Wednesday, June 10, 2020

"The High and the Mighty" (1954) -- Initial Thoughts


You know what I'm a huge fan of?  Slow-burning, character-driven dramas.  Which is exactly with The High and the Mighty (1954) is.  It's also an early disaster movie, of the airplane-based variety that got very popular in the '50s.  Happily, it focuses more on the drama than the disaster.  Happily for me, anyway -- if you're in it for the pyrotechnics, this probably won't be your favorite.

Also happily, it stars John Wayne.  And quite a few other familiar faces too, like Claire Trevor, who co-starred with Wayne in his star-making film Stagecoach (1939).  She's got a small part here, but she makes the most of it, bringing warmth and humor and kindness slowly to the surface, letting her real self slowly outshine the brassy, brittle exterior she'd so carefully crafted.  I really wish she'd gotten more meaningful encounters with Wayne, as they shared such wonderful chemistry 15 years earlier.  But her character attracted a different man instead.

(Claire Trevor, deciding on a fellow passenger to keep her company.)

Paul Fix is here too -- the person who made more films with John Wayne than any other.  He's playing a sweet old man who says his bones are full of holes and his neck is too weak to hold his head high anymore, and yet he's a firm and steady anchor for several other characters who find themselves tottering under the weight of uncertainty.

(Paul Fix explaining pocket watches to the stewardess.)

I didn't know Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez was in this until he showed up on the screen, but I was so happy when he did!  He always plays just the most helpful characters.  Here, he got to play a really smart sailor who built his own radio -- he uses it to relay messages between the distressed airplane and the people trying to rescue them.

(Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez helping to save the day.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  So, the whole movie starts out on Hawaii as a crew prepares to take off for California.  We get to know just a smidge about some of the characters there, as they check in.  That was a totally fascinating part for me -- was it REALLY that easy to get on a plane in the '50s?  You just walked up, gave them your ticket, stated your name and date of birth, they cross-checked you with their passenger list, and you're hunkydory.  Unless they weren't certain you were a US citizen, in which case you had to go talk to people at another desk.  But wow.  Can you imagine that kind of world?

(Well, right now it's almost hard to remember a world where
we got to fly places on airplanes, but anyway...)

Right, so we get to know just a little about the pilot (Robert Stack) and co-pilot (John Wayne) before they take off.  We learn that the pilot is boring and we should ignore him, and that the co-pilot is very sad and haunted because of personal tragedy.  And he's been flying since 1917, which means he's like a decade older than Wayne was at the time because Wayne was only 10 in 1917.  But anyway.  He's supposed to be pretty long in the tooth for a commercial pilot, but he's kept on because he's so experienced.

(I mean, look how expertly he climbs those steps.)

Then up we go.  This movie starts out slowly, building interpersonal tension before any disasters strike.  We've got a lot of people to get to know.

(Some of them work on getting acquainted faster than others.)

There are newlyweds (Karen Sharpe and John Smith) who spend an awful lot of time making out -- they're on their way home from their honeymoon and worried about starting real life when they get back.  There's another couple (John Howard and Laraine Day) who are getting ready for a divorce because he wants to sell the advertising company her father left to her so he can buy a mine or something in Canada.

Then there's the jolly couple (Phil Harris and Ann Doran) who always look on the bright side of life, even when their vacation plans keep getting interrupted or derailed.  They try to cheer other people up a lot, but when disaster strikes, they learn whether or not their optimism and hopeful outlooks are real or not.

Another couple (Robert Newton and Julie Bishop) are mildly nice to each other sometimes, and mildly bored the rest of the time.  It took me like half the movie to figure out why Newton was so familiar -- he played Long John Silver in the Disney version of Treasure Island (1950), but without his piratical accent, I couldn't recognize him for the longest time!

(Do you recognize him without the pegleg and parrot???)

