Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Tonight's Movie: No Highway in the Sky (1951)

NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY is an unexpected little gem of a movie with an unusual storyline, a sharply written script, and excellent performances.

Theodore Honey (James Stewart) is an American-born scientist who has lived in England for many years, where he works on airline safety. Mr. Honey is the proverbial eccentric absent-minded professor type, a widower whose life consists solely of his work and raising his young daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) -- although one wonders who is raising who as Elspeth tries to keep their home life in order.

Mr. Honey develops a theory that a new type of airplane will suffer metal fatigue after a certain number of hours in flight, which will cause the plane's tail to fall off. While en route to a plane crash site in Canada to research his theory, Mr. Honey suddenly realizes that the plane he's flying on is in danger of the very same structural failure. He struggles to convince the crew that they must land as soon as possible, but despite the fact that he is an airline employee, they view him as an odd crank. The only people on the plane interested in listening to Mr. Honey for any length of time are a skeptical film star (Marlene Dietrich) and a kind stewardess (Glynis Johns).

This is a very different movie in many ways, starting with the fact that 20th Century-Fox made the film in England with a largely British cast. The storyline is quite unusual, and Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Honey is a unique character. Stewart often played innocents and gentle bumblers but in this film he takes that type of characterization to a new height, so to speak.

The script is excellent, injecting nice bits of humor, suspense, and character development along the way. Ronald Squire as Sir John, the frazzled airline director, is marvelously funny, and despite the pressures he is under, he doesn't descend into being a cliched, unsympathetic cartoon character villain but retains his patience with the eccentric scientist.

Indeed, the writers didn't take the easy way out with their characterizations; the characters are fully rounded and human. For instance, little Elspeth may be very smart and responsible, but it's clear that Mr. Honey is oblivious to the fact that he hasn't allowed her to be a normal child; he may be brilliant, but he's at a loss to handle real life.

I usually don't care for Marlene Dietrich, truth be told, but I liked her in this quite well. As movie star Monica Teasdale, Dietrich is less mannered (and less mannish), quieter, and more sympathetic than in her other films I've seen. (She just about ruined A FOREIGN AFFAIR for me.) This was a nice reunion for Stewart and Dietrich, a dozen years after they costarred in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939).

Glynis Johns (recently seen by me in MIRANDA) is charming as Marjorie, the stewardess who takes care of Mr. Honey in more ways than one. Although skeptical of his theory, Marjorie sees past Mr. Honey's odd exterior to the caring, dedicated man inside, who stands by what he believes even if others think he's a loon. Marjorie also helps encourage him to break out of his reserved shell and not retreat when his tests don't initially go as expected.

The cast also includes Jack Hawkins, Elizabeth Allan, Jill Clifford, Felix Aylmer, and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

20th Century-Fox released this film in the UK several months ahead of the United States release. The UK title is simply NO HIGHWAY.

The film runs 98 minutes. It was directed by the underrated Henry Koster, a studio system craftsman who had a knack for turning out entertaining movies, ranging from several of Deanna Durbin's best films to the Christmas classic THE BISHOP'S WIFE (1947) to the James Stewart film which immediately preceded NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY, HARVEY (1950).

NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY was released on VHS. It does not appear to have had a release on DVD. TCM has a page where viewers can vote their interest in a DVD release.

This film is regularly shown on Fox Movie Channel. Its next airdates are June 24 and 25, as well as July 1 and 31, 2010. I very much recommend setting your recorder for this interesting, entertaining film.

13 Comments:

Blogger Gordon Pasha said...

Dear Laura:

Nice review. But I could not help feeling there was a rabbit on the plane, and knowing that – that the cast would all be safe. We cannot have Pooka’s falling from the sky.

And it is comforting to know that even you and I can differ from time to time. Marlene Dietrich is high on my list and I am pleased that you have come around to her a bit – at least in this film. Her daughter has told us that Marlene was not enthralled with the movie but at least had kind words about Glynis Johns “on and off the set”.

Henry Koster also told us that Marlene did not care for the film. A quick aside on Koster, who I agree did good work. There is a chapter on him in Ronald L. Davis’s “Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System”, which I suspect you have (I assume you have everything). It is the first chapter and it is in interview format. Thank you again.

Gerald

6:39 AM  
Blogger KC said...

