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Savant didn't directly review Warners' DVD release of Zero Hour!, the movie that most closely inspired the wacko 1980 comedy Airplane! The spoof repeats entire pieces of dialogue almost verbatim, making a viewing of the original B&W drama a truly bizarre experience -- it seems to have an irreverent comedy trapped inside, trying to get out. We keep expecting to see people tear their clothes off, or to hear Bee Gees music playing over the cockpit radio.
It turns out that Airplane! was simply hip to the absurdity of the airliner-in-jeopardy subgenre before the rest of us caught on -- the jokes recognize and celebrate the surreal insanity of melodramatic clichés in everything from the self-important The High and The Mighty to the camp excess of Fate Is the Hunter. That 1964 groaner's big revelation is that a mystery plane crash was caused not by pilot error but by -- wait for the music sting -- spilled coffee!
A main contender in the too-silly-to-be-true aerial jeopardy race is 1960's The Crowded Sky, a hugely enjoyable Bad Movie that piles one embarrassingly trite dramatic scene atop another. The film's fateful mid-air collision is so thoroughly telegraphed that every character seems to be saying to themselves, "Do I have enough time for an extra flashback to my troubled personal life, or are we about to be hit by another plane?"
A Westbound commercial flight and an Eastbound military flight have a (dum-dum-dum!!) date with destiny. Airliner pilot Dick Barnett (Dana Andrews, his characteristic reserve frozen into near-psychosis) is dealing with plenty of personal problems. He's blocked the career advancement of co-pilot Mike Rule (John Kerr, sleepwalking as usual) because he's decided that the younger man isn't sufficiently dedicated to flying. Mike wants to be both a pilot and a
The power trips and sexual hang-ups extend to many of Barnett's passengers, including two solo travelers with low self-esteem that can't seem to start a conversation. Experienced beauty (Jean Willes) is incensed that the self-obsessed admirer (Keenan Wynn) is picking up on her but can't even remember that they've already dated. A bit further back in the plane, an actor's agent (Patsy Kelly) must deal with a whiny, Marlon Brando-like actor frustrated that he can't act the emotion "fear" because he's never felt it. Sexy stewardess Kitty Foster (Anne Francis) is dating the frustrated Mike, and makes him more frustrated when she avoids heavy kissing by claiming that she can't restrain herself when she gets aroused. She cheerfully explains: "I'm a tramp!" If that's not enough, Kitty makes fun of Mike's commercial art sketches (including one of a kitten).
Flying in the opposite direction is a small jet fighter piloted by Dale Heath (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), an Air Force career man in marital distress because his selfish, glamorous wife Cheryl (Rhonda Fleming) openly consorts with other men. Cheryl is jealous of their daughter for idolizing Dale and blocks the idea of boarding school, even though she has no desire to have the girl around the house. Dale has to give Cheryl a new convertible car to get her to relent. Dale's passenger in the two-seater jet is young sailor McVey (Troy Donohue) who needs to get East in a hurry to deal with a pregnant girlfriend. Although Dale's own love life is a shambles, McVey asks him for advice.
Remember the gag in Airplane! where the camera zooms into a worried housewife-passenger, the audio drops, and we hear her thoughts?: "My husband never has a second cup of coffee at home!" It would seem to be sourced here. The camera repeatedly moves in to isolate a character, and we hear whatever dopey thing they're thinking. On some shots the background lighting fades, isolating the thinker as if on a theatrical stage. It's marvelously inept, an elaborate narrative idea made lame by numb repetition. I bet if this movie got shown in a theater today, the audience would applaud.
We know exactly where The Crowded Sky is going when people keep repeating the catchy phrase, um, what was ... yes, "Remember, it's a crowded sky!" The conversation of air controllers and cockpit teams alike returns to the idea that air traffic is kept safely separated by altitude. Things begin to get funny when Barnett allows his airliner to fly 500 ft. lower to avoid storm turbulence. He's bending the rules for passenger comfort over the objections of Mike Rule, who appropriately wants to stick to the rules. Over in the small jet, pilot Dale's radio receiver is acting up. He realizes too late that the problem will also snafu the frizzenritz out of his altimeter, which gets its raw data from a radio signal. An overworked air traffic controller notices that the two planes are on a head-on course only at the last instant. He orders them to immediately change altitudes ... but not their directions.
The Crowded Sky is odd from two points of view. First, the screenwriters seem to have been told to update the High and Mighty formula to include lots of references to SEX, as that's what seems to be playing best in the wake of the huge 1959 success A Summer Place. Perhaps the presence of that movie's theme music as background in an airport bar is meant to encourage comparison with the earlier film ... especially because the scene features Place star Troy Donohue.
It's also possible that the music reference may have been part of a deliberate pattern of inside jokes in The Crowded Sky. Writer Charles Schnee seems to know very well that he's working on a completely absurd story. Oddball details proliferate. Pilot Barnett eyes a suspicious passenger several times, as if the movie were going to turn into a hijacking tale or something. No, all the wasted film footage amounts to nothing, when the mystery man turns out to be a grateful former passenger. The screenwriters also spike the proceedings with oddball provocative dialogue, as if trying to find out if anybody at the studio actually reads the scripts. Rhonda Fleming needles her cuckolded hubby with the news that the fact that they've "done it" after she's confessed her infidelity means that he can't sue for divorce. Frisky Anne Francis delivers suggestive gag lines, like this defense of stewardess school: "Where else could you get a wife so carefully trained to kneel, bend and squat charmingly?"
The movie has some attractive aerial shots but a lot of rather dicey special effects miniatures. The funniest is the collision itself, in which an airliner and a jet traveling toward one another at a high combined speed appear to bump together like cars going twenty or thirty miles an hour. But the film's most outrageous scene is a flashback in which a sheriff lectures Dana Andrews' son and his delinquent teenage friends (boys and girls) who have broken into an unoccupied house. They've "shacked up for a whole weekend" while methodically destroying everything inside, as in the Graham Greene short story The Destructors. The sheriff's appeal to decency becomes hilarious when we see the kids just standing around looking bored. We also can't help but think that this "positive social message" will surely put ideas in the heads of punks lacking the imagination to realize on their own that such glorious vandalism was even possible. The scene is better than anything in the terminally clueless Hot Rods to Hell, which also stars a confused Dana Andrews.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Crowded Sky is an excellent enhanced widescreen presentation with sparkling color. Pay no attention to the squeezed videosample on the Archive site; the DVD doesn't look like that. Great tacky fun from one end to another, the film plays well even on a large monitor. Producer Michael Garrison's claim to fame, interestingly, was a successful TV series with its tongue firmly in its cheek -- The Wild Wild West.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Crowded Sky rates:
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