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Star James Stewart is quoted as saying that when he returned from the war, he wasn't sure if he would continue to be an actor. Gone five solid years, he soon bounced back, with the unevenly received It's a Wonderful Life, the solid noir hit Call Northside 777 and a series of so-so pictures. But his career really took off with 1950's Winchester '73. His agent-partner Lew Wasserman brokered a deal that made Stewart a free agent commanding a percentage of most acting jobs. From then on it was top productions at whatever studio wanted him. He was free to continue making westerns with Anthony Mann and to make himself available for three more major productions with Alfred Hitchcock.
Fox enticed Stewart to England for 1951's No Highway in the Sky, a thriller with an aviation theme that surely found favor with Stewart, at that time (I believe) a full colonel in the Air Force. Australian author Nevil Shute (A Town Like Alice, On the Beach) referenced his experience as an aeronautical engineer and pilot to write his 1948 book No Highway. Fox's production utilizes top English talent, supporting American stars Stewart and Marlene Dietrich with an all-Brit cast. Experienced but un-heralded Fox workhorse director Henry Koster proves the 'anti-auteur' theory: the show may not express the director's personal themes, yet is an expertly filmed entertainment, with a witty script, taut suspense and moving sentiments.
England's Rutland aviation establishment is humming with new jet designs, including a fancy new turbojet luxury passenger plane called the Reindeer. New executive Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) gets the full tour, and meets engineer-researcher Theodore Honey (James Stewart), an absent-minded but brilliant metallurgist working on theories concerning metal fatigue. Indulged by the front office, Honey is doing vibration tests on the tail section of a Reindeer to see whether its exotic alloy will fracture under prolonged stress, an event he says should occur at around 1440 hours. The front office is indulging Honey's test just to be thorough -- Reindeer passenger flights have just begun. One experimental plane did crash in Labrador, so Honey is dispatched to aid in the examination of the crashed plane's tail section, should it be found. Only when already in the sky does Honey realize that he's flying in a Reindeer... which has already logged over 1400 hours. Honey's understandable concern causes a lot of tension on board. Captain Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis) doesn't know how seriously to take Honey's rather frenzied warnings, and radios London for instructions. Passenger Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich) becomes concerned and begins hours of close discussion with Honey, who despite his odd behavior seems to know what he's talking about. Keeping things calm is stewardess Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns). The awkward savant appears to stimulate her maternal instincts. (More on the plotline below.)
The film of Shute's 'cracking good yarn' stimulates the mind like a good science fiction story. Its emphasis on technical matters at times brings to mind a science fiction film, and not only because the Reindeer comes off as a futuristic luxury plane, a wishful-thinking cozy haven complete with a casual lounge and a full kitchen, where all seats are First Class. Writers R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel have fashioned a well-rounded thriller that's also a balanced entertainment. Author Shute worked backwards from the situation of a 'boffin' realizing he's on an aircraft that might break in pieces at any moment. The premise raises issues of personal and social responsibility with new technology. Is the aircraft company negligent if unforeseen flaws show up in their planes? How much safety research is enough? Theodore Honey says that he can't be concerned about human lives in his work, as he chases down his private theory about metal decomposition due to vibration. If his work proves to be a benefit, fine, but company policy is somebody else's job. The movie plays as if meant to boost the British aircraft industry and promote air travel, but I'm not sure this film would make people feel at all safe, at least not on a new airplane. As it turns out, Nevil Shute's specific safety concerns have been vindicated again and again. Just a few years later, the commercial airliner De Havilland Comet was diagnosed as having serious metal fatigue problems, after three of them broke up in mid-flight.