Funny, I just picked up the VHS of this flick from the library yesterday. I don't know what inspired me to reserve it, but now I'm definitely more curious to see it.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Gerald! Your note cracked me up. :) I always enjoy hearing other "takes," that's what makes the world go 'round. Saw in an IMDb comment that young Janette Scott had nice things to say about how helpful Dietrich was to her.

Believe it or not (grin), this is a Ronald Davis book I hadn't heard of, despite how much I enjoy his work...but while I don't have everything, I do have a lot of help in that regard. My father just emailed me that he'd read your comment and this book is in his library; he'd forgotten about it, so he appreciated your reminder, and I'll be making it a point to read it in the future! He describes it as including a number of directors I enjoy including Charles Walters, Henry Hathaway, and George Sidney.

Thanks!

Best wishes,
Laura

10:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

KC, if you have time I'd very much enjoy hearing what your impressions are of the film. It's quite different!

Best wishes,
Laura

10:22 AM  
Blogger la peregrina said...

This is one of my most favorite movies. How could it not be, it has airplanes. ;)

Like you I am not a big fan of Marlene Dietrich but I do like her in this and in the movies Destry Rides Again, Shanghai Express, and The Blue Angel.

She is another one of those 1930's women movie stars who hardened as she got older. I don't know why this happened but by the 1950's some of them, including her, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis were no longer vulnerable human beings but walking, talking statutes. I can't explain it any better, I just know they terrified as a child.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Glad to hear from you, La Peregrina, and that you liked the movie.

Your comment about a few actresses "hardening" rings true for me. My first exposure to Joan Crawford was at neighbors' houses when they watched things like I SAW WHAT YOU DID and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (scary movies I would never have turned on myself at home...) and she terrified me.

I have since acquired a liking for the earlier years of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's careers, but I'm not sure that interest goes past the early to mid '50s.

Best wishes,
Laura

5:27 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

Laura, I'm curious why you don't care for Marlene Dietrich because I have never cared for her either. I wonder if it's for the same reasons...

9:17 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Dana,

Pretty much for the reasons I alluded to in my post...with apologies to her fans (grin), I usually find her boring, mannered, and not feminine enough. I simply don't enjoy watching her most of the time -- so her performance in this was a nice surprise. She was the opposite of my complaints above.

And you? :)

Best wishes,
Laura

9:28 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

I think she was dull. No spark to interest me and no depth to pull me in. She seemed bored with life and like it was a great inconvenience to her to have to act in yet one more role.

When I think of her, I'm reminded of Barbara Stanwyck - somewhat masculine, same sort of voice and lots of hard edges...

5:15 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi again Dana,

Interesting feedback on Dietrich. One of the things that I found so bizarre in A FOREIGN AFFAIR was her "singing" in a dull monotone. I didn't get it at all. Like you said, she seemed bored, and in turn was often boring.

Stanwyck's another one I didn't like for many years, being mainly familiar with her from her TV roles from the '60s on. Now that I've seen her in films from the '30s and '40s I like her earlier work.

It's kind of odd too to realize that Hollywood prematurely "aged" women in terms of their hairstyles, etc., but not men. Stanwyck wasn't all that attractive onscreen from the '50s on. (Earlier she was really lovely.) She was only in her mid '40s in the early 1950s yet all of a sudden she had this matronly short silver haircut which aged her considerably. She's not the only actress we wouldn't think of as "old" in modern terms who was made to look old by the fashions and hairstyles of the time considered appropriate for women "of a certain age."

Best wishes,
Laura

5:22 PM  
Blogger Gordon Pasha said...

Dear Laura,

Ah, my poor Marlene. I wish she were here with her penguin suit, so that I might comfort her. I was a soldier in peacetime Germany in 1958 and 1959 and there were still vestiges of the war (e.g., bombed out buildings and persons without limbs) but, unfortunately, there was no Marlene. And certainly no congress person who looked and spoke like Jean Arthur. I had the file cabinets but, alas, they were used for filing.

Gerald

6:09 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

Laura, you're right - women were intentionally pre-maturely aged...I'm not sure why it was the fashionable thing to do with the stars but I also notice when looking at old photos even of my parents while in their 20's, still looked much more mature than I or my contemporaries did while in our 20's. It's funny...

10:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

What a shame there was no Jean Arthur visiting when you were there, Gerald! Or, for your sake, Marlene. :)

Best wishes,
Laura

11:13 PM  

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