Monday, April 18, 2011

Reeling Backward: "No Highway in the Sky" (1951)

"No Highway in the Sky" was an early progenitor of the disaster flick genre, and quite possibly the first film ever made about a commercial airliner in peril. A quarter-century later, this sort of thing would become fodder for a movie-going public with a ferocious appetite for things that crash, burn, erupt or sink. Of course, then came the inevitable "Airplane" spoofs, followed by the whole thing coming full circle with modern plane disasters like "Red Eye," "Air Force One" and "Flightplan."

The latter picture most resembles "No Highway in the Sky," in that it's about a socially awkward scientist trying to convince everyone that the airplane is unsafe and must turn back, immediately. No captain every follows this advice, at least in the movies.

I imagine the film was quite bothersome to the nascent commercial airline companies when it came out in 1951, especially with that title explicitly contrasting the safety of the American highway to the dangerous, untested machines hurtling through the air. Within a few years flying would surpass driving as the preferred -- and safest -- mode of long-distance transportation. 

Jimmy Stewart plays Theodore Honey, a British scientist -- with a curiously absent English accent -- working for a large airline company, the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This is not exactly a plausible-sounding name for a real company, but then "No Highway in the Sky" is a pretty awful-sounding title, too. The film is based on the book by Nevil Shute, adapted for the screen by R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel, and helmed by journeyman director Henry Koster.

Honey is a widower who lives alone with his 12-year-old daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott), wears only one suit and can't remember the number of the apartment where he has lived for the past eight years. It's the classic cinematic genius archetype, his head so filled with physics and high-end mathematics that the mundane challenges of the workaday world leave him baffled.

Honey is running an experiment about the reliability of the tail section of the new "Reindeer" propeller airliner. He's convinced that metal fatigue will cause the tail to fall off after 1,440 hours of flight time, based on his calculations. One Reindeer already crashed under mysterious circumstances, and Honey is sure it was the tail section that caused it.

His experiment involves shaking a Reindeer tail in a laboratory to see if it'll snap off. Unfortunately, he's only allowed to run the vibrating machine for eight hours a day, due to noise complaints from the neighbors. It seems like Honey's only function is waiting around in that vast hangar, hoping the tail will split off.

He's recruited by a new forward-thinking company executive (Jack Hawkins) to fly out to the site of the Reindeer that crashed. Honey resists at first, saying that scientists must concern themselves with facts and not be swayed by the emotional factor of human lives and relationships. Indeed, Honey had not even told anyone about his theory that the tail sections will fall off until the exec questioned him about his work.

Honey has, in fact, never even flown on a plane before -- I enjoyed Stewart's gangly crab-walk up the boarding stairs, like a man suddenly plopped on the moon and told to traverse the foreign landscape. In fact, well into the flight he learns that the plane is in fact a Reindeer, and one of the oldest ones with more than 1,400 hours of flight time.

Honey appeals to the captain to turn back -- we already know how that ruena out -- and then turns his attentions to two women aboard the flight. Marjorie (Glynis Johns), a young and helpful stewardess (don't bark, that's what they called them then) tries to control the situation of a passenger causing a panic. The other is Monica Teasdale, played by the great Marlene Dietrich, a famous movie star. Because Honey's deceased wife adored Teasdale's pictures, he tries to warn her about their impending doom. The actress at first is put off by this strange man, but then puts faith in his analytical mind. When the plane lands without incident, though, she dismisses him.

Dietrich's character is really unessential to the story, but having her around jazzes things up. Dietrich -- 50 years old and without a line on her iconic face -- has a mesmerizing effect on any film, and her presence is used to good effect here.

Honey sabotages the plane by pulling up the landing gear while it's grounded, causing it to collapse and be destroyed. The last third or so of the movie is concerned with the aftershocks of this incident, in which Honey is accused of insanity and ineptitude. In an unlikely turn of events, Marjorie comes to live with Honey and his daughter, taking care of them during his travails.

The plot is pretty contrived hokum, even by the standards of a nascent airline industry that was uncharted territory for 1951 audiences. In the end, of course, Honey is proved right all along and vindicated.

The airline honchos, played by Hawkins and Ronald Squires, seem awfully accommodating to an oddball egghead whose ideas are threatening a major blow to their company's reputation and financial standing. As the inquiry commences and the pressure mounts, they're shown to be firmly in Honey's corner, if trying not to be too obvious about it. Perhaps my own encounters with the corporate world of late have left me cynical, but I doubt men in their position would be doing anything other than frantically covering their own tail sections.

I should note that the airplane is a model, both in its ground scenes and in the air, and not very convincing in either case. When Honey collapses the Reindeer, part of the engine tears open to reveal a hollow wooden frame. The passenger compartment and especially the cockpit are laughably cavernous -- the pilot and co-pilot are joined by no less than three other officers working their own stations along a corridor between the pilots' seats and the passenger cabin.

"No Highway in the Sky" is notable for its nascent depiction of both airline travel and disaster film dynamics. Unfortunately, it's not very skilled at executing either one.

2 stars out of four

1 comment:

  1. The Royal Aircraft Establishment, was not an Airline company, but a British research establishment, known by several different names during its history, that eventually came under the aegis of the UK Ministry of Defence, before finally losing its identity in mergers with other institutes