James Stewart's Theodore Honey is a classic oddball professor, the kind that's incapable of finding his own doorway twice in a row. He's written to be endearing but Stewart overloads him with cute performance mannerisms, including an irregular walk. Stewart plays it serious, telegraphing the idea that he's really sensible deeper inside. But he uses all the reactions of a stage comedian, shaking his head like a confused fuddy-duddy. But when Honey warns the captain or presses a serious issue with Dietrich or Johns, he comes off as very attuned to emotional communication. Stewart was a supremely effective actor-communicator despite a limited repetoire of acting styles. When worrying about imminent death, he chews his knuckles as George Bailey did when contemplating suicide. When he looks at his daughter Elspeth, the warm and loving George Bailey is definitely trying to get out. Theodore Honey is an addled brainiac AND a tender soul perfectly able to interact with his peers and loved ones. As the filmmakers needed this kind of character to interest audiences not wanting a lesson in aircraft science, it makes sense to play up the dotty professor angle. Written into the script is an obligatory James Stewart scene that occurs in several Capra films as well as Call Northside 777. Honey interrupts a meeting and tells off the executives with fiery oratory, before storming out in a loud but polite rage. It It makes for a good scene, even if James Stewart is adding to his Greatest Hits in Overplaying. If you love Jimmy Stewart, no harm is done.
By 1950 Marlene Dietrich's film career had slowed down considerably, although the double whammy of Witness for the Prosecution and Touch of Evil was still in her future. No Highway in the Sky is one of her better pictures. Her movie star Monica Teasdale is just wonderful -- vain but not ridiculous, a working professional who knows how to deal with all kinds of men. Teasdale sizes Honey up as 100% sincere, and is impressed that he stands behind his professional judgment, no matter what. Dietrich also looks great. They keep telling us that the actress had an earthy side, but I have a feeling that passengers on a plane would see basically what we see here.
We immediately fall in love with the endearing Glynis Johns. Stewardess Marjorie's sweet manner and delicate voice win us over at once. Ms. Johns underplays magnificently, supporting Stewart's exaggerated reactions. In the film's third act she makes the film her own. Stepping in to fix everything, she's the one to put Honey's life in order, including the problems of his sweet daughter. Johns looks good in her little Reindeer cap and is funny when she offers to wear her nurse's uniform so the neighbors won't talk too much. The censors probably overlooked the potential cohabiting arrangement on the basis that Theodore seems so completely sexless.
The British cast performs as if auditioning for bigger-paying Hollywood work. We forget that big names like Jack Hawkins and Glynis Johns were not yet international stars at this time. The only difference I can see between this show and a straight English production is that some of the actors slow their speech and avoid dialects, to help out us thick-eared Yanks. The impressive line-up of familiar faces includes Niall MacGuinnes (Curse of the Demon) as the no-nonsense pilot, and a young Kenneth More as his co-pilot. The main executive at Rutland is Ronald Squire. He first dismisses Honey's work, then is ready to have him hanged, and finally sits like a one of Frank Capra's 'Granpa' figures, smiling quietly at Honey's principled outburst.
Almost everyone else we see is an established personality -- Felix Aylmer, Maurice Denham, Wilfrid Hyde-White have just a few lines each. Elizabeth Allan is in maybe three shots as Jack Hawkins' wife. The same goes for Dora Bryan, the barmaid. Someone must have liked her in Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol. Finishing off the cast is young Janette Scott as Elspeth, Honey's precocious, adorable daughter. Even if her voice is dubbed, this is the best thing I've seen from the future star of Day of the Triffids and Crack in the World. Although Honey does his best, Elspeth is dying for some womanly guidance.
The show is dramatic and exciting even with the somewhat predictable James Stewart character. The screenwriters dropped some ideas from Shute's book that I don't think are missed. A Cold War sidebar had the Russians getting involved because one of their Ambassadors was killed in the plane crash in Labrador. And Elspeth plays some kind of supernatural game, to come up with a clue to finding the crashed plane's tail section. This movie has special relevance today, in reference to an action by Professor Honey that, in real life, might be called terrorism. My synopsis above doesn't get even halfway through the storyline. If you've seen the movie, you'll know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't I wouldn't want to ruin what is a BIG spoiler. So I've continued my explanation in a footnote. 1
The film's special effects are very good aside from a couple of dodgy traveling mattes of the plane taking off. The design of the Reindeer is a little screwy, with a two-tiered tail stabilizer that looks like a scimitar. I'll bet that the producers were warned to make sure that the plane did not resemble any real aircraft in operation. It looks as though a real turbojet was altered to serve as a giant full-sized prop. Its cockpit interior has a polished wooden instrument panel, like an old Jaguar car. This realism really pays off for the movie, in thatsceneIcan'ttellyouabout.
