After his service in the war James Stewart returned to the movies, thoroughly reinventing his persona from amiable leading man – albeit, occasionally losing the girl to some other stud du jour on the back lot – to channel a charming variation of the absent-minded professor, herein as Theodore Honey, a befuddled scientist in Henry Koster’s No Highway in the Sky (1951). The screenplay, gingerly nursed by Alec Coppel, Oscar Millard and R. C. Sherriff is based on Nevil Shute’s best-selling novel, ‘No Highway’; Shute’s virtuosity distinguished by his common thread of dignity, paying as much consideration to the upper classes as to the heroics of this splendid ‘boffin’ who insists, despite any definitive proof beyond his own mathematical computations, that the newly inaugurated fleet of Rutland Reindeer airliners all suffer from a similar design flaw; and, that the one he is currently traveling on to investigate the wreckage of another Reindeer, will succumb to a fatal metal fatigue, comparable to the fate that claimed all lives on board another ill-timed flight bound for Labrador. Honey’s calculations are fixed: once the Reindeer reaches 1440 hours of flying it is prone to fail.
Of course no one, from Reindeer’s Director, Sir John (Ronald Squires) to newly elected company metallurgist, Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins), to the plane’s rather caustic captain, Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis); right on through to empathetic stewardess, Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns) and the uber-glamorous actress – and fellow passenger, Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich) pay Honey much mind. Nevertheless, Monica and Marjorie at least find the dotty bugger engaging. Moreover, they are more inclined to believe Honey once he has had the opportunity to opine his theory to them about metal fatigue causing the other Reindeer’s tail to suddenly fall off. Despite his misgivings, even Samuelson takes heed of the forewarning; cutting power to two engines to cut down on unnecessary vibrations. Author, Nevil Shute, who was himself an aeronautical engineer long before he became an award-winning novelist, might have been on to something in his own creative computations. For only six years after the publication of his best seller (three after the movie’s debut), the world’s first commercial passenger airliner, the de Havilland Comet, suffered similar metal fatigue in flight, albeit in its fuselage, resulting in two fatal midair disasters.
Knowing this today only adds to the authenticity of No Highway in the Sky. The picture was made for a little over a cool million and shot, with exceptions, in England; cobbling together scenes photographed back at Fox, chiefly lensed inside their cavernous sound stages. Despite its unusual plot construction – at least, for its time (the movie begins in the middle of an investigation into the first fatal crash, with Honey ensconced in a noisy wind tunnel at the Royal Aircraft Establishment factory, conducting his pressurized experiments under the miserly duress of occasionally being asked to explain his research to those who otherwise fail to appreciate his purpose) and ends not with another disaster or even a daringly achieved rescue of all on board, but instead, a delayed (and almost never to happen) exoneration of Honey’s meticulous calculations; the test subject tail fin in his pressurized hanger eventually succumbing to the rigors of artificially-induced wind shear. Viewed from our more forgiving attitudes today towards accepting movies that neither begin at the beginning nor end where most critics and audiences alike would concur that they should, No Highway in the Sky is a minor revelation; progressive, even, and compelling theater besides with some expertly played, and even more niftily concocted scenes loosely strung together; unearthing ‘drama’ in the everyday and concentrating most effectively on the humanity in these all too fallibly formed relationships.
There is something richly rewarding about the seemingly innocuous friendship that blossoms between Marjorie and Monica; women of disparate backgrounds who come together in support of Honey’s theory, and, even more important, side in the gentle rearing of Honey’s daughter, Elspeth (Janette Scott, utterly magnificent as the ingénue, possessing sage wisdom well beyond her years), ostensibly orphaned after the death of Honey’s wife because her father seems oblivious as to how emotionally fragile she truly is; even smart girls have hearts. And Elspeth in her own mature way has dutifully undertaken to look after her father in her mother’s stead, setting aside her own wants and needs to please her father. Increasingly, it is this triad of strong-willed, tender-hearted females who take precedent as the ‘hidden figures’ in a man’s world; one man in particular, destined to reshape that world even as his own contributions to them must pale to the benefits derived from the future safety precautions his research will put into play, benefiting all who dare place their lives in the care of pilots flying higher and higher into the wild blue yonder. And Glynis Johns and Marlene Dietrich uncannily strike the perfect chord in womanly suffrage and self-sacrifice; exactly the sorts of role models Elspeth should have in lieu of a real mother’s love. While No Highway in the Sky is undeniably a star vehicle for James Stewart, it is immeasurably blessed to have such distinguished company at his side. And Stewart is magnanimous to a fault, allowing the rest of the cast their moments to shine; from Jack Hawkins’ sublime tenderness at meeting Elspeth, empathetic to her loneliness almost from the very first awkward moment of their introduction, to Wilfred Hyde-White’s all too brief cameo as stern Mr. Fisher, the brass tacks Inspector of Accidents.