The single characters get their share of the spotlight too.  Especially Joy Kim's emigrating Korean woman who carries so much joy and wonder within her at the thought that she's really going to live in America.  I liked her very much indeed -- she was such a believable mix of hope and apprehension.

(Plus, she and the stewardess had really nice, friendly chemistry.)

Then there's a rocket scientist (Paul Kelly) who regrets all his achievements because they mean potential misery and death.  There's a former beauty queen (Jan Sterling) who's terrified that the man she's in love with (William Hopper) won't think she's beautiful when he finally meets her.

(William Hopper did most of his scenes on a soundstage, writing letters and looking soulful.
And looking so delicious with his sleeves rolled up that I had to include him here.)

One wealthy businessman (David Brian), one not-so-wealthy businessman with a big grudge against someone (Sidney Blackmer), and a fisherman going home to his family (John Qualen) round them out.  Oh, except for a little boy (Michael Wellman) travelling alone because his parents are separated and keep shuttling him back and forth across the Pacific.  He spends most of the movie asleep, though.

Then there's the crew.  I already mentioned the pilot and co-pilot, but the lone flight attendant (Doe Avedon) gets a lot of storytime too.  She's got a lot of guts, and she never freaks out in front of the passengers, even when they are in the most obvious kind of trouble.  We also have William Campbell as a radio operator or something (mostly he's just here to toss snide or snappy remarks in once in a while), and Wally Brown as the middle-aged navigator with a fast wife back home that causes him a lot of grief.

(What a well-composed shot!)

Now, mix all those people up and get some nice interpersonal conflict going for the first hour or so, and you have yourself a real interesting recipe for a disaster, even if nothing happens to the plane.  But something does -- an engine catches fire after they're too far from Hawaii to turn back.  And so they have to face the fact that they probably will have to make a water landing and spend some time in the life raft before they get rescued.

SPOILERS IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS!

I was a little disappointed that they never actually made a water landing because they'd spent a lot of time building us up for it by giving the passengers lots of instructions on how to survive the landing and what to do in the life raft.  But they end up not having to do that after all, and while I was happy for the characters not to have to go through that, I kinda would have liked to see how that played out.

Of course, it turns out that the experience and savvyness of Wayne's character save the day.  We would expect no less.  We get a totally happy ending, everyone landing safe and sound in California.

END SPOILERS.

(John Wayne explains the plot for anyone who wasn't paying attention
during the first two hours of the film.)

John Wayne looks excellent in this film.  In his forties, he's handsome and commanding in his pilot's uniform.  He'd really hit his stride as an actor by this point and was convincing as a competent yet weary man who has many regrets, but keeps plugging along anyway.  I'll be watching this one again.


This has been my contribution to the Disaster Blogathon hosted by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In and J-Dub at Dubsism.  Check out their blogs for links to the other blogathon entries!

23 comments:

  1. I am going to dust off the DVD soon. Except for the exposition used to give us Dan Roman's background (couldn't they have found another way?), I like everything about this movie. The cast, the "feel", the slap, the whistling - everything. Ernest Gann's stories make marvelous movies.

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    1. Caftan Woman, yes, I agree it was a little clunky, though I rather liked the random guy's assessment of Roman that he's the only guy he knows too tough (or was it stubborn?) to commit suicide. I thought that was a pretty bold statement for 1954.

      The whistling! I thought I would be annoyed, but it was endearing instead. And the slapping was so warranted. I should read some Ernest Gann, clearly!

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  2. That sounds like a huge cast! But an interesting premise.

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    1. Katie, it is, but they have 2 1/2 hours to play with, and they do some really effective characterization in short order for most of the passengers.

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  3. Gotta say, I love this movie. Our family has watched it a couple times. I think the boring pilot (Robert Stack) is actually super cool in the end, and does some wonderful acting when he's getting all nervous about loosing his edge. But then again, John Wayne is also super cool. Also, even though William Campbell's character is a snappy wise-cracker for most of the movie (and is pretty mean to John Wayne), by the end of the movie Anna and I shipped him so much with the stewardess, it was ridiculous ;D Anyway, I'm glad someone reviewed this movie.Lovely review!