No Highway in the Sky is a rewarding thriller with endearing characters and a unique premise. It also encourages deeper thought about people that take great risks to do the right thing, even if they might be judged as Ibsen-like Enemies of the People. Who takes responsibility for anything anymore?
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of No Highway in the Sky is a happy surprise. The transfer is excellent in all respects. Old TV prints were dull, with the audio on the rough side. This is crystal clear in both picture and sound.
An original trailer is included. It looks very exciting, and wisely avoids giving away any spoilers. I'm told that the film was a respectable hit in 1951 but not an earth-shaker. Was the technical aviation aspect a turn-off for potential audiences? The specific review disc is part of a three-title package identified as a "James Stewart" collection, but only on the discs themselves. The other two titles are 1950's Jackpot (B&W, flat) and 1963's Take Her, She's Mine (color, CinemaScope). Neither of the transfers looks new. Jackpot is weak and soft, and Take Her, She's Mine is flat-letterboxed, not enhanced.
Beware: Fox has already released No Highway in the Sky as a standalone in 2013 but I don't know if it is the same remastered transfer. It's possible that it is, because a) I haven't heard of the Cinema Archives program remastering anything that's already out, and b) the new disc, even with a new label, carries a 2013 date. If I get more info I'll post it both here and on the DVD Savant front-page column. Perhaps a reader has the older disc and can let us know?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
No Highway in the Sky rates:
1. This is the big SPOILER. The Reindeer plane safely makes it to its first stop in Gander, which convinces Captain Samuelson that Theodore Honey is a crackpot. When Samuelson decides to take the Reindeer on the next leg of its flight, Honey sneaks on board and wrecks it by hitting a lever that makes the landing gear fold up as it sits on the ground. It's an unprecedented act of sabotage-vandalism. The rest of the movie sees poor Honey being assailed as insane, while various characters try to defend him. (This of course mirrors the conflict in several Frank Capra films). The aircraft company puts Honey's vibration test on the Reindeer tail section on a 24-hour basis. Nobody will fly on a Reindeer unless Rutland announces that the plane-wrecking was the work of a madman. Yet the people we like -- Honey, Marjorie, Elspeth, Monica Teasdale and Dennis Scott -- don't know what to think when the test passes way beyond Honey's 1440-hour fail prediction mark, with the Reindeer tail remaining intact.
In our increasingly technological world, this kind of moral and ethical dilemma happens all the time. Who are we to believe when a dispute comes up over the safety of airplanes, cars, medicines? If the Reindeer incident causes the public to lose faith in the British Aviation industry, the economic impact on England might be severe. The pressure to okay iffy work is bad enough when lives are not at stake, but we've seen plenty of examples of gross negligence on activities that threaten lives and even the whole environment -- the BP Oil Spill, for example, or the controversy over fracking. It's all about money and politics, of course. The 1986 Challenger Disaster occurred because Morton Thiokol engineers were pressured to keep quiet about bad seals on rocket fuel tanks.
My father was a flight line maintenance supervisor for twenty years, and he spent countless hours inspecting Air Force planes for 'stress fatigue'. He had to go back to school and learn about metallurgy to qualify to spot defects. If he had the slightest doubt about a part he'd reject it, and so grounded planes all the time. But he had a flawless safety record. Commanding officers competed for his services. I think Dad would have a hard time functioning in the commercial market, where maintenance men are likely pressured to cut corners all the time.
Certain that he's right and everybody else is wrong, Honey commits an act of million-dollar sabotage to save lives. Hooray! In real life, if everyone 'took a stand' like his over every political controversy, society would come to a standstill. I personally think that school buses should be a lot safer. Should I sabotage a dozen of them to make a statement? What about Greenpeace and animal rights activists, who are often labeled as terrorists?
No Highway in the Sky is the exception because Honey is an engineer dealing with hard facts: the airplane's tail will either fall off or it won't. He's lucky that the evidence upholds his theories in such a dramatic way. But a lot has happened since 1951 -- a huge chunk of America is rejecting science outright, even as they enjoy its benefits.. Some reject basic medical policy, jeopardizing the general health.
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T'was Ever Thus.