It is really no surprise to find James Stewart on such lovably obtuse ground, having arguably tested for the part a full year earlier, playing the thoroughly pixelated Elwood P. Dowd in another picture for Henry Koster; the effervescent, Harvey (1950). Elwood and Theo are arguably first cousins. Each, as example, is scoffed at by the outside world for their assumptions and beliefs and both are exonerated in the end, proven as the genuine soothsayers of their respective times. Given the whimsy in James Stewart’s earlier performance, Theodore Honey, the aeronautics engineer he now portrays in No Highway in the Sky is a role tailor-made for the actor’s burgeoning brand of nonplused, doddering articulation. Oh, Honey’s alright so long as he stays within his mathematical computations. People? Well, they are an unknown quantity, too volatile to pigeon-hole with any degree of certainty. Hence, they lack a sense of security Honey only finds in his tabulations. Ironically, even these nearly betray him as the Reindeer mercifully fails to behave in-flight as Honey predicted. Alas, there is more at stake than Honey’s reputation after, in a bid to delay the Reindeer he suspects will fail at any moment and, that he has already managed to ground at Newfoundland’s Gander Airport, Honey next disables the plane for good by deliberately causing a mechanical failure on the tarmac, rendering it utterly useless for another takeoff. While Captain Samuelson is furious, Sir John and Mr. Scott discuss the very real possibility of institutionalizing Honey for his own safety, though moreover to save face publicly for the company.
Back on the ground, Elspeth, who possesses the people skills her father sorely lacks, is taken under Marjorie’s wing; Monica lavishing expensive gifts on the girl, but stopping short of becoming too attached for fear of…well, we are never entirely certain. As with virtually all her film performances, Marlene Dietrich brings a uniquely unsettling, sympathetic and sad-eyed caste to this portrait of a fur-lined fashion plate and super star, presumably sitting on top of the world, and yet, not jaded, either by her own successes or failures in life. Taking Honey’s claim at face value, the Reindeer they are flying on will fail at any moment, Dietrich’s movie queen muses that the only genuine loss to be gleaned from her death will result in her agent being unable to get his ten percent from now on. Yet, Monica now suffers from a residual and never entirely explained away sadness; shedding genuine tears before fatalistically resigning herself to a perilous farewell and plummet from the skies. The liquidity in Dietrich’s emotional gamut is an irreplaceable quality exclusive to her and only captured via observations of her uncanny acting prowess in front of the motion picture camera. In production stills it virtually evaporates; replaced by Dietrich the glamor queen, with those penciled in ‘double-arched’ brows and a glycerin look of aloof satisfaction pasted against her own modestly self-deprecating and immaculately groomed polish. If, as Joan Crawford once implies, she never learned to spell regret, then in Dietrich’s case, though particularly herein, she gifts us with unanticipated gentility, void of pity and teaming with piety; Monica Teasdale, of great character, massaged into gentler wounds of self-doubt she has learned to re-channel into basic acts of human kindness. At first superficially bemused by Honey’s claim their plane will crash (she thinks him a kook); then, briefly humiliated when his prophecy is unfulfilled, Dietrich carries off a towering performance from start to finish, exploring the subtlest reasons for her character’s deep and abiding respect for this ‘little man’ who praised the sincerity in her work as an actress; the highlight of the late Mrs. Honey’s movie-going experiences.
The other truly wonderful performance to tip our hats belongs, of course, to Glynis Johns – everyone’s favorite muddle-headed matriarch/suffragette from Mary Poppins (1964), but who herein acquits herself as an infinitely more embraceable and motherly backbone necessary, both to ingratiate her cumly stewardess into our hearts, but moreover, reveal itself as the main staple in salvaging both Honey and Elspeth’s father/daughter relationship in the future. Johns’ career has been one of the longest and most underrated – at least, in American movies – given to bouts of dotty charm and the occasional ribald one-liner in brief support for which she deftly knows her way around. But Johns is as adept, if not more, at playing the inspired ‘girl’ any man would give his right arm to come home to; forthright, charming and compassionate; besting the pack with her self-educated smarts. The distinctiveness of a Glynis Johns is lost on today’s Hollywood, more concerned with achieving a cookie-cutter persona for its starlets who look and act as though each were aspiring to nothing more or better than another carbon copy of the gal preceding them. Yet even in her day, Johns is unusual, and not just in her looks; those hard-boiled orbs oozing sentiment but never to digress into rank movie-land saccharine; her head, balloon-like and almost too big for its pedestal, adoringly mounted on a framework of forthrightness ready to roll up its sleeves and get down to business where the real heavy lifting begins. That she makes Marjorie’s sweetness subservient to a real thought process; compassionate, clever, intermingled as she takes up Honey’s cause on her own terms, results in one of the most richly rewarding moments in the movie; Marjorie’s jubilation upon learning the stress-tested tail fin in Honey’s laboratory has given way to the artificially induced barometer of pressure, thus sparing the man she has come to love the embarrassment of a very public dismissal – and worse – incarceration for inferred mental illness.
No Highway in the Sky begins with a revelation; that the tail fin of a recently downed Rutland Reindeer airliner was not among the wreckage discovered on a mountain side in Labrador. Honey, a widower with a 12 year old daughter, has been heatedly exploring his theory of metal fatigue inside an airplane hangar at the Royal Aircraft facility in Farnborough. He boldly suggests to his superiors, including Mr. Scott and the company’s director (John Lennox) that despite his lack of definitive proof the cause for the accident was likely not pilot error as initially reported, but the Reindeer’s tail breaking off in mid-flight, thus forcing it into a tailspin. Naturally, the company is unwilling to accept these findings without a more probative analysis of the crash site. And so, Honey is ushered off to Canada, as much to distance his idiosyncratic behaviors from the company he works for as to search for clues on their behalf. Never having been separated from his daughter, Honey nevertheless fails to acknowledge how deeply wounded Elspeth is by his decision to leave her behind. Reluctantly, Honey boards another Reindeer, eventually meant to deliver him to the crash site; instructing Scott to maintain 24hr. vigilance over his laboratory where another rear air frame is being artificially vibrated at a very high rate in daily eight-hour cycles.
Not until Honey is in flight does he realize the Reindeer hurtling across the sea is nearing the magic 1440 hrs. to absolute failure based on his computations. Desperate, Honey tries to convince Captain Samuelson to turn back for home. Alas, the Reindeer passes the point of no return over the Atlantic, safely making an emergency landing at Newfoundland’s Gander Airport. Before this, however, Honey befriends Hollywood actress, Monica Teasdale and stewardess, Marjorie Corder. Both are sympathetic to Honey’s nervous anxieties. Monica takes Honey more seriously perhaps; wounded in her faith in him when the plane actually lands without incident, and briefly believing Honey has sold her and the rest of the passengers a wrongfully motivated bill of goods. Indeed, a brief inspection clears the aircraft for immediate takeoff to continue on its scheduled route. Only now Captain Samuelson absolutely refuses to carry Honey one length further, believing him to be irrational and a damn nuisance besides. Monica is inclined to agree and Marjorie, while sympathetic, realizes she must continue, in spite of her belief Honey just might be right. So Honey takes drastic action; escaping his house arrest he sneaks back on board, activating the Reindeer's port undercarriage lever. The airliner drops to its belly on the tarmac, irreversibly damaged and unable to go on.
Still believing in Honey, Monica takes the first available flight back to England. She confronts Mr. Scott and Sir John on Honey’s behalf and suggests that if nothing else his belief in the Reindeer’s failure meant enough for Honey to jeopardize his own reputation to save every last passenger inconvenienced by his grand gesture. Amidst a litany of bad press the company’s President, Sir David Moon (Hugh Wakefield) attempts to have Honey’s sanity brought into question. After some consideration, Monica decides to leave for America. Having briefly entertained the notion of becoming more than just a passing interest in Honey’s life, she realizes how fervently Marjorie believes in Honey’s cause. Moreover, she is in love with him in a way that Monica is perhaps quite incapable to satisfy. After buying Elspeth some nice clothes, Monica departs, sadder but wiser, leaving Marjorie with instructions to help the girl realize her self-worth in more than her book-learned parlor games she used to play with her father. The testing on the mock-up of the Reindeer tail continues in Honey’s laboratory. However, as the hours go well beyond Honey’s initial prediction even he begins to doubt his hypothesis.
