Joseph H. Lewis, who had previously helmed admired titles such as MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945) and GUN CRAZY (1950).
Howard Keel, in a straight dramatic role, plays Vince Heldon, a charter pilot in the wilderness of British Columbia. As the film opens, Heldon and his second wife, Julie (Jane Greer), regretfully must put Vince's children (Lee Aaker and Linda Lowell) on a plane to return to their mother in San Francisco at the end of the children's six-week summer vacation.
The small plane carrying the children has a fire and goes down before it can reach its scheduled stop in Seattle. Vince's ex-wife Nora (Patricia Medina), also a pilot, arrives to aid in the search for the plane and learn her children's fate. Nora's presence in a situation already fraught with deep anxiety brings old wounds to the surface and causes Julie to fear not just for the children, but her marriage.
With a running time of 71 minutes, it's a compact, fast-moving story, although I didn't always find it easy to view, as I have difficulty watching children in peril. The sections of the movie featuring the children are also problematic as while Lee Aaker (TAKE ME TO TOWN, HONDO) was a very fine child actor, little Linda Lowell gives a one-note performance which consists mostly of screaming at the top of her lungs. Some restraint would have been welcome.
Keel acquits himself well, although he plays a fairly dark character; given what we learn of his drinking after his split from Nora, one wonders just a bit what Julie saw in him, other than the fact that he's a very handsome man!
Greer is warm and sympathetic as Keel's supportive wife and the children's loving stepmother, while Medina seems a bit too showy at times; her character is supposed to be a flamboyant pilot who can't give up competing with her ex, but moments such as when she initially steps out of her plane were just a tad overdone. Medina is at her most interesting when arguing with both Greer and Keenan Wynn, who's very good as Keel's loyal righthand man.
The movie is mainly set outdoors, mixing location shots with studio or backlot filming. There are a few obvious background projection or soundstage shots, but for the most part the movie effectively conveys an authentic sense of the rugged outdoors.
All in all, the movie has the bones of a good story, told with a solid cast and good production values, but it could have spent more time on character development and less on screaming children.
MGM's '50s contractees Elaine Stewart and Jeff Richards have small roles; Stewart is the stewardess on the ill-fated plane and Richards is a mechanic who works on Medina's plane. The following year, Richards and Stewart were a romantic team in a good "B" movie, CODE TWO (1953), which also starred Keenan Wynn.
Patricia Medina is now 91. She was married for a decade to actor Richard Greene and then enjoyed a happy, long-running marriage to actor Joseph Cotten, which ended with his passing in 1994. It's been a number of years since I read it, but her memoir LAID BACK IN HOLLYWOOD: REMEMBERING was entertaining.
DESPERATE SEARCH is not on VHS or DVD, but it can be seen on Turner Classic Movies.
April 2012 Update: DESPERATE SEARCH is now available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive.