Sunday, January 18, 2015

No Highway in the Sky (1951)

No Highway in the Sky is one of the classic aviation adventure/disaster movies of the 1950s. This 20th Century-Fox production was made in England and it does have a very British feel to it.

The hero is Dr Theodore Honey (James Stewart), an eccentric American scientist working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Eccentric is perhaps not a strong enough word. Dr Honey is completely bonkers. He also happens to be a genius. He works in the metallurgy department and his current hobby horse is metal fatigue. Dr Honey has done some calculations and he has come to the conclusion that after 1440 hours the metal in the tail section of the new Rutland Reindeer passenger aircraft will become totally brittle and the entire tail section will fall off.

His superiors are inclined to be sceptical although his immediate boss Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) can’t help feeling somewhat worried. Although he shares the general view that Dr Honey is in most areas of life as mad as a hatter he respects Honey’s scientific abilities. He’s also come to regard the eccentric scientist with a certain amount of affection. He knows that when it comes to science Dr Honey deserves to be taken seriously.

The mild concern about Dr Honey’s theory becomes slightly more serious when it is pointed out that the prototype of the Reindeer crashed in Labrador in slightly mysterious circumstances. The two worrying things about the crash were the fact that the aircraft had in fact flown almost 1440 hours at the time of the accident, and the tail section was never found. There could be several reasons why the tail section was not located, but it could be because it had fallen off before the crash just as Dr Honey’s theory has predicted.

The people at the RAE have no wish to cause a panic or to lessen public confidence in British aviation but at the same time they are keenly aware of their responsibilities to the public. The matter has to be taken seriously. Dr Honey’s tests on a Reindeer tail section, intended to simulate the effects of 1440 hours flying time, are accelerated and Dr Honey is despatched to Labrador to try to find that missing tail section.

In one of life’s little ironies the aircraft on which Dr Honey is flying is a Reindeer. He’s never flown before and he’s pretty nervous but he’s not too worried since he’s been assured that none of the Reindeer aircraft in commercial service have flown anywhere near 1440 hours. Dr Honey, rather unexpectedly, strikes up two unlikely friendships on the flight. The first is with pretty young stewardess Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns). The second is with glamorous movie star Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich). Dr Honey is the sort of man who brings out the maternal instinct in women to a rather extreme degree.

With two women fussing over him the flight could have been quite pleasant if only the flight engineer had not revealed a very worrying piece of information - this particular Reindeer is actually the second prototype and it has amassed a considerable number of flying hours in test flights. In fact it has flown approximately 1440 hours already. Which means that if Dr Honey is right that tail section could fall off at any moment. Dr Honey is a man with few social skills but underneath his dithering and helpless exterior there is a surprising degree of steely determination. He is not going to sit back and allow the plane to crash without trying to do something about it. It’s not his own life he’s particularly concerned about. He just can’t bear the thought that if the aircraft crashes Monica Teasdale will be killed. And his admiration for the actress borders on worship. He also can’t bear the idea that the pretty young stewardess who has been so kind to him would be killed. He must do something. What he eventually does so is unconventional to say the least, and not the sort of thing that mild-mannered scientists from the Royal Aircraft Establishment generally do.

This movie rather neatly balances a scientific suspense story with human drama. That the human drama angle works so well is largely due to the splendid performances. James Stewart is in full-on nutty professor mode but being James Stewart he also manages to give Dr Honey a surprising dignity. It is at times a truly funny performance but our laughs are tempered with respect and affection for this odd but rather likeable man. Marlene Dietrich combines cynical amusement with genuine warmth in a way that only Dietrich could. Dietrich could have made Monica a stereotypical glamorous movie star but she doesn’t, and instead she makes Monica just as quirky and odd in her own way as Theodore Honey. Underneath the glamour she’s a rather kind-hearted soul although she’s smart enough to realise that as a movie star she’s well advised not to let that part of her character become too obvious.

Glynis Johns is equally good, wisely eschewing sentimentality. Jack Hawkins is good but under-utilised. Especially impressive is Janette Scott as Honey’s 12-year-old daughter Elspeth. Elspeth is very bit as odd and socially challenged as her father but their mutual devotion is touching without being sentimentalised.

The relationship between Honey and the two women is handled in an interesting manner. It’s not a conventional romantic triangle although there is a romantic angle to it. The interactions between the two women are particularly interesting, The temptation to add an element of cattiness must have been overwhelming but it’s resisted. Monica and Marjorie, despite being very different women, can’t help liking and respecting each other. There’s some tension but they’re both grown-ups and they deal with it.

The fact that there is no such aircraft as a Rutland Reindeer necessitated the use of special effects for the flying sequences. On the whole they work well, apart from the take-off and landing sequences which look very iffy.

The movie was based on the bestselling novel by Nevil Shute, an author now largely forgotten but immensely popular in 1951. Henry Koster directed, and very competently.

Fox’s made-on-demand DVD offers a very satisfactory transfer without any extras.

No Highway in the Sky is, along with Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, one of the three great aviation adventure movies of the 50s. It’s great entertainment and the offbeat but excellent acting performances add additional interest. Highly recommended.

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