Marjorie encourages Honey to fight for his reputation. As it first appears Honey will do nothing to save himself, Marjorie threatens to return to her career, thus leaving him and Elspeth to revert to the way things used to be. Broken-hearted, Elspeth confesses to her father how much it has meant to have Monica and Marjorie’s kindnesses during these hours of tribulation. Honey realizes he cannot stand idly by while his life’s work is threatened by a charge of lunacy. So, at the board meeting he abruptly resigns, but not before threatening to commit more acts of sabotage on subsequent Reindeer flights before they can get off the ground, thereby saving the lives of all on board while ruining the company’s reputation in tandem; a threat Sir David takes very seriously. As Sir John and Mr. Scott prepare to depart for the day, news arrives by telegram that the newly refurbished Reindeer Honey had sabotaged barely completed its test flight when it suffered metal fatigue on the runway; its tail falling off. Rushing to Honey’s laboratory to relay the ‘good news’, Sir John also receives word from the first crash site: the tail was recovered several miles away, proving it detached from the plane in mid-flight. Just then, the test tail fin in Honey’s laboratory succumbs to similar fatigue. Honey takes notice of the temperature gauge hanging on the wall. He had forgotten to factor in ‘heat’; his calculations merely off my several hours because of this oversight; yet, his hypothesis as sound as ever. The picture concludes, rather abruptly, on smiling faces and Honey’s ebullient exoneration of committing an act of treason under mental duress.
For reasons inexplicable, No Highway in the Sky remains a movie rarely seen by the public. Indeed, a good many Fox movies were MIA on everyone’s radar for decades following their theatrical release. The reason then was quite simple – if nevertheless simplistic; the studio’s shortsightedness in conceiving any of their movies would have resale value once seen; particularly in the era before ‘home video’ had come of age. Yet, even after the VHS/LaserDisc revolution Fox films were curiously absent. For in the early 1970’s some well-intended, but thoroughly misguided studio exec made the decision to clear out Fox’s extensive archival warehouses and purge their un-air-conditioned archives. This shortsightedness was compounded by a grotesque measure; to literally dump all of these archival elements – save a poorly re-composited masters printed on Eastman Kodak stock – into the ocean; original nitrate negatives and virtually all of Fox’s Technicolor 3-strip elements…gone! Oh, I want to throw up!
No Highway in the Sky exists today in a mostly pleasing archival master, but with several reels from dupes instead of second generation prints. The results are jarring on this Blu-ray; after a crisp main title sequence, the first few reels reveal an extremely soft focused and poorly contrasted image; blurry in spots and with a decided loss of fine detail resulting. Mercifully, this loss of integrity only lasts for about 4 to 6 min. tops; the rest of this Blu-ray looking fairly sharp with good solid contrast and a light smattering of film grain properly preserved. When the image is tight, it is very good indeed. The middle section is marred by some light streaking and several instances of age-related scratches built into the print. There is also a light strobe/flicker effect. Let us be clear: nothing short of an extremely costly and ground-up digital restoration would have been able to correct these shortcomings. As money is always a deciding factor in how these things get done, Fox has instead elected to offer us a fairly competent transfer with the elements as they presently exist with presumably some marginal clean-up performed. The results, while hardly perfect, are nevertheless adequate for this presentation.
The audio is 2.0 mono and waffles from rather clean to exhibiting a slightly muffled characteristic. Nothing to really complain about, given the resources at arm’s length. Extras are limited to a thoroughly comprehensive audio commentary from Jeremy Arnold and Bob Koster; a holdover from the old DVD release; plus trailers for No Highway in the Sky and other Fox movies licensed through Kino Lorber. Bottom line: No Highway in the Sky is a memorable little gem that ought to have acquired more notoriety by now with the general public. You will not want to miss the solid script, acting and wonderful B&W cinematography from Georges Périnal, showing off Marlene Dietrich’s Christian Dior outfits – an exceptionally glamorous treat, indeed. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)