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    1. Anna & Irene, oh, how cool you've seen it! I do think Robert Stack's character got some good development, I just found his performance bland. But, as you say, it's hard to look interesting with someone like John Wayne around.

      And yes, William Campbell's character got a nice arc from being a sort of leering playboy always pestering/harassing the stewardess to actually looking out for her and being a pretty cool dude.

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    2. Darn John Wayne, making everyone else look bad.
      Yes! I don't know why we shipped them, but that's just the way it goes I guess...

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  4. My favorite John Wayne film, the only time he graced the screen in a gripping disaster melodrama. This well made yarn served as a blueprint for many of the sky-calamity films that followed, including my favorite guilty pleasure Airports 75 and 77! Great post!
    - Chris

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    1. Chris, how cool that it's your favorite of his films! I could definitely see how it sort of presaged Airport 77 and such.

      Thanks!

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  5. Great read! I'm so glad you wrote about this movie for this event. I'm also glad you certainly appreciate it. I will be curious to see your thoughts on my examination of it later in this blog-a-thon!

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    1. Thanks, J-Dub! I started reading your post yesterday but got interrupted -- hope to finish it this weekend! I was really digging your insights into the similarities between it and the Dana Andrews movie, esp.

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  6. For the longest time when I heard “The High and the Mighty” I thought about “In Harm’s Way.” It was only recently when it was on tv and I asked “What movie is this and why have a never heard of it?” Turned out we have it on dvd but the cover art on both of them are very similar. After reading your post (thanks for marking spoilers) I’m reminded I need to make an effort and actually watch it! Loved your screenshot captions :)

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    1. Phyl, that's so funny! I confuse it with Island in the Sky because they're both John Wayne movies about airplanes, I got them on DVD at the same time, they have very similar covers, and I'd never seen them before I bought them. So funny that you confused it with another of his movies too!

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed this :-)

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    2. Watched it with my brother over the weekend :) Pretty good!! I joked that when Robert Stack read the script he said “Not another mental breakdown!” Then my brother said “Sweating profusely! How am I supposed to do that?” Lol

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    3. Phyl, lol! Maybe that's why Stack came across as boring to me -- maybe he was a bit bored with his role himself! Hee. Glad you got a chance to watch it!

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  7. You sold me on this one. Your review is witty and thoughtful, and f the film is half as good as your essay, I'll like it very much.

    Also: You write The Best photo captions.

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    1. Silver Screenings, awww, thank you! It's a good ride, but a slow burn, so watch it when you have time to savor it :-) I hope you like it!

      (Hee, thanks! I had fun with those.)

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  8. Disaster movies aren't my thing, but I like being aware of as many John Wayne movies as possible. :D And I love that he rejoined Claire Trevor! They were so great together in Stagecoach.

    Also, this: "William Hopper did most of his scenes on a soundstage, writing letters and looking soulful." Gotta love it when an actor's job is to stare thoughtfully into the middle distance. xD :D

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    1. Olivia, they're not my thing either, and yet I've seen a lot of them. Because my dad is fascinated with them, so when I was living at home, I saw quite a few.

      Yeah, I'm used to William Hopper being the actiony leg-work detectivey sidekick on Perry Mason, so I got pretty excited about seeing him play someone so very different here. He made staring-into-the-middle-distance and pretending-to-write-letters look good.

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  9. You made me laugh out loud at "We learn that the pilot is boring and we should ignore him"! The High and the Mighty is a very good film, with a memorable song and a lot of tension. Great review.
    Cheers!
    Le

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    1. Le, hee hee! I'm glad that made you laugh. Nice to hear you like this one too!

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  10. I've never heard of this one, but your great review has convinced me to put it on my list.

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    1. Rebecca, yeah, it's a little obscure now, but very enjoyable. Definitely add it to your list!

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