sky. An inspirational story of his vision and love for his company, and his family. For this is the real Jack Frye. Thank you for taking the time, I hope you have learned something new...


  1. Thanks for the true Jack Frye facts hope a lot of people read this
    a cousin of Jacks

  2. My grandfather Henry Frye Young was first cousins to William "Jack" Frye, growing up, they were close buddies running in the Wheeler area. They both lost their mothers at an early age, and developed a friendship that lasted throughout their lives. Jack Frye would later go on in life to found TransWorldAIrlines, TWA, and is featured in the movie "The Aviator" by actor Danny Huston. Once famous, living in LosAngeles, Jack was actually given a speeding ticket for going too fast on Sunset Boulevard near the BeverlyHills Hotel. The catch was, he was flying a plane at the time, apparently buzzing the hotel, he was given a citation. This would later prove to be a publicity stunt, set in motion by Howard Hughes. He never forgot his home in Wheeler, and on several occasions would fly into the Young Ranch, landing on the creek bottoms to visit his cousin Henry.

  3. Movies are a favorite past time for the young and old alike. The smell of buttery popcorn, the thrill of watching a movie on a big screen, engulfed in sound and sharing the experience with a crowd is all an exciting part of going to the theatre. Watching a movie in the home cuddled up with a loved one is a great relaxing quality past time. ดูอนิเมะออนไลน์

  4. thanks, I know that there is so much more to the real story, should never have been a movie like that about HH or Jack Frye, cant even watch the Aviator movie again, it does not even tell a millimeter of the real story and yes I am interested in HH but that movie sucks when it comes to real history I would rather read or see the true story about Jack, now that would be a good movie! better